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Ethan Trex
The Stories Behind Graduation Traditions
by Ethan Trex

May is the hot time for college and high school graduations, so chances are you’ll have to attend one at some point this month. As you sit there while a school administrator reads names from a seemingly endless list of graduates, you might have some questions about how this whole tradition got started. Here’s the scoop on some of graduation’s unique customs, from honorary degrees to throwing your cap.

How does a school lure in its graduation speaker?

stevejobs_stanford.jpgSometimes the speakers are alums who are willing to do a little favor for their alma mater, but it often takes a boatload of cash to secure a speaker. Fees can range anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 for a commencement address, and that’s before you tack on extra costs for first-class lodging and potentially perks like private jets. There are some deals out there, though. Bill Clinton just spoke at Florida A&M’s graduation and waived his usual $100,000 fee. The school did have to pay for his lodging and transport, which totaled over $17,000 for his entourage.

Who received the first honorary degree?

It might seem odd that after you’ve worked for years to earn your diploma, your school’s just throwing around honorary degrees at graduation. Is this a new ego-stroking tool used to convince visiting speakers of how great they are? Hardly. The practice actually dates over 500 years.

The first honorary degree on record went to Lionel Woodville sometime around 1478. Oxford forked over an honorary doctorate of canon law to Woodville, who was Dean of Exeter and Edward IV’s brother-in-law. Historians say the degree was a shameless ploy to curry favor, but you can’t fault Oxford’s timing. Woodville became Bishop of Salisbury just four years later.

Does anyone take these degrees seriously?

Well, they’re not “real” degrees since the recipient generally didn’t have to do anything to earn them other than be famous and show up for commencement. That doesn’t stop some people from running with their honorary degrees’ titles, though. Ben Franklin, Billy Graham, and Maya Angelou have all used the title “doctor” despite not having a non-honorary doctorate of their own. Kermit the Frog, on the other hand, received a controversial honorary doctorate of amphibious letters when he spoke at Southampton College’s 1996 commencement, but he apparently never bragged about his academic achievement.

Who were the first grads to throw their caps up in the air?

navy-grad.jpgWe can thank the Navy for this tradition. It’s thought that the practice of chucking one’s cap to the heavens at the end of the ceremony started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduation. For the first time the Navy gave the newly commissioned graduates their officers’ hats at graduation, so they no longer needed the midshipmen’s caps they’d been wearing for the previous four years. To show how pleased they were, the new officers tossed their old headgear up in the air. When other students heard about the practice, they followed suit.

Is throwing your mortarboard actually dangerous?

Apparently so. “Don’t throw your cap!” may sound like ominous “You’ll shoot your eye out…” nagging from your mom, but the pointed caps seem to have some destructive power. England’s Anglia Ruskin University banned cap-tossing after a student received stitches when a mortarboard came down on his noggin a few years ago. A search of medical database PubMed also turns up the case of a 17-year-old girl who took a mortarboard corner to the eye and suffered retinal trauma. Even though these cases seem fairly rare, do you really want to be the guy or gal who’s having to say, “Oh, gee, I’m so sorry!” to a newly blinded classmate?

Why are the caps called mortarboards, anyway?

If you’ve ever worked as a bricklayer, you already know the answer to this one. When you’re laying bricks, you need a place to hold all the wet mortar you’re about to spread; brick pointers use a tool called a hawk, that’s basically a flat board with a handle on its underside, to hold their mortar while they work. The flat tops of the graduation caps look a lot like hawks, hence they became known as mortarboards.

Shakespeare scholars might have already known that one, too. The famous line where Hamlet claims, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw,” doesn’t have anything to do with birds; he’s saying he knows the difference between two items one would find in a tool shed.

Where did we get the idea of having baccalaureate services?

If you get bored during a baccalaureate service this month, blame Oxford. A 1432 statute required that every Oxford grad deliver a sermon in Latin before he got his sheepskin, and the service took its name from the practice of presenting the new Bachelors (bacca) with laurels (lauri). Since the first colonial colleges modeled themselves after the big-name schools back home in England and largely focused on educating clergymen, the tradition came to the United States. Just thank your lucky stars you only have to hear one sermon, not a Latin sermon from each member of the graduating class.

Where did that song you always hear at graduations come from?

macho-man.jpgThe graduation song is often known as “Pomp and Circumstance,” but it’s actually a small piece of Sir Edward Elgar’s 1901 composition “March No. 1 in D Major,” part of his “Pomp and Circumstance Military March” series that spanned nearly 30 years of his career.

How did a British military march become a staple of American graduations? In 1905, Elgar received an invitation to come to Yale’s commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. To honor their guest, Yale officials had the New Haven Symphony Orchestra play parts of Elgar’s compositions as students marched in and out of the ceremony. People enjoyed the tune so much that it soon spread to other schools’ graduations. (And just as importantly, it eventually became “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s entrance music in the WWF.)

Why do we call diplomas “sheepskins”?

Because they were originally written on a sheep’s skin. Early paper was pretty fragile and difficult to make, but parchment was much more plentiful and durable. Parchment, of course, is made from the skin of a sheep, goat, or calf, and its durability made it ideal for a keepsake like a diploma.

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