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Commencement isn’t just about awarding degrees – and cancellations leave students disconnected and disillusioned

Following the wave of protests over the war in the Gaza Strip, several U.S. universities have decided to cancel or ramp down commencement ceremonies. More are expected to follow.

Announcing their decision, these institutions cited security concerns related to the turmoil and division that followed the protests. This, however, may simply make a bad situation worse.

As an anthropologist who studies the human need for ritual, I have spent two decades investigating the role of collective ceremonies in creating meaning and belonging. I have also seen the flip side of that: Depriving people of meaningful rituals can lead to disillusionment and social disengagement.

From the cradle to the grave, the most important moments of our lives are ritualized. From personal milestones such as birthdays and weddings to societal changes like the transfer of government power, all major transitions are shrouded in ceremony. The fact that these rituals occur without exception in all human societies highlights their importance.

The anthropologist Arnold van Gennep called these ceremonies “rites of passage.” He noted that across cultures, they have a similar structure and achieve similar outcomes.

Rites of passage typically involve three stages. First, participants are separated from their previous way of life, physically or symbolically, and move toward a new status and identity. For instance, civilians may give up their familiar routines and move away from their friends and family to join the army. Students do the same when they leave behind campus life to join the labor force.

The second phase is the liminal period between stages. It is characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty, as initiates leave their former status behind but have yet to assume their new role. During that period, a cadet may feel as neither a civilian not a soldier; a bride neither single nor married; and candidates neither pupils nor graduates.

In the third and final stage, the transition is complete and the initiate is reintegrated into society with new status. As a military initiation turns civilians into soldiers, a commencement turns apprentices into qualified professionals.

Rites of passage do not merely celebrate the transition to a new state – they actively create this new state in the eyes of society.

Research shows that people unconsciously perceive ritual actions to cause actual changes in the world. This is why even minor changes in protocol may leave the impression of failure. When Barack Obama uttered the words to the presidential oath of office in the wrong order, the legitimacy of his power was questioned. Eventually, he had to retake the oath. Moreover, when an action is ritualized, it feels more special and appealing.

This is why ritual accompanies all special transitions in our lives. And the more significant the moment, the more pomp is required. The grandeur and formality of the ceremony activate psychological processes related to how we appraise the world. Good things require expenditures of effort and resources. A ritual loaded with opulence signals that this is a moment worth remembering.

The opposite is also true. Stripped of a meaningful rite of passage, an important transition may feel less real and its significance diminished. Imagine that no one remembers your 50th birthday; or that, as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, you find yourself on a deserted island. Assuming you had a clock with you, would that transition feel the same?

Not everyone cares about a graduation ceremony. Indeed, some graduates choose not to attend theirs. But those are the rare exceptions. The vast majority of graduating students do care, and so do their families, as is evidenced by packed auditoriums and stadiums across the country.

In the spring of 2020, the University of Connecticut, where I teach, announced that it was suspending all campus activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That day, the first question my students asked me was “Will we be able to have a graduation ceremony?” As with most colleges around the world, the answer was no. I still remember the disappointment in their faces.

Most high schools canceled their graduations in 2020, too. And now, many of those students are having a déjà vu. Once again, they will be deprived of an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishment.

Graduating from college can be one of the most important transitions in a person’s life. Unless they are going to graduate school, it involves radical changes in their lifestyle, social relations and overall role in society.

The lack of a symbolic act to demarcate that change can leave graduates in Van Gennep’s liminal space, a feeling that the transition has not been properly completed. In the words of the anthropologist Victor Turner, they are caught “betwixt and between.”

In addition to their personal importance, rituals also play important roles in shaping group identities. One might even argue that the only times a conglomerate of individuals truly becomes a group is during the performance of collective rituals. After all, the members of an extended family tend to gather together only at events like weddings and funerals. Religious adherents only congregate to perform a sacred ceremony. And a student body only comes together as one to partake in a commencement.

Graduation ceremonies embody not only the sacredness of education and the importance of student achievements, but also graduates’ bonds to their institution and fellow students. In that capacity, such gatherings may be needed more than ever in a context fraught with division.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

Read more: How 19th-century Spiritualists ‘canceled’ the idea of hell to address social and political concerns Judaism’s rituals to honor new mothers are ever-rooted, ever-changing – from medieval embroidery and prayer to new traditions today

Dimitris Xygalatas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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