Commencement Academic and Otherwise

If you live in an academic world like I do, commencements come around annually.  Actually, some bigger schools have more than one commencement per year.  By now I have done countless commencements.  It would be interesting to know how many students I have seen walk across the stage to shake someone’s hand (usually the President’s hand) and receive a diploma.  I am always happy for them. 

Commencements have a great deal of ritual that makes the ceremony more interesting.  One of the obvious rituals is the school’s alma mater.  Not all of these songs are great music, but they do have interesting phrases about the history and hopes of the school.  There are also other distinguishing features that help the graduates feel a sense of connection to their schools. 

I have “heard” too many speeches at commencements!  Many of those speeches were given by some rich people who would be given an honorary degree.  Of course, I understand any school’s need for outside financial resources.  I understand the need to cultivate good will in the community and positive vibes for the school.  I am not cynical about the function of these speeches nor the honorary degree given.  They simply are part of the commencement scene.   

However, commencements are fairly complex affairs if you exam them.  Naturally the centerpiece of the commencement is the diploma.  Diplomas are crafted for an institution to indicate a particular person has satisfied the requirements for a particular degree.  The Bachelor’s degree is typically the first college degree.  If I have a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree, my personalized diploma will attest to that.  It will have my name, date, and signatures of two of the dignitaries of the college or university.  The diploma becomes a symbol.  I can hang it on my wall or in my home. 

When someone comes into my home or office and sees my diploma, it instantly communicates to the person that I am a graduate.  It “tells” them that I have done the requisite work to have earned the degree.  It validates me.  It is a guarantee of sorts.  I never thought about it before, but in a way it is like a warranty for a car or other appliance.  It testifies that I have learned and I am capable. 

But that is precisely where it can be misleading.  And at a commencement, nobody talks about how misleading the diploma might be.  Commencements celebrate and honor all the achievements of the graduates.  And this is appropriate.  I have no problem with that.  I have a few degrees of my own and theoretically they validate me.     

What worries me a bit is not the commencement, but the diploma.  I like academic commencements.  I like the ritual, the hoopla, and the festivities.  I approve of all the accolades offered to students.  I approve of all that commencements aim to celebrate and symbolize. 

What worries me is the diploma.  I worry a bit that it often promises more than the person can deliver.  It seems to me the diploma suggests that because someone took “x” number of classes and fulfilled all requirements that he or she is capable of all that the degree promises.  I am cynical enough to think that passing classes is not the same thing as education.  And education, after all, is what college is all about. 

Allow me to interpret what I would hope a diploma suggests and, perhaps, promises.  I would hope a diploma says that someone has spent enough time in a college setting that he or she knows how to learn.  And more importantly, the diploma should say that learning is a life-long endeavor.  I would hope it promises the holder of the diploma is committed to doing all the college-kind of things that further the holder’s educational effectiveness in the world. 

And then the analogy hit me.  What if our spiritual pilgrimages were somewhat like school?  We might not get diplomas, but often we have to do some specific things to join a church or similar group.  Like an academic commencement, this should not signal the end, but the beginning of our deeper journey into our faith. 

Something further hit me when I pursued this analogy.  I realize I can tell someone that I am a Christian.  That is a bit like saying that I am a college graduate.  It suggests and promises a great deal that might or might not be true of me.  I can say that I am a Christian, but that may be as far as it goes.  To say that I am a Christian might not mean that I do one active thing that Christians ought to do.  Sadly, I could say that I am a Christian and have no actions that Christians should do…like love, work for justice, etc.  

I have enough diplomas.  I want to work on my faith.  I want to actualize my faith.  I want to make my faith more than simply some creedal statement.  I want my faith to cash out in some action.  Commencements are one-day affairs.  My faith is an every-day affair.  Tomorrow I have another chance to practice my faith.  The word, commencement, means to “begin.”  Tomorrow I will commence again…commence to turn faith into action.   

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