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Commencement: A Melange of Tradition

By Russell B. Roberts

Aside from Thanksgiving, the Commencement pageantry which will gradually unravel in the Yard this morning is America's oldest continuous festival; by its forthright uniqueness, it is also one of the most endearing signs of the everlasting Harvard.

The amorphous procession of academics, divines, politicians, and sundry associates of the University will bring three centuries of tradition with it during the march into today's Commencement exercises In its distinctly Harvard spirit if not specific forms, the 314th Commencement will be very much like the first.

From the beginning, Commencement in Cambridge has been an amusing combination of pompous ritual, serious academic dissertation, reunion with old associates, honors both earned and merely bestowed, and festive entertainments.

It has been suggested that Harvard's Commencement, the ancestor of all American academic ceremonies and quite distinct from those of Europe, is the United States' chief contribution to higher education. If an undergraduate cannot find distinction in the Harvard curriculum, he can be sure it will appear in the ceremony of the parting day.

Harvard first determined to conduct a ceremonial graduation in 1642 when nine bachelors' degrees were awarded. To that first commencement came, in procession, the same people who will be there this morning: the Governor of the Commonwealth, with his pike-carrying guards mounted on horseback, the minister of the six towns surrounding the College, various neighboring magistrates, and the Harvard Faculty.

The ceremonial procedures evolved slowly, and gradually grew in number. For a long while now, the University Marshal has officially opened Commencement with the call, "Mr. Sheriff, pray give us order," which follows the end of the procession. The Sheriff of Middlesex will then rise in his blue colonial garb, strike the stage three times with the scabbard of his sword and announce in a sharp Boston accent, "The meeting will be in order."

As in the first Commencement, members of the graduating class will deliver orations in Latin and English; the President, seated in his ancient Tudor chair, will admit Bachelors to the "fellowship of educated men," and recipients of doctoral degrees to the "ancient and universal company of scholars." Honorary degrees, like that first one conferred on George Washington will be given to those distinguished few who have done something for Harvard in specific or humanity in general. With each honorary degree, the President will pronounce a short testimonial, composed in a flowery language reminiscent of the eighteenth century.

The spirit of the earliest Commencement days, as of the early College, was largely chaperoned by theology--the presence of a formidable portion of the local clergy caused those first occasions to be rather pious and somber. But the joyous aspects of graduation increased steadily and by the end of the seventeenth century, commencement had become the main spectacle of New England.

The festive rights following the official ceremonies became so excessive that the Board of Overseers made frequent but always unsuccessful attempts to curb Commencement behavior, even to the extent of banning "plum cake," which the Overseers observed, was never served in European universities.

Yet the revelry grew and for a while Commencement was a noisy carnival with academic and social pretensions. All the members of Boston's growing aristocracy, every significant member of the various New England governments, royalists, patriots. Anglicans, and Calvinists, all attended the great Commencements of the eighteenth century and were followed there by spectacle-seeking hordes. Vending booths and freak shows were set up along the street in the College vicinity; there were elephants, mermaids, mummies, and mutants, all ostensibly celebrating Harvard's annual Commencement.

Times have changed only slightly since. The revelry has become more sophisticated and subdued but Commencement is still one of New England's grandest spectaculars. What passes for traditional academic pomp mingled with joyous celebration is just as much kindergarten as college: once a year, now for the 314th time, the boys of Harvard are playing a game they call a festive rite, a game interrupted in three centuries only by a smallpox epidemic and war.

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