(Photos: Alex Zozula and HighStylinDoggieWear)

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

A bit of regard for some obscure medieval formalities could enhance everyone’s respect for what a degree really signifies.

Mid-December means that we’re seeing photos of all sorts of friends and friends of friends and offspring of friends at mid-year college graduations. Increasingly this also means seeing all sorts of new variations on the cap and gown, some more well-considered than others. We can be thankful that in most parts of the country the weather at this time of year precludes the wearing of shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops with gowns (not “robes,” please). Alas, it does nothing to encourage the ironing of such gowns between their removal from the rental company’s package and their use by the lucky graduates. But of course the cap and gown have seldom really been respected, let alone understood, on these shores. And that’s a shame.

When I was studying for a degree overseas, after having earned a couple over here, several people remarked to me at a college social event that they found it odd for Americans to wear caps and gowns for high school ceremonies, as academic garb elsewhere is generally reserved for people who have degrees or are receiving degrees. I explained that I had worn academic regalia for my kindergarten graduation also, and that Americans sometimes put caps and gowns on dogs graduating from obedience school. These things seemed weird to my new friends because they knew the historic significance of the strange and archaic appurtenances people (and animals, apparently) wear at graduation ceremonies. It’s a pity most of us don’t, here in the U.S. We are missing out on something meaningful and important that could enrich our appreciation of academic achievement and give our graduates the kind of send-off–and send-on–they deserve.

It’s the sending-on that we overlook.

The true significance of the cap and gown is related to the custom of referring to graduation ceremonies as commencements. A graduation ceremony isn’t just about what you’ve been. It’s also about what you become when the leader of your educational institution utters the magic words and you move that tassel to the other side of the cap. That get-up you’re wearing used to be, and in some places and cases still is, the daily garb of the educated person. Properly understood, graduation–commencement–doesn’t celebrate your release from hell; it celebrates your entry into the bliss of the educated life, the “examined life” that Socrates reputedly said was the only one worth living. It’s an initiation.

Academic dress as we know it originated in medieval Europe, where higher education was closely associated with the Church–then viewed as the very repository and custodian of civilization–and was not something to which the masses could aspire. A degree was a Very Big Deal on a scale we can scarcely imagine, with most graduates becoming teachers or Churchmen or both. The master of arts degree, which for centuries was the core credential for academia (the research doctorate being a relatively recent invention), originated in teaching licenses granted by the University of Paris. Academic dress for medieval graduates thus was something they would proceed to wear on the job as cultivated and accomplished persons, not something they rented for one use from the purveyors of class rings and yearbooks.

The various garments and accouterments were influenced by those of the Church and were intended to be functional: the gown kept the wearer warm, as did the hood, that colorful (usually) device that goes across the chest and shoulders and falls down the back. Turn one inside out and look at it carefully, and you’ll see that the brightly colored satiny part is actually the lining of what even today would almost work as a fully functional hood.

And then there were/are the sleeves of a master’s gown:  

That long thing dangling from the shoulder is actually a closed sleeve, with a slit above the elbow to allow the hand and forearm to pass through. European MA gowns tend to look like the one in the picture, while American gowns nowadays have the opening just above the wrist, a serious inconvenience for anybody trying to eat or write while wearing one, because the ends of the sleeves get in the way. American academics are seldom asked to discharge those tasks while wearing gowns, but life is very different in some overseas universities where gowns are often required in dining halls or lecture settings.

Why the closed sleeves? In the Middle Ages, they were to keep the wearer’s hands warm. Medieval teachers also found them handy for carrying lunch. While this might work just as well today, doctors and bachelors are out of luck, as their gowns have voluminous open sleeves.

The cap most widely used in the U.S., known as a mortarboard, is also of medieval origin and probably was influenced by the ecclesiastical biretta. Headgear differs from country to country, but in mortarboard environments like the U.S. there is little variation except for persons of certain rank or from certain disciplines. Doctors frequently wear a sort of tam or “Tudor bonnet.” Women of any rank generally are permitted a soft cap in lieu of the mortarboard. The rest of us can only envy them, especially on windy days.

None of this is actually regulated, but the American Council on Education maintains an intercollegiate code to which most institutions still subscribe, though more and more are going their own way, especially regarding the color of gowns, as high schools and kindergartens have done for decades. (Our research indicates that canine obedience schools also do not feel bound by hoary traditions.) Hood colors continue to constitute a sort of visual code: The interior portion is usually rendered in school colors or something approximating them, while the border color signifies the field in which the degree was earned: white for arts and letters, copper for economics, yellow-gold for the sciences, pale blue for education, and so on. By the way, it was the ACE that decided, in 1959, to move the arm-slit on the MA gown from the upper arm to the wrist. We have no idea why, unless it was to discourage masters from eating soups and salads while wearing gowns.

The historic background on academic regalia might seem irrelevant, meaningless, and beneath the notice of the practical-minded person, but a lack of appreciation for old customs has merely prepared the way for new ones that perhaps are not helpful but that derive great power from having arrived and entrenched themselves without formal announcement or concerted effort. Our attitude and behavior reflect and reinforce a particular viewpoint. The hangover, the beach ball passed from person to person, the bare hairy legs, the audience whooping as if at a game show, might seem like harmless fun, but they miss the point. Graduation ceremonies are a lot like church: Show me your ritual and I’ll tell you what you believe.

A graduation is a rite of passage, which means going into something as well as getting out of something. It represents the movement from one status to another. Again, it’s an initiation. We’ve made this hard to remember. Oxford brings the point home by a literal passage: After standing before the vice chancellor and receiving their degrees, graduates exit the 17th century theater used for the ceremony, walk across a courtyard to another building where they change into the gowns and hoods of those new degrees, and process back into the theater to receive a round of friendly but dignified applause. With a venue so small that the University needs a dozen degree ceremonies a year to accommodate everyone, this isn’t as impractical as it might sound, considering how few people are involved. It’s hard to imagine a similar ritual at, say, Ohio State.

Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. Guest seating is limited, and fair weather is much appreciated.

So we don’t suggest that everyone try to return to medieval customs, especially in a country that doesn’t have any anyway, but it might be helpful to consider whether our own habits are doing justice to our graduates and to education itself by a raucous emphasis on the “from” of graduation at the expense of the “to.” A lack of seriousness about academic regalia, along with an American Idol atmosphere supposedly intended as a tribute to those graduating, might in fact be based on a merely partial appreciation, at best, of what those graduates have achieved–the official blessing of a new beginning. It seems peculiar that we “honor” college graduates by treating them the same way we treat entertainers–and dogs.

Scoffers will maintain that higher education is mostly about getting a job, that the notion of the graduate as an example of the examined life is outmoded, that the origins of academic dress mean nothing. Perhaps so, but it is difficult to behold the society around us–fractured, polarized, violent, obsessed with celebrity trivia, choking on its own excesses–and not wonder whether we might gain something from revisiting where we once were–and resurrecting a very old and inspiring idea of where our graduates are going.  

We at The Coaching Educator salute all graduates, especially the ones we ourselves have helped get into and succeed at the right college. The college applications and financial aid processes have become infinitely more complex than they used to be, but we’re very proud of our track record at helping students identify the most suitable schools, stay on task and on schedule in pursuing admission, and acquire the financial aid they need. We also take pride in the academic coaching we’ve provided for students after they enroll in college. 

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

References and Recommended Reading About College Admissions and College Life

Culp, Paul. “Five Favorite Unusual Colleges,” The Coaching Educator, 1 April 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/01/five-favorite-unusual-colleges/?fbclid=IwAR1cnOiP5rVLug_sQdSubRprfZAtq-t73ojWuKGmP3F_fqBErEIxwXUiCj0

Culp, Paul. “From Petite to XXL: College Size and You,” The Coaching Educator, 10 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/10/from-petite-to-xxl-college-size-and-you/

Culp, Paul. “The Prez, the Prov, the Profs, the Veep, and the Redge: Who’s Who on Campus,” The Coaching Educator, 17 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/17/the-prez-the-prov-the-profs-the-veeps-and-the-redge-whos-who-on-campus/

Strauss, Valerie. “Why caps and gowns at graduation? Let’s go back 900 years,” The Washington Post, 20 May 2017.

Wolgast, Stephen, et al. “The Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume: An Introduction,” Transactions of the Burgon Society 9 (2009), p. 23.

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