The Stories Behind Graduation Traditions

Milkos/iStock via Getty Images
Milkos/iStock via Getty Images

May is the hot time for college and high school graduations, so chances are you'll have to attend one at some point this month. As you sit there while a school administrator reads names from a seemingly endless list of graduates, you might have some questions about how this whole tradition got started. Here's the scoop on some of graduation's unique customs, from honorary degrees to throwing your cap.

How does a school lure in its graduation speaker?

Sometimes the speakers are alums who are willing to do a little favor for their alma mater, but it often takes a boatload of cash to secure a speaker. Fees can range anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 for a commencement address, and that's before you tack on extra costs for first-class lodging and potentially perks like private jets. There are some deals out there, though. Bill Clinton just spoke at Florida A&M's graduation and waived his usual $100,000 fee. The school did have to pay for his lodging and transport, which totaled over $17,000 for his entourage.

Who received the first honorary degree?

It might seem odd that after you've worked for years to earn your diploma, your school's just throwing around honorary degrees at graduation. Is this a new ego-stroking tool used to convince visiting speakers of how great they are? Hardly. The practice actually dates over 500 years.

The first honorary degree on record went to Lionel Woodville sometime around 1478. Oxford forked over an honorary doctorate of canon law to Woodville, who was Dean of Exeter and Edward IV's brother-in-law. Historians say the degree was a shameless ploy to curry favor, but you can't fault Oxford's timing. Woodville became Bishop of Salisbury just four years later.

Does anyone take these degrees seriously?

Well, they're not "real" degrees since the recipient generally didn't have to do anything to earn them other than be famous and show up for commencement. That doesn't stop some people from running with their honorary degrees' titles, though. Ben Franklin, Billy Graham, and Maya Angelou have all used the title "doctor" despite not having a non-honorary doctorate of their own. Kermit the Frog, on the other hand, received a controversial honorary doctorate of amphibious letters when he spoke at Southampton College's 1996 commencement, but he apparently never bragged about his academic achievement.

Who were the first grads to throw their caps up in the air?

We can thank the Navy for this tradition. It's thought that the practice of chucking one's cap to the heavens at the end of the ceremony started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy's graduation. For the first time the Navy gave the newly commissioned graduates their officers' hats at graduation, so they no longer needed the midshipmen's caps they'd been wearing for the previous four years. To show how pleased they were, the new officers tossed their old headgear up in the air. When other students heard about the practice, they followed suit.

Is throwing your mortarboard actually dangerous?

Apparently so. "Don't throw your cap!" may sound like ominous "You'll shoot your eye out"¦" nagging from your mom, but the pointed caps seem to have some destructive power. England's Anglia Ruskin University banned cap-tossing after a student received stitches when a mortarboard came down on his noggin a few years ago. A search of medical database PubMed also turns up the case of a 17-year-old girl who took a mortarboard corner to the eye and suffered retinal trauma. Even though these cases seem fairly rare, do you really want to be the guy or gal who's having to say, "Oh, gee, I'm so sorry!" to a newly blinded classmate?

Why are the caps called mortarboards, anyway?

If you've ever worked as a bricklayer, you already know the answer to this one. When you're laying bricks, you need a place to hold all the wet mortar you're about to spread; brick pointers use a tool called a hawk, that's basically a flat board with a handle on its underside, to hold their mortar while they work. The flat tops of the graduation caps look a lot like hawks, hence they became known as mortarboards.

Shakespeare scholars might have already known that one, too. The famous line where Hamlet claims, "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw," doesn't have anything to do with birds; he's saying he knows the difference between two items one would find in a tool shed.

Where did we get the idea of having baccalaureate services?

If you get bored during a baccalaureate service this month, blame Oxford. A 1432 statute required that every Oxford grad deliver a sermon in Latin before he got his sheepskin, and the service took its name from the practice of presenting the new Bachelors (bacca) with laurels (lauri). Since the first colonial colleges modeled themselves after the big-name schools back home in England and largely focused on educating clergymen, the tradition came to the United States. Just thank your lucky stars you only have to hear one sermon, not a Latin sermon from each member of the graduating class.

Where did that song you always hear at graduations come from?

The graduation song is often known as "Pomp and Circumstance," but it's actually a small piece of Sir Edward Elgar's 1901 composition "March No. 1 in D Major," part of his "Pomp and Circumstance Military March" series that spanned nearly 30 years of his career.

How did a British military march become a staple of American graduations? In 1905, Elgar received an invitation to come to Yale's commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. To honor their guest, Yale officials had the New Haven Symphony Orchestra play parts of Elgar's compositions as students marched in and out of the ceremony. People enjoyed the tune so much that it soon spread to other schools' graduations. (And just as importantly, it eventually became "Macho Man" Randy Savage's entrance music in the WWF.)

Why do we call diplomas "sheepskins"?

Because they were originally written on a sheep's skin. Early paper was pretty fragile and difficult to make, but parchment was much more plentiful and durable. Parchment, of course, is made from the skin of a sheep, goat, or calf, and its durability made it ideal for a keepsake like a diploma.

Phoenix High School Builds Laundry Room to Assist Underprivileged Students

harmpeti/iStock via Getty Images
harmpeti/iStock via Getty Images

At Maya High School in Phoenix, Arizona, a large closet off the cafeteria has been converted into a laundry room called “The Missing Sock,” complete with a washing machine, a dryer, and even laundry detergent—no quarters or cards needed.

According to AZFamily, principal John Anderson came up with the idea after realizing that many of the school’s students—more than 30 percent of whom are homeless—were reluctant to even show up for school simply because they didn’t have a way to wash their clothes. After talking to one student in particular, who explained that his family wasn’t providing him with the basic resources he needed in order to succeed in school, Anderson decided it was time for the school itself to step up.

So, with the help of grants from the Leona Group, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Fiesta Bowl, Anderson and his colleagues built their own miniature laundromat, much like West Side High School in New Jersey did last year. If similar endeavors elsewhere are any indication, Maya High School could see a pretty significant quantitative impact on attendance: Schools that received appliances from Whirlpool as part of their Care Counts program, for example, saw a two-day rise in attendance rates for chronically absent students and a staggering increase in class participation.

“I come from a homeless background,” Maya High School special projects coordinator (and graduate) Andreya De La Torre told AZFamily. “Coming to school smelling, kids don’t want to be by you. They are talking about you. And it’s just really hard to focus on your education when you are focused on your self-esteem.”

In addition to giving underprivileged kids easy access to clean clothes, “The Missing Sock” is also a symbol of Maya’s commitment to providing its students with more than just academic skills.

“We offer them life skills to teach them things that someone is probably not teaching them on the outside … and to show them love,” De La Torre explained to AZFamily.

“We make them believe in themselves and want to do it for themselves,” Anderson added.

And it doesn’t stop at the laundry room—Maya High School just earned another grant from the Arizona Diamondbacks, which Anderson will use to install showers in the school, too.

[h/t AZFamily]

New Jersey Is the Latest State to Push for Cursive in the Classroom

Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images
Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images

If you happen to have spent some time with kids who graduated from elementary school in the last decade or so, you may notice they have little idea how to form the graceful Gs and 2-shaped Qs of cursive—or any other cursive letter, for that matter. The cursive alphabet was cut from the Common Core curriculum in 2010, and it’s been making those of us who learned it feel old ever since.

However, a number of states—most recently, Texas—have elected to reintroduce cursive into schools in the last few years, and New Jersey is hoping to follow suit. According to WPEC, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight is sponsoring a bill that would require students to master reading and writing in cursive by the end of third grade.

“Our world has indeed become increasingly dependent on technology, but how will our students ever know how to read a scripted font on a Word document, or even sign the back of a check, if they never learn to read and write in cursive?” McKnight asked in a press release. “This bill will ensure every young student in New Jersey will have this valuable skill to carry with them into adulthood.”

Opponents could make the argument that physical checks and scripted fonts are well on their way to becoming relics of the past right alongside cursive literacy, but it’s not just real-world applications that make learning the loopy alphabet such a valuable skill.

“Some research suggests that learning to read and write in cursive benefits the development of cognitive, motor, and literacy skills,” the bill says. “In addition, instruction in cursive handwriting has been associated with improved academic outcomes for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.”

It may also increase your SAT scores, improve your spelling, and more—read about its other benefits here.

[h/t WPEC]

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