Brown University’s commencement ceremonies include a deluge of academic mythology. The curse of my chosen field of academic study is the tendency to see mythology everywhere. Some individuals see dead people, others see myths. I always feel an inordinate sense of pride in the graduates, especially those who are related to me, but the whole arrangement takes part in the mythology of higher education. Who wouldn’t feel awe in the presence of the illustrious recipients of honorary degrees? There on the Jumbotron, Viola Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Diane Sawyer, and John Lewis. In the program book the seemingly arcane symbols of academia are explained. These are the scriptures backing the mythology. I always wondered why some old professor always carried a mace in academic processions.
But the mythology of higher education runs deeper than the symbols and ceremonial. Education itself is under intense fire for participating in the realm of finance that it helped to create. Despite constant affidavits to the opposite effect, there is more to life than money. The cost in educating our young requires a greater input than becomes obvious in the immediate return on the investment. Often I hear concerns expressed over the cost of higher education, and there are certainly excesses that must be addressed. The real profit in this transaction, however, is our future. Who can look at the ocean of mortarboarded potential and not feel, deep down, a sense of optimism, no matter how guarded?
The mace is a symbol of violence. Education, if done right, is violence against ignorance and ossified old ways of prejudice, discrimination, and selfishness. For those of us who have tried—and some of us have not been successful—to shed some light on future generations, commencement is a humbling experience. While at Nashotah House I sat through many of them, and sometimes the mythology mingled with hypocrisy as I saw raw hunger for power and the lust to control the lives of others. It was refreshing to experience the mythology anew in a setting where genuine hope seemed to linger among faces full of optimism and pride of achievement. Perhaps it was the obvious inclusiveness instilled by outgoing president Ruth J. Simmons, but prayers by women clergy, and honorary degrees conferred across the spectrum of humanity are signs of hope. The mythology of academia is one myth worth believing in, if it is truly a commencement.