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"Commencement and Tradition at Oberlin," by Robert A. Haslun, '67

The writer is assistant director of College information. This article is reprinted from the 1973 Commencement program.

Oberlin's Commencement is an amalgam of traditions, some dating back to the Middle Ages, some dating back to Oberlin's first Commencement, and some as recent as 1970. But while traditions and customs have undergone changes, the basic concepts of celebration, serious purpose and pageantry have remained.

The Oberlin Collegiate Institute, as it was called until 1850, granted its first degrees in 1836 in the Theological Department. The first four A.B. degrees were conferred Sept. 6, 1837. The custom of holding an "Anniversary" or Commencement celebration, however, dated from Oct. 29, 1834, the completion of the first full year of operation. On that day four entering freshmen, who comprised the first college-level class at the Institute, were brought to the stage with a few of the preparatory students of the more advanced category. Area newspapers reported that public examinations were held in English grammar, arithmetic, geography, botany, history, rhetoric, stenography, natural philosophy, Latin, Greek, and composition in English.

The ceremonies that year were held out of doors on the present Tappan Square, a custom that was improved upon the following year with the arrival of revivalist Charles G. Finney as professor of theology. Finney brought with him a large revival tent and through 1842 Commencements were held inside it, under a large banner proclaiming "Holiness to the Lord." With the completion of First Church, Commencement moved in-doors and was held there continually from 1843 to 1908 when it again moved, this time into newly-completed Finney Chapel. The site of the ceremonies was not changed again until 1957, when the present custom of holding it outdoors on Tappan Square was reinstituted.

By 1841 Commencements were expanding in length. In that year it became a two-day affair with the Collegiate department graduating Aug. 25 and the Theology School on the 26th. An "Address to the Alumni" was also included. The Alumni Association, founded in 1839, showed strong support for the College from the start and large numbers of alumni returned for the celebration each year. Indeed, a record of sorts must have been set in 1856 when 77% of the College's alumni returned for the event — 170 out of 222 living graduates.

Changes toward Commencement as we know it began to take place in 1878. In that year graduation was moved to June. The change reflected the change in the academic calendar, which switched the long vacation from winter to summer. In the early days of the College, the idea of having the long vacation in the winter had a two-fold advantage: it allowed students to help earn their tuition by working as school teachers back home in the winter months, and it kept costs for lamp oil and fuel to a minimum by shutting down the College during the colder weather. But in 1878 the College changed its academic calendar to be more in step with other colleges and universities.

The Conservatory had been in existence since 1865 and associated with the College since 1867, but had never granted degrees. Certificates or diplomas had been issued and when the Conservatory students joined with the A.B. candidates in 1895 they continued to receive these certificates. In fact, prior to 1900, the Mus.B. was relatively unknown. In 1876 Boston University became the first college in the U.S. to grant it. At Oberlin the decision to grant Conservatory graduates the Mus.B. was not made until 1904 when eight graduating seniors were so honored. In a general tightening of standards at the Conservatory all its graduates after 1905 were expected to meet Mus.B. requirements and no other certificates were issued. Conservatory alumni, after a scrutiny of their records and upon payment of a fee, were allowed to receive the degree retroactively. Conservatory students, despite the new high standards, apparently were not expected to have a knowledge of Latin; while the College of Arts and Sciences degrees were inscribed in Latin until 1970, the Mus.B. was always in English.

The final changes toward Commencement as we recognize it came in the early 1900's with the advent of Illumination and the addition of pomp and circumstance, including the arrival of the cap and gown.

Illumination, the stringing and lighting of many Japanese lanterns around a town, was not an unknown custom in 19th century America. Oberlin had in fact illuminated itself for Lincoln's election in 1860. But it did not become a part of the Commencement exercises until 1903 when Prof. Frederick O. Grover, recently arrived from Harvard, suggested it after a custom he had witnessed of illuminating the Harvard Yard. Several thousand lanterns were purchased at Oberlin and the campus and several streets of the town were strung with them. Except for three interruptions, the custom continued annually until it was abandoned in 1932 for financial reasons. The outcry was such that the College re-instituted it in 1933 and purchased an additional 20,000 lanterns for the purpose. Only during World War II was it again stopped. This year, some 900 lanterns remained for illumination.

Pomp, in the form of the Academic Procession, became an integral part of the ceremony in the early 1900's. By 1909 there was a standard listing for the "Academic Procession" and in 1913 the "Honorary Marshal" was added. Caps and gowns were worn beginning in 1903 by the students and in 1907 by the faculty. It was not until 1970 that the custom was abandoned by the graduating class. That class voted to abandon the cap and gown protesting that they were elitist symbols and that the rental money could be better used elsewhere. Most of the class contributed money to community organizations. The action came as a shock to "traditionalists." It is worth looking in some detail at the history of academic dress at Oberlin in relation to this nostalgic outcry.

Although popular in European universities since their origin, academic regalia did not catch on to any great extent in democratic America until late in the 19th century, more or less coincidental with the surge of American scholars returning from advanced study at continental universities. The Harvard faculty, for example, did not begin their use at Commencement until 1886. The New York Times has reported that

the democratic appeal in clothing all alike in an outward equal fellowship, the improvement in the general effect in university functions, and the increased interest aroused in academic ceremonies as a result of the practice brought about the rapid adoption of the costume [at most Eastern schools].

The craze began in Oberlin in 1881 although classes before that had maintained a class uniform or hat for several years. The Oberlin Review for Dec. 24, 1881, announced the beginning of the tradition.

Oberlin is the last College on the long list that has adopted the ‘mortar board' and at the beginning of next term that venerable covering of scholarly youth will be seen for the first time in our scholarly precincts. The Juniors, Sophs, and Freshmen have, by large majorities, adopted the cap and these classes will be distinguished by the colors of the tassels, '85 black and gold, '84 black, and '83 class colors, and '82 owing to the fact that she is distinguished by the silk hat will not do the academic costune.

The faculty took an extremely dim view of these proceedings from the start and discouraged the wearing of the new regalia. The initial assault was against the females and, as ever, the student body was ready to counter-attack again in the Review.

It is rumored that the Faculty propose to interfere to prevent the Classical ladies from wearing the mortar board uniform . . . on the ground that the cap would not be suitable head covering for both ladies and gentlemen. Surely the Faculty would not go so far as to say the caps MUST NOT be worn. Such an attitude would doubtless cause a rebellious spirit among the students which it would be unwise to awaken.

The next comment appears in the April 22, 1882, issue. The article concerned itself with the fact that the student body had abandoned wearing caps because of the spring temperatures. "It has ceased to be an object to attract attention and we believe it to be the opinion of the majority that it really is what it is claimed to be, the hat for college students."

Alas for the custom, a mere six months later the Review was offering up an obituary with a rather timeless comment included. From the Oct. 21, 1882, issue:

We have experimented with the mortar board and all will agree it has been a failure. It is fast becoming a rarity on our streets and the time is not far distant when the sight of one will create as great a sensation as it did last January. Now that the novelty of this antique headdress has worn off, we have wearied of it as children with their toys. There are persons who find it difficult to believe that they are really college students without some mark in clothing or general appearance to assure them of the fact.

Eight years were to pass before the cap and gown fad was revived at Oberlin. In March of 1890 the Review congratulated the "Sophs" for their "taste in choosing mortar boards. They have been brought out from hiding place at last as everyone knew they would be." No faculty reaction was recorded, but the battle was yet to come. The Review of Feb. 18, 1892, reported that "Seniors at Yale will wear the cap and gown during the entire spring term, and in most of the Eastern colleges they will add to the dignity of the graduating class."

The Oberlin seniors, not to be out-done, began a general push to adopt the cap and gown not only for class wear but also for the first time at Commencement. The faculty was thrown into a state of crisis over this and voted its disapproval of such a move. The Review responded with what was, for the day, scathing criticism:

It is always with great reluctance that any criticism is directed toward the faculty from this column and, when words of this nature seem advisable, they are always said with great respect for that body of ladies and gentlemen who exercise their function over us with such great wisdom. Yet in our opinion a great mistake was made Monday night. If well authenticated reports be true, the vote in disapproval of the cap and gown went through without opposition or parley. Now whatever our opinion of the cap and gown, we question very seriously whether the regulation of any commencement garb worn by the Senior Class falls within the sphere of faculty supervision at all.

The issue lay dormant until 1896 when the Senior Class again took to wearing its badge of seniorhood. The garb was sometimes worn in classes, but more often on special days and at certain occurences. A Review of Dec. 8, 1904, notes for example that the "Seniors have abandoned the wearing of caps and gowns every Friday until warm weather." An interesting contradiction here since in 1882 the same paper noted the abandonment of the garb because of the warm weather. Chapel was another time for the wearing of the garb. A Review for May 4, 1899, chastised seniors: "If a cap and gown are meant to be a token of rank, they hardly serve their purpose when classmates sit side by side in Chapel, one with, the other without the insignia."

The Faculty continued its fight to abolish the garb or at least never to be caught so enrobed themselves. By 1903, however, younger members, men who had worn the cap and gown in their student days, were beginning to increase in numbers. On March 23, 1903, a debate was held in the faculty meeting over the question of wearing academic dress for the first time for Henry Churchill King's inauguration. Although those in favor had the votes to carry the motion, several voted against it out of respect for the old guard, and the motion failed 17-15. The Senior Class, not so respectful of its elders, appeared robed. Not until May, of 1907 did the General Faculty finally vote to adopt the new costume. The resolution read, "Upon the recommendation of the Committee on Commencement, it was voted that the Faculty recommend that the dress of the Faculty at the coming Commencement be the academic dress." And so, in 1907, for the first time, both faculty and students wore what now is thought of as "traditional" cap and gown. From 1908-1929 the Instructions for the Academic Procession read: "It is recommended that academic dress be worn at the Baccalaureate Service and at the Commencement Service. From 1930 on we see that "Academic dress should be worn by all who participate in the academic procession on either day." And finally in 1960 the stern admonition that "Academic costume must be worn."

The Class of 1973 voted to continue the three-year-old "tradition" of wearing non-academic attire. At the same time, the General Faculty voted to continue the practice of wearing caps and gowns, making their 66th appearance in academic garb. All told, of the 140 Commencement exercises at Oberlin, fewer than half have been formal in terms of cap and gowns, and only 26 have been held outdoors in Tappan Square, the now-traditional site.

Commencement and tradition at Oberlin are closely tied with the changing attitudes of faculty and students, and how they perceive the meaning and symbolism of Commencement. As times change, traditions change. As traditions change, so, too, will Oberlin's Commencement change. But, of course, change itself would seem to be an Oberlin tradition.

Haslun, Robert A. "Commencement and Tradition at Oberlin." Oberlin Alumni Magazine 69 (July/August 1973): 12-14.

 
 
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