Graduation Rituals and Fathers Day (last time)

Mothers Day, Fathers Day and Graduation Day are all spring rituals, days that allow us to generate more stories that define a culture. Like many of our rituals, it seems that the more we spend on the occasion, the less it means. Conan O'Brien recently gave the commencement address at Dartmouth College and congratulated the graduates by pointing out that they had achieved something that only 92 per cent of their peers had done. If he had been talking to a high school graduating class, he would have been closer to the right number, but his observation remains valid.

There are still a couple of days to add your Fathers Day stories to Story Chip before we begin the early celebration period of the day in 2012. This is certainly a chance for new graduates to thank their parents in a manner commensurate with the completion of a 4 year degree and your story is likely to be better received than the commencement address your parents heard while you were graduating, unless of course you went to Dartmouth.

The contrast between O'Brien's remarks at Dartmouth and the address delivered by George Will at the College of William and Mary in 1994 illustrates the nature of cultural rituals and why it is so difficult to make the rituals meaningful. Will enacted the ritual of welcoming the graduates into the world of educated adults with the promise of becoming fully vested in the culture by telling them that things that they had been learning for four years were dangerous ideas. His message was clear, leave college and thinking behind so that you can join the conservative world of your parents generation. His address was not meant for the graduates; it was meant for the audience, the parents and faculty members. Will's address enacted the ritual of the status quo. O'Brien, who has a degree from Harvard, spoke to both audiences taking some starch out of the caps and gowns. His address covered many areas that were relevant to the student's experience and aspirations. His was the ritual enacted for the future. (Another noteworthy example was David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College.)

I remember listening to George Will as a proud parent and a graduate student. Because I was listening with two sets of “ears”, I heard the ritual of reaching adulthood and I also felt the sting of listening to a speaker who was singularly out of touch with his audience and his purpose. When I graduated from high school, approximately 83 per cent of Americans were earning a diploma. Forty years later, the number is only up to 88 percent. In the same time, U.S. Students completing bachelors degrees has risen from 21 to 31 per cent. (The most interesting number is that the per centage of women with BA's has doubled in the same period.) The interesting part of these numbers is the relationship between the ritual and the number of people participating.

High school graduations have become quite expensive. The expense naturally leads to more creative ways to get out the announcements and coordinate the festivities associated with the ritual. Facebook is now a prominent medium for communicating the graduation announcement. Definitely not surprising to find that traditional approaches find the use of social media quite upsetting. That is the other part of honoring our traditions to maintain the culture. Rituals have to be flexible enough to withstand change driven by changes in society. Social media will naturally take their place in our rituals

Fathers are still enduring graduations and frequently helping out with the costs. Graduation is a milestone of adulthood, a time to separate from parents as new courses are set. It is a wonderful time to honor your father with a story about dads, schools, graduations or family rituals. Again, social media are a way to maintain family ties and rituals. Visit Story Chip and leave your mark on history.

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