A Return to Fall Commencements


Matthew Dennis of the University of Oregon reminds us that 18th-century commencements took place in the Fall. Here is a taste of his Washington Post piece “Why colleges should hold commencement in the fall–like they used to.”


…during much of the colonial period, graduation ceremonies typically occurred in September. By the mid-18th century, commencement had become fully established as a public event to demonstrate the individual achievements of graduates, introduce them formally to the community and make the case publicly for higher education as a producer of knowledge and expertise in the public interest. Fall rites served dual purposes, marking the beginning of the academic year for continuing students and faculty and commencing the public careers of graduates. These colonial precedents might offer an option for refashioning college commencements to provide an opportunity to celebrate graduates and the role of higher education, in this year when the world of higher education has been turned upside down…

Commencements became a required and regular part of higher education in 1764 when the College of New Jersey (Princeton) president, Samuel Finley, wrote the “Process of Public Commencement,” which served as a template for future ceremonies, with specific details about processions, orations, disputations, odes and songs, all of which soon took shape at America’s nine colleges.

Their purpose was explicitly to commence — the academic calendar and the graduates’ public lives — and to do so festively, ceremoniously, publicly. Medieval graduation rites had been held in private, as discrete rites of passage largely into clerical life. The new colonial colleges were also initially private elite (all male) institutions, mostly designed to train scholars for the ministry.

But they had increasingly turned toward secular purposes and claimed an important place in the public sphere. Elaborate public commencements signaled this turn, highlighting the new intellectual and technical skills and contributions of faculty and students, in arts and letters, science and medicine, commerce, law and government. The ceremonies themselves helped cement connections between the colleges, wealthy benefactors and the public, as well as between graduates and prospective employers. And graduation could also mark graduates’ transition into married life, with many a betrothal between the male scholars and the sisters of their classmates.

Read the entire piece here.