I love graduation season. I love looking into the faces of graduating high school seniors, all slick and shiny. These young men and women are filled with excitement about their future. They are fresh and young and silly and optimistic.
College graduations are equally empowering. The students, now older, carry a bit more wisdom on their brow. They understand what it means to work hard, really hard. At one time they had outward vision no larger than themselves. Now they see a global marketplace, a fusion of countries and cultures and opportunities.
You can see, in the eyes of a graduate, the sense of accomplishment. He knows what it means to craft a decent sentence, or solve a complex equation. She has felt the weight of a backpack laden with thick books. These graduates know the sound of the library at midnight and the smell of the chemistry lab in the wee hours of the morning.
The next step for the graduate is new and sometimes ambiguous, but she carries education’s toolbox and will use it to her advantage.
We make a great fuss over graduation, from the costuming and speeches to the ceremonial music. We travel to support others in their graduation and throw elaborate parties.
We may not know it, but in this celebration we mark a deliberate passage for those graduating.
In the early 1900s, a French folklorist named Arnold van Gennep wrote a book called “The Rites of Passage.” In penning the book, van Gennep not only made a significant contribution to anthropology, he also identified the monumental transitions in our lives, why we do them and what they mean.
Van Gennep divided rites of passage into three stages: separation, transition and reincorporation. Van Gennep went on to elaborate what each stage entails. The separation is when one separates himself from his former society. For a student attending college, it means moving into dorms, away from high school classmates. The transition is a continued alienation from his former self, a place between two points, the old self and new self. In this case, it’s the years spent in college.
Finally comes the reincorporation. It’s a celebration of re-entering the world in a new role. It’s this reincorporation that brings us to the cap and gown, “Pomp and Circumstance” and all the ceremony that comes with graduation day.
Rites of passage are alive in every society and culture, and in most religions. In a positive context, they mark progress, accomplishment and upward success.
It was van Gennep’s “Rites of Passage” that went on to influence Joseph Campbell’s work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Campbell took van Gennep’s stages and basically identified what we know as the hero’s journey, which you find in most of the world’s greatest stories.
In other words, when we celebrate a high school graduate and see him or her off on the next adventure, when we send a child on a church mission or into the military, commemorate a baptism or Eagle Scout, or drive cross-country to watch a son or daughter flip their tassel from one side of the cap to the other, we aren’t just participating in antiquated ceremony.
We are celebrating the next generation of heroes.