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.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Be honest: You’ve watched a YouTube video or two in an attempt to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Whether it was through tabs or simply copying whatever you saw on the screen, the fun always ends when friends start throwing out requests for songs you have no idea how to play. So how about you actually learn how to play guitar for real this time?

It’s now possible to learn guitar from home with the Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle, which is currently on sale for $29. Grab that Gibson, Fender, or whatever you have handy, and learn to strum rhythms from scratch.

The strumming course will teach you how to count beats and rests to turn your hands and fingers into the perfect accompaniment for your own voice or other musicians. Then, you can take things a step further and learn advanced jamming and soloing to riff anytime, anywhere. This course will teach you to improvise across various chords and progressions so you can jump into any jam with something original. You’ll also have the chance to dive deep into the major guitar genres of bluegrass, blues, and jazz. Lessons in jam etiquette, genre history, and how to read music will separate you from a novice player.

This bundle also includes courses in ear training so you can properly identify any relative note, interval, or pitch. That way, you can play along with any song when it comes on, or even understand how to modify it into the key you’d prefer. And when the time comes to perform, be prepared with skilled hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, trills, vibrato, and fret-tapping. Not only will you learn the basic foundations of guitar, you’ll ultimately be able to develop your own style with the help of these lessons.

The Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle is discounted for a limited time. Act on this $29 offer now to work on those fingertip calluses and play like a pro.

 

The Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle - $29

See Deal


At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

How the Trapper Keeper Trapped the Hearts of '80s and '90s Kids

Courtesy of Cinzia Reale-Castello
Courtesy of Cinzia Reale-Castello

No matter when or where you grew up, back-to-school shopping typically revolved around two things: clothing and school supplies. And if you’re an adult of a certain age, you probably had a Trapper Keeper on that latter list of must-buy items.

Like the stickers, skins, and cases that adorn your smartphones and laptops today, Trapper Keepers were a way for kids to express their individual personalities. The three-ring binders dominated classrooms in the '80s and '90s, and featured a vast array of designs—from colorful Lisa Frank illustrations to photos of cool cars and popular celebrities—that allowed kids to customize their organizational tools. 

In this episode of "Throwback," we're ripping open the Velcro cover and digging into the history of the Trapper Keeper. You can watch the full episode below.

Be sure to head here and subscribe so you don't miss an episode of "Throwback," where we explore the fascinating stories behind some of the greatest toys and trends from your childhood.