The 2016 MANCOSA Johannesburg Graduation – Appreciating the real significance of the event

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On the 7th of October 2016, MANCOSA delivered a successful graduation ceremony wherein approximately 940 degrees, diplomas and certificates were conferred. The graduation ceremony took place at the prestigious Hilton hotel in Johannesburg.

The event comprised of three sessions to accommodate the large number of graduates and their guests. By all accounts this occasion is deemed as a huge success; congratulations and commendations abounded to both the graduates and the organisers. Now, whether you are a graduate of the ‘Class of 2016’, long-standing alumnus, prospective graduate or even a casual passer-by, with a keen interest in academic accolades the question may be posed: what is the real significance of a public graduation?

The answers to these questions are mostly found in tradition, convention or nostalgic rituals. However, some motivation may originate from the transactional relationship which ensues between the graduate and society at that moment. Since the 12th century, graduation events were arranged where the newly-educated were welcomed as special members of a community and part of their dress nomenclature included the wearing of long, black gowns, caps and hoods. Such people were widely respected and, as such, were often consulted by society for their wisdom.

It should be appreciated that, traditionally the centre of teaching was the church, and as such “members” of this fraternity were regarded as sages and required to wear clergy-like attire (which reflected their reverent character in society). Subsequently, separate institutions of teaching and learning were established but the donning of such particular dress and paraphernalia remained. Adding to the dress-nomenclature, the verbal nomenclature consisted largely of Latin, the “learned” lexicon of the day. Later on, for the purposes of distinction, different types of qualifications were symbolised by different coloured gowns, caps and hoods; this was merely done for the purpose of differentiation between various levels of qualifications or disciplines. For instance, a medical doctor, was distinguishable from a theologian. These learned ones were required to behave in a particular way and profess on particular matters, and in effect provide direction as far as values, morality and general conduct are concerned.

Therefore, the peculiarity of the regalia worn during modern day graduation ceremonies, do carry significance and are still influenced by institutional, academic discipline or status-related considerations. The process of publicly receiving the scroll (which symbolises the “sheepskin” or certificate) serves as proof that the graduate has achieved a particular public declaration to this effect. It is here where many fail to appreciate the monumental importance of the graduation event; that is, to publicly receive a qualification or to be announced eligible to practice as learned professional.

The implication of publicly bestowing a qualification requires the recipient to satisfy the standards of the ethical standards that may accompany a particular ordination. Therefore, the public as witnesses to this, should remind the graduate often of the responsibilities that accompany the qualification. The capping serves to indicate that the graduate is now allowed into the particular academic fraternity of “masters” (broadly defined) and is now duly authorised to “profess”, teach, guide and lead.

The hooding forms part of the traditional dress of this fraternity. It has been suggested that the pouch-like design of the hood, traditionally allowed for the community to deposit coins there into as a form of remuneration, because members of this select group typically were not remunerated (consider clergy and teachers); this is where the pro bono-concept originated where services were gratuitous in nature. Others claim that the hood merely forms part of traditional dress where it categorised the wearer into different casts or disciplines.

We should really appreciate the symbolism and richness of this inheritance. As much as these anecdotes may contain marginal measures of truth and undoubtedly contains a measure of romanticism, the act of graduating is much more than this.

For every student their graduation event punctuates the completion of an important phase of not only their academic but also personal life. During many moments of study, thought, contemplation and debate, institutions of learning seek to hone and cast an organism, which should find destiny in contributing to this world in positive ways. This should truly be a great milepost on life’s journey.

It is therefore appropriate that this event is celebrated with the appropriate amount of pomp and ceremony which one should expect for such an occasion. For many, nothing exceeds the absolute thrill of morphing from graduand to graduate, where it is declared to the world that one has achieved a qualification (a graduand is a student who is about to graduate, and a graduate, is a person who has graduated).

It also proves that a level of personal and educational, even scholarly development, which in essence “allows “ the recipient to be noted as “urbanus homo quad” – a sophisticated human being. For many this achievement extends far beyond merely professional opportunities, social stature or the like; the attainment of a higher qualification is a landmark in that they may be the first family member to attain this achievement, or the graduate may belong to a long lineage of similarly qualified persons or graduates from a particular institution. Seen from a historical perspective, many South Africans have not had such opportunities, and the monumental pride displayed by such persons and their families are equally touching. It is delightful to notice the expression of family members’ complete joy and pride at that moment.

Unfortunately attaining a qualification, even esteemed and highly prized one, does not automatically elevate one to the status of “urbanus homo quad”. Education does not by default bring out the best in humanity. Humanness cannot be taught from text books, nor achieved by passing a sit-down exam. As much as institutions of learning continuously strive towards teaching the principles associated with good citizenry, and a penchant for those who are downtrodden, the young, old and frail, this is not a guarantee.

Ultimately, institutions of learning confer qualifications and publically pronounce fallible human beings to be sufficiently skilled and equipped to step up to, and step into areas of responsibility. However, really it remains incumbent upon the graduate to do honour to their qualification, to honour the institution from which the qualification is obtained and…to not disappoint the public in the presence of whom the qualification was conferred.

Therefore, during future MANCOSA graduation events, pause momentarily and be mindful to look beyond just the apparent glitter and festivity with which the occasion is associated. Consider that this is also a significant rite of passage for many a graduate, and in the final analysis it constitutes a public oath of sorts, to pursue the greater good by being a sophisticated human being!