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The Stories Behind Graduation Traditions

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This is a big weekend for college graduations. As you listen to a school administrator read 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 willing to do a 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 lodging and occasional perks like private jets. There are some deals out there, though. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke at Florida A&M's graduation in 2009, he 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 back more than 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 only having honorary doctorates. Kermit the Frog, on the other hand, received a controversial honorary doctorate of amphibious letters when he spoke at Southampton College's 1996 commencement (though 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 past four years. To show how pleased they were, the new officers tossed their old headgear up in the air. Other students heard about the practice and 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" kind of nagging from your mom, but the pointed caps do seem to have some destructive power. England's Anglia Ruskin University banned cap-tossing in 2008 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?

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 referred to 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 both 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.

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Tulane University Offers Free Semester to Students Affected by Hurricane Maria
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As Puerto Rico continues to assess the damage left by Hurricane Maria last month, one American institution is offering displaced residents some long-term hope. Tulane University in New Orleans is waiving next semester’s tuition fees for students enrolled at Puerto Rican colleges prior to the storm, Forbes reports.

From now until November 1, students whose studies were disrupted by Maria can apply for one of the limited spots still open for Tulane’s spring semester. And while guests won’t be required to pay Tulane's fees, they will still be asked to pay tuition to their home universities as Puerto Rico rebuilds. Students from other islands recovering from this year’s hurricane season, like St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are also welcome to submit applications.

Tulane knows all too well the importance of community support in the wake of disaster. The campus was closed for all of the 2005 fall semester as New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During that time, schools around the world opened their doors to Tulane students who were displaced. The university wrote in a blog post, “It’s now our turn to pay it forward and assist students in need.”

Students looking to study as guests at Tulane this spring can fill out this form to apply.

[h/t Forbes]

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Pablo, a Groundbreaking New BBC Series, Teaches Kids About Autism
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Autism spectrum disorder affects one in 68 kids in the U.S., but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the condition and what it feels like to have it. As BuzzFeed reports, a new British children’s program aims to teach viewers about autism while showing kids on the spectrum characters and stories to which they can relate.

Pablo, which premiered on the BBC’s kids’ network CBeebies earlier this month, follows a 5-year-old boy as he navigates life with autism. The show uses two mediums: At the start of an episode, Pablo is played by a live actor and faces everyday scenarios, like feeling overstimulated by a noisy birthday party. When he’s working out the conflict in his head, Pablo is depicted as an animated doodle accompanied by animal friends like Noa the dinosaur and Llama the llama.

Each character illustrates a different facet of autism spectrum disorder: Noa loves problem-solving but has trouble reading facial expression, while Llama notices small details and likes repeating words she hears. On top of demonstrating the diversity of autism onscreen, the show depends on individuals with autism behind the scenes as well. Writers with autism contribute to the scripts and all of the characters are voiced by people with autism.

“It’s more than television,” the show’s creator Gráinne McGuinness said in a short documentary about the series. “It’s a movement that seeks to build awareness internationally about what it might be like to see the world from the perspective of someone with autism.”

Pablo can be watched in the UK on CBeebies or globally on the network's website.

[h/t BuzzFeed]

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