What Is Lost When Graduation Is Cancelled

(Photo by James Byard/Washington University)

Only once have I ever cried when I was supposed to. Not on my wedding day; I was giddy then, breaking that can’t-see-the-bride rule to hug friends and wait for Andrew in the back of church. No, it was the grad school Commencement that got me, that resonant swell of bagpipes that filled the hall as we processed in, gowned and stately for the first time. The faculty walked ahead of us, garbed in that jewel-toned regalia that reinforced their role as eccentric royals, steeped in the old-fashioned tradition of intellectual curiosity and care and bloody well determined to perpetuate it. The rest of us wore our dreams on our full sleeves, no longer embarrassed to admit that we had always secretly loved the homework we were supposed to grumble about, no longer hiding our dorky excitement over books and ideas. We were past that, had thrown ourselves full-force into “the life of the mind” (which had sounded like a platitude until we realized it really did exist) and now all those all-nighters, all those lonely hours trying to force concentration, all the months so broke that we snuck handfuls of the free cheese cubes at gallery openings, were carried aloft by those bagpipes, rendered full and true and sacred, and all of us knew in that single instant that the rest of our lives would be different because of it.

This May, no one will commence. Students will receive the paper proof of their degree in the mail, along with the promise of a future celebration. They will not experience the rite of passage. They will not feel, together, that suspenseful, in-between time as they endure or applaud the various speeches, waiting as one to be transformed, their identity altered by (finally!) the conferral of their degree.

Anthropologist Victor Turner described this in-between time as “liminality,” a slightly disorienting period in which you are stripped of your old identity (student) and not yet christened with a new one (graduate). The ambiguity is deliberate: It heightens the emotion, letting the experience bind the initiates into a community. The individual journeys have largely been separate, if you discount study sessions and the comparing of notes, but now you have arrived together at the same brand-new place, and you have never felt so close.

“That feeling of celebration—one moment where we all come together and say, ‘We did it’”—is what Washington University senior Jan Mazur is missing the most. For others, it is that they have worked their entire lives, starting at age six, toward this moment, and it has been yanked from beneath their feet. “It’s what you are supposed to do, to have your cap and gown and take pictures in front of Brookings Hall,” says Jacob Finke, “and without it everything still feels kind of open-ended.” There is no real closure; there have been no real, in-person, hugged goodbyes.

To the ear, “graduation” suggests something happening slowly (by degrees, if you like bad puns). In reality, what matters takes place in an instant. It is a definite point in time, one hand closing around a leather folder, the other offered for a nervous handshake. Or a head bowed to be hooded, and a surprisingly warm hug from a mentor who until now has kept a cool, careful distance.

Those are the only variations. Rituals are not supposed to vary. Even the speeches are designed to rely on “a special, restricted vocabulary,” notes British anthropologist Maurice Bloch, making the utterances utterly predictable and allowing a few forgivable head bobs on stage. Catherine Bell, author of Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, listed the characteristics of a ritual as formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance. They are codified—the litany of names, the formal speechifying, the rousing emotional keynote meant to inspire—and repeated, and the repetition is what gives them their power.

This same transformation has happened every May for centuries—except in wartime or pandemic. Because it is “calendrical,” cycling predictably, its meaning includes all of us. Every past graduation is part of each present graduation, and we all participate, even if only with a smile when we see that row of graduation cards in the grocery store or hear the celebratory whoops from a distance.

The word “commencement” is also only partially correct: Yes, a new stage is beginning, but the ceremony is also a culmination, honoring all that came before. The rite divides life in half, celebrating the past as well as anticipating the future. As it moves us from one to the other, ritual puts a frame around that middle place to mark the transition. Everyday routine halts, distractions and obligations fall away, and instead we enact a frankly theatrical performance to dramatize the change. Aristotle would approve; we need the catharsis of those tears, that exuberant relief. We need to be told that this is the time to thank and to congratulate, lest all those feelings wash away in the everyday. We need a day that is special and set apart—who will ever wear that velvet hood again? (And why is it more a stole than a hood, when I was picturing El Greco monks?)

Is this a religious rite, then? Some anthropologists would argue yes, in that it moves us out of the mundane, aptly called the profane, into the realm of the sacred. No deity is required at Commencement, only an agreement about the importance of freely acquired knowledge and a commitment to continue using an intelligence that has been disciplined, deepened, and refined by those who went before. What is the mythic belief, the collective worldview at work? That graduates are now smarter, different from those without a degree? No, but that they are different from who they were when they enrolled. That difference is both reward and en-couragement, allowing a fresh start in a far scarier, less structured world.

The word “ritual” comes from the Latin ritus, a proven way of doing something, and may be related to the Sanskrit word rta, meaning “visible order.” That is what you would have seen at Commencement, in those rows upon rows of gowned graduates and in the formal choreography of the ceremony. Afterward, the order would have shattered into happy chaos, caps tossed high in the air, gowns shucked off and strewn (invariably somebody returning the wrong one), the graduates again indistinguishable except for their wide grins as they pose. The raucous festivities of Senior Week would have led up to this day, and more partying would have followed, it, too, indispensable to the ritual.

It, too, now impossible.

“I take ritual to be the basic social act,” anthropologist Roy Rappaport once said. Commencement is a rite of passage, an agreed-upon right of passage. Later substitutes will not have the same effect. But the coming-together of the entire world, with all these small dramas suspended, is itself a passage, the divide between past and future just as sharp. This is not an orderly rite; its chaos is tragic, and holds no consolation. But together, we mark the losses.