In commencement season, we should acknowledge that college has many meanings and purposes, and sometimes we should listen to what those experiencing it tell us. For them, it is mostly about the people who have created their daily world.
And that’s not, mostly, us.
I am a college professor, and the parent of a just-commenced college graduate. In both roles I attended commencement ceremonies this spring. The scripts and messages and scripts were typical at both Saint U and Quirky College: The president or provost presided, the board of trustees was represented, honorary degrees were given to obscure recipients, students and others gave speeches, parents, grandparents, and others took photographs and cried, and the graduates tossed their weird identical black mortarboards at completion of the ceremony. Some students wore dresses and ties, and some wore shorts. At Quirky, one student was barefoot.
The content was, at some level of abstraction, the same: You (we students) got a unique education here, you made great friendships, you did incredible things, you changed, and now go do more of that. There were in-jokes, invocation of shared jargon and names for places, and some generational touchstones, especially in the student speeches.
In both ceremonies, though, what was especially noteworthy was the lack of mention of classes, professors, the nitty-gritty of the academic.
Oh, one time during Saint U’s ceremony the faculty rose to be applauded, and one of the students at Quirky College did point out that going to class occupied 4% of students’ time. (Don’t forget that students are supposed to spend more of their time learning outside the classroom.)
But the overall impression I received—and one that I accept, given a recently revolutionized understanding of what college is for—was that four years spent together, scarcely overseen by adults, would transform young adults between 18 and 22, no matter what they were doing.
Anthropologists write of rites of passage, of liminal periods, of age grades, of total institutions, as a way of attempting to understand what happens when people go away, and what happens when they form groups. What occurs in our residential colleges looks a lot like what happens in other societies, though usually at younger ages, when young people are transformed from children into adults.
This transformation is very difficult for the young in our society, and most of the college students I speak with—privileged, for the most part—do not regard themselves as adults even at the completion of college. But they are also no longer children.
They have raised each other up.
They have comforted their friends whose romantic entanglements have hurt. They have counseled each other about negotiating the majors they want and the ones their parents insist on. They have learned how to get themselves to final exams even early in the morning. They have cleaned up their roommates’ vomit, run charitable groups, and organized huge complicated performances. They have traveled abroad and gone to inner cities. They have done laundry and had radio shows. They have competed in physical contests (sports) and more.
This has all created bonds—though through it all some students have likely felt alone, marginal, unbonded. They have amassed a set of memories that may take years to figure out. Some have had severe mental illnesses, and a small number have, tragically, been unable to get through it at all.
For those with the means, this experience has been central to their lives, and for them this residential and apart phase will be what remains in their minds of college. To compare it to summer camp, or military service, is not to disparage it.
It is to put the academic stuff in its place.
So here in commencement season, we should acknowledge that college has many meanings and purposes, and sometimes we should listen to what those experiencing it tell us. For them, it is mostly about the people who have created their daily world.
And that’s not, mostly, us.