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  • Dr. Sean Lewis

A Modest Defense of Academic Regalia

Dr. Sean Lewis

Spring is in the air here at the Mount. The days are getting longer and warmer, as the sun continues to travel (from our perspective) in its celestial trajectory towards the summer solstice. Hearts grow restless for the travel and leisure that the spring weather will enable (noted in the General Pro

Before that can happen, though, faculty and graduates don elaborate academic regalia and participate in the 215th commencement ceremony held at Mount St. Mary’s University, a university ritual that has been happening for nearly 1,000 years.

As Chief Faculty Marshal of this event, every year, I am confronted with an attitude with which I find it hard to sympathize: a distaste for, nonchalance with and eye-rollingly ironic attitude towards academic regalia.

For such members of our community, the attitude seems to be that we will wear these medieval clothes if we must, but surely, we have outgrown these caps, these gowns, these hoods that can’t even function. Why not graduate in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops? At the very least, let me bedazzle a favorite sports logo or cartoon character on my mortarboard (like I did in elementary school)!

I understand the reasons for this attitude: as a society and civilization, we have made it a habit of deconstructing and overturning tradition for quite a while. And while we are certainly still an image-conscious society, the image fostered is to be one’s own personal style (carefully cultivated by copying others). Our own comfort remains king. There is a formality of academic regalia that cuts against our deep-seated American prejudices and practices.

And that is precisely why, I contend, respect for and proper wearing of academic regalia is more vital now than ever.

An argument that used to carry more weight was that of considering analogous situations. You would wear business attire to a job interview. You would wear a tuxedo or a wedding gown at your wedding. You would wear liturgical vestments when celebrating Mass (receiving a degree without regalia is rather like Fr. Marty saying Mass in a T-shirt and jeans). We used to recognize that there are appropriate times and occasions that call for special clothing to be worn.

But I fear that the increasingly casual, consumptive nature of late neoliberal society has weakened these arguments. If I can do the work, why should my potential boss care how I dress? If I’m the consumer of my wedding, I should wear whatever I want, be it a Renaissance Faire bodice, a Star Trek uniform or a pair of leather chaps. In another vein, any Catholic should recognize that a Mass said without the proper vestments is still a Mass (proven too frequently in prison camps during the 20th century). Why does the university still insist on medieval regalia?

My first response is that I think that this casual consumerism itself is part of the problem, but that’s a longer argument for another day. A more direct response would be to consider the historical meaning of a university graduating a person. I’m an English professor: that construction is correct: you emphatically do not graduate; a university graduates you. And this grammatical difference highlights what will actually happen at Commencement.

Medieval universities grew up in the midst of the guild system: distinct groups and professions were members of distinct guilds. Commencement was and remains a celebration of your entry into a new guild: the guild of Bachelors and Masters of Arts and Sciences. Those of you who have not yet graduated are training to enter this guild, to pass the examinations showing that you are worthy of this title.

Your diploma does not actually confer your degree (it will be mailed to you later in the summer): liturgically and legally, you become a bachelor or master the moment that your degrees are conferred orally in a public ceremony. You are participating in a leitourgia, a public work, from which our very word “liturgy” is derived. This isn’t personal; it’s communal.

This essentially liturgical nature of Commencement has survived intact throughout the centuries, and it highlights a truth: you will be joining a community of people that stretches back through the ages. When you join this community of the bachelors and masters that came before you, I think that it is appropriate that you wear the guild regalia that identifies you as such.

The ceremonial caps, gowns and hoods unite us as scholars of the past and scholars of the future. Ethical leadership requires a certain maturation away from teenaged impulses of sole self-expression and towards acceptance of public duties. This clothing, as impractical and old-fashioned as it might look, marks us as members of a guild that has a vital duty: to engage in the thought, analysis, research and debate that form the intellectual work of our society.

At a Catholic university, in particular, this incarnational and communal aspect of Commencement needs to be understood and appreciated. Your degree is not merely a piece of paper: it is incarnated in your mind, heart and body, and the regalia you will don should reflect that proudly. When you wear your regalia, you are, in a real way, wearing your degree.

You are not the first bachelor or master: generations have come before you and generations will follow. Those of us who have been bachelors, masters and doctors for years should also reflect on this matter: our gowns are a testament to the value of university education and a sign of defiance to those who would claim that universities themselves should be things of the past, discarded for whatever neo-industrial factory system tech-bro neo-barbarians have ChatGPT assemble for them.

In closing, I recognize that academic regalia is nothing like ordinary clothing. That’s the point. Commencement is not any other day: it is a liturgical celebration of new bachelors and masters joining our community. Such days, historically, have been marked by Leisure, a value that Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper argues is woefully lacking in our current culture.

Be counter-cultural. Wear that medieval gown with pride and choose footwear to complement it! I might not call you out if you are not properly attired, but: 1. Recall Jesus’s words about people who do not dress properly for celebrations (Matthew 22:11-13); 2. Remember that as Chief Faculty Marshal, I carry a giant mace, another venerable medieval tradition. Please don’t make me use it.


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