Spring is in the air here at the Mount. Hearts grow restless for the travel and leisure that the spring weather will enable (noted in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales). 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.
Every year faculty are confronted with an attitude with which they find it hard to sympathize: a distaste for and an eye-rolling attitude towards academic regalia. Why not graduate in t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops?
The reasons for this attitude are understandable: society has made it a habit of deconstructing and overturning tradition for quite a while. One’s own comfort remains king. There is a formality of academic regalia that cuts against deep-seated American prejudices and practices. And that is precisely why, others contend, respect for and proper wearing of academic regalia is more vital now than ever.
One would wear business attire to a job interview. One would wear liturgical vestments when celebrating Mass (receiving a degree without regalia is like Fr. Marty saying Mass in a T-shirt and jeans). It used to be recognized that there are appropriate times and occasions that call for special clothing to be worn.
There is the fear that the increasingly casual, consumptive nature of late neoliberal society has weakened these arguments. If people can do the work, why should their potential boss care about how they dress? 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?
The first response is 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. One emphatically does not graduate; a university graduates them. And this grammatical difference highlights what will happen at Commencement.
Medieval universities grew up amid 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 Master of Arts and Sciences.
A diploma does not actually confer one’s degree, liturgically and legally, one becomes bachelors or masters the moment that their degrees are conferred orally in a public ceremony. They are participating in a leitourgia, a public work, from which the 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: one will be joining a community of people that stretches back through the ages. The ceremonial caps, gowns and hoods unite them as scholars of the past and scholars of the future. Ethical leadership requires a certain maturation away from teenage impulses of sole self-expression and At a Catholic university this incarnational and communal aspect of Commencement needs to be understood and appreciated. The degree is not merely a piece of paper: it is incarnated in mind, heart and body, and the regalia should reflect that proudly. When a student wears their regalia, in a real way, they are wearing their degree. Those who have been bachelors, masters and doctors for years should also reflect on this matter: their 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 systems have ChatGPT assemble for them.
It should be recognized 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 the academic community. Such days, historically, have been marked by leisure, a value that Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper argues is woefully lacking in current culture. Be counter-cultural! Wear that medieval gown with pride and choose footwear to complement it! Faculty might not call one out if they are not properly attired but recall Jesus’ words about people who do not dress properly for celebrations (Matthew 22:11-13) and remember that Sean Lewis, Chief Faculty Marshal, carries a giant mace, another venerable medieval tradition. He warns those a part of the Mount community not to make him use it.