Summer bridges the two most significant ceremonies on the Willamette campus: Commencement in May, Convocation in September. These events are feasts for the senses, from the haunting strain of bagpipes to the riot of color festooning the caps and robes of our faculty and graduates. The pageantry and dress follow traditions dating back to medieval universities of the 11th and 12th centuries.
I have always been enamored by the symbolism of academic regalia, in which color and cut and costume have meaning. Though we rarely pause to reflect on their significance outside the scope of these ceremonies, I can’t help but see them as a reflection of the democracy of scholarship.
Once daily garb for medieval students and faculty alike, the black gown covers clothing that would suggest social or economic standing, making equals of all who pursue higher education. The cap — whether mortarboard or tam — is a reminder of Roman rule, when only free men were allowed the privilege of wearing one. Today the cap symbolizes the freedom of scholarship, as well as the dignity and responsibility that come with having an education.
At the same time, the cut of the gown, the shape of the sleeves and the hue of tassels and hoods speak to the individuality of each scholar and the choices each made — what institution to attend, what field to pursue, to what lengths. And freedom of expression has found its place at Commencement, with graduates decorating their mortarboards and donning leis and other garlands.
With this edition of The Scene, we celebrate many aspects of democracy — issues that unite us, divide us, challenge us to rethink our beliefs, and allow us to express ourselves with unique, impassioned voices:
Education, like democracy, is a privilege, one inherent with responsibility. “We the people” of the Willamette community honor that responsibility whenever we act with our motto in mind: Not unto ourselves alone are we born.