Page last updated at 15:57 GMT, Friday, 11 June 2010 16:57 UK

What's the point of graduation season?

Mortarboard thrown in the air


In the US, graduation noisily celebrates the future. But in the UK, it's a more sombre farewell to student life, says David Cannadine in his Point of View column.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the period from mid-May to mid-July is one when hundreds of thousands of young people, most of them in their early 20s, go through a significant and often joyous rite of passage.

They put on strange clothes hired specially for the day - which most of them will never use again - and their admiring and adoring mothers often show up wearing big hats with elaborate floral decorations and broad brims.

US high school graduation with "I is smart" written on one mortarboard
Even high schools get in on the act

But although these weeks of early summer are prime time for weddings, which can often be described in just these terms, they aren't the occasions I have in mind. Instead, I'm thinking of the ceremonials at which university and college degrees are awarded, which are usually referred to as graduation in the UK, but as commencement in the United States.

The different names are themselves revealing - for graduation looks backwards, recognising the work you've already completed, while commencement looks forward to the adult life that now beckons and awaits.

At a time when job prospects for newly minted graduates on both sides of the Atlantic are far from abundant or secure, this difference may seem a relatively minor and insignificant quibble. But it's not the only way in which these graduation and commencement rituals are dissimilar.

David Cannadine
A Point of View, with David Cannadine, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 BST and repeated Sundays, 0850 BST
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In British universities, especially those with a very large student body, degree ceremonies can sometimes last longer than a week, as each school or faculty or department gets its own session, and as each graduate has the opportunity to shake the chancellor's hand.

In the US, by contrast, commencement is one single, all-encompassing gathering, often held in a stadium or a gymnasium or a large open space, when all those present are deemed by the university or college president to have received their degrees.

Collective identity

So while graduating from university in Britain is in some ways a personal and individual matter, in the US it is more of a collective act and a shared experience. This may help explain why graduates of US universities - compared to their British counterparts - generally possess a much more powerful sense of what may properly be described as class consciousness.

I don't by that mean some Marxist sense of revolutionary group solidarity, but what I do mean is the strong awareness that American graduates retain of belonging to a particular cohort, identified by the year of their graduation - which this summer means, of course, that they belong to the class of 2010.

Shaking hands
In the UK graduations are more formal

This sense of a special and shared and numbered collective identity is instilled into American undergraduates from the very moment they arrive at the beginning of their first year, and it will stay with most of them for the rest of their lives. One reason this is so is because the alumni magazines, which most US colleges and universities publish at regular intervals, always group their news according to the year of each graduating class.

But it's also, and more importantly, because reunions are such a powerful force and tradition in sustaining this shared sense of identity across the long post-commencement decades.

In most US colleges and universities, they're held at five-yearly intervals, but two of them are deemed to be of particular importance. One is the 25th reunion, when members of the class are in their mid- to late 40s. By then, it's assumed they will have successfully made their way in the world, and be at the peak of their earning power, so that on their triumphant return to their alma mater it's hoped that they will give more money to it than any previous class.

Ballyhoo and razzmatazz

The second special alumni gathering is the 50th reunion, when members of the class will just have passed their allotted span of three score years and 10. One or two of them may already have fallen by the wayside, and those present will increasingly find themselves "shorter in wind as in memory long, feeble of foot and rhumatic of shoulder". As such, the 50th reunion is the last great collective hurrah of the class, before its numbers begin seriously to dwindle.

In many US universities and colleges, these class reunions are held immediately before the commencement ceremonials themselves, and the two rituals are often deliberately merged almost seamlessly into one another.

Processions tend to be ordered, dignified and hierarchical, whereas parades are more spontaneous, egalitarian and uninhibited

This is famously so at Princeton, where I teach, and where the bridging event is a lengthy parade, which has long been rather cutely and punningly known as the P-rade. It takes place on the university campus, starting in front of Nassau Hall, and ending at Poe Field, and the route is lined with friends, relatives and well-wishers.

The P-rade begins with the 25th reunion class, followed by those known as the Old Guard, which includes the surviving members of all the classes that graduated before 1945. Then follow representatives of every subsequent class, in sequence year on year, with special prominence given to the 50th reunion class, and all these Princeton alumni are eventually joined by the current graduating class.

In its present form, the P-rade has only been in existence since World War II, but it has long since become such an annual fixture that nothing can interfere with it. In June 1968, for instance, the funeral train bearing the body of Senator Robert Kennedy was scheduled to pass close by Princeton en route from New York to Washington DC, at just the time the P-rade was due to take place. There were those who urged that it should be cancelled as a mark of respect, but with some modifications it went on all the same.

Princeton P-rade
P-rade is an extravagant spectacle

The P-rade is an extraordinary spectacle, lasting more than three hours, and it's not exactly a restrained or understated affair. Many of those participating wear garish costumes, and those classes who've graduated 25 years or more ago sport different blazers, in varying patterns and designs of black, orange and white, these being the colours of the tiger - which is the Princeton mascot.

And the P-rade is not only crowded and vivid, it's also very noisy, with marching bands, pipers and drummers, and a great deal of singing and chanting and applause as the classes go by. It's also a powerful reminder of the important and revealing difference between processions, which are characteristically British, and parades, which are quintessentially American. Processions tend to be ordered, dignified and hierarchical, whereas parades are more spontaneous, egalitarian and uninhibited.

It's impossible not to be caught up in the exuberance, the enthusiasm and the excitement of such occasions, and it's often pointed out that Princeton boasts both the most lavish alumni re-unions and the most generous financial support when it comes to alumni giving. Yet despite all the razzle-dazzle, the ballyhoo and the razzmatazz, I also find such occasions both moving and poignant.

This is partly because the P-rade puts on display every Princeton graduating year, from the last survivor of the class of 1925 to the whole of the class of 2010. Moreover, many of those parading are descended from Princeton alumni of earlier times, and some of them in turn will produce children who will become Princeton students at some future date. Here is a compelling and memorable reminder of Edmund Burke's observation that society should be understood as a compact between generations already dead, generations at present living, and generations yet unborn.

Mortarboards thrown in the air
Hats in the air

As the P-rade makes vividly and visually plain every year, there is always a new graduating class eager to join up and join in. Yet while in this respect it is a moving testimony to humankind's collective capacity to endure, the P-rade is also an inescapable reminder that each class itself is mortal.

What must be the thoughts of those Princeton alumni attending their 50th reunion? Are they already missing some of their classmates, and are they wondering whether this might turn out to be their own last P-rade, and that their next re-union, if there is to be one at all, will take place in the next world and not in this?

And what of those young, ardent, anxious, hopeful members of the class of 2010? Can any of them, on their day of triumph and celebration, imagine that five decades from now, they will no longer be the commencement class, with the whole of their lives extending out before them, but the 50th reunion class, with most of their lives now stretching back far behind them?

A selection of your comments appears below.

The difference in a 'class consciousness' is partly down to teaching style. I'm graduating this year, but having done an exchange year in the US, the difference is stark. In the US, it's much closer - interaction with other students and the tutor, a classroom environment, more akin to school. In the UK it's lecture halls - quiet, listening, distance. Everything is told and nothing is taught, the debate is internalised. The year I was in the US, I could name every person in all of my classes. Back home, I'd struggle to name more than one from each class. Class of 2010 indeed.
Anon, Stirling, Scotland

Graduation - or commencement - is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate academic achievement and progression on to the next stage. And the robes are glorious, if archaic, and remembered proudly in the living room photo displays of parents the world over. (As someone who studies academic dress - a form of bird-watching, identified by the plumage - it's amusing to ask when someone's child graduated from X university... how do you know they went to X? is the usual response!)
Megan, Cheshire

David Cannadine teases us about American student's 'class consciousness' then explains he means their University class, not some ridiculously outdated Marxist idea of class. Then, after a long and inconsequential outline of the strong and frankly rather conservative bonds that link Princeton students for their entire lives, he mentions how children and grandchildren often attend the same university. This of course has nothing to do with them being members of an elite social class does it? Such ideas are outmoded, Cannadine has decided, and yet the world he describes doesn't seem to have changed for a century or more.
Mark, Bristol

This is rather morbid. I am about to graduate; the last thing I want to worry about is reuniting with my friends in the 'next life'.
Will Cross, Norwich, England

Interesting cross-cultural comparison, but I think that Prof Cannadine is exaggerating some of the differences. For instance, the ceremony celebrating students having finished their studies gets called both "graduation" and "commencement" in the US although "commencement" is a bit more formal. Also, how many ceremonies a school holds depends on the size of the school. My undergraduate institution (6,000 students) held just one while my graduate institution (40,000) holds smaller ceremonies over a number of days.
Angela Ellis, Ballston Spa, NY, USA

All I can remember was being in debt and then being asked in 1990 for £200 from the university for gowns, then £30 per head for anyone that attended with me. It was just a way of the uni making money. I was broke and knew if I went I would have to pay for my family who were on I asked them to post it to me. Really though...this kind of thing should be free not a last chance to squeeze even more from the student.
Andy Evan, Oxford

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