Tomorrow is my first convocation at my new university. For my international readers, a convocation in this part of the world is usually a ceremony in the autumn where faculty, students, and the schools that serve them are welcomed into the new academic year. (Although sometimes “convocation” is a graduation, which I suppose makes it a contronym, and it is also the collective noun for eagles).
At Holy Names, convocation was a student-centered event, and began with the university community, dress in its finest, climbing up the 100-plus stairs to the dining hall for speeches and a lunch. I do not know entirely what to expect from tomorrow’s event (except there is no lunch, and it is held in the largest theater on campus, and relatively few students will be present), but I know that it will be different and that in its difference I will learn new meanings, symbols, and ways of being.
All weekend I have had the last four lines of Yeats’ “A prayer for my daughter” running through my mind:
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
There is a saying on the Internet, “do not read the comments,” and when it comes to major poems, I extend this to “do not read the commentary.” I made the mistake of browsing discussions of this poem, only to discover that rather than the sky-wide reflection on chaos versus order I know it to be, it is actually, among other flaws, a poem advocating the oppression of women. The idea that the poem is a product of its time, or that a father would want to be protective of his daughter, or that there is something to be said for the sanity of a well-ordered home life, is pushed aside in favor of squeezing this poem through a highly specific modern sensibility, then finding it wanting.
Higher education has been described as irrelevant, in a crisis, in need of great change, overpriced, stodgy, out of touch with the world, a waste of effort, and most of all, in need of disruption. And yet every fall universities around the country unite the stewards of academia in a ceremony that is anything but disruptive (convocation: convene, come together) and reminds us that the past, however conflicted and flawed, is the inevitable set of struts for building the future. Convocation tells us that the work of summer is done, and now it is time for students to matriculate, spend a few days having fun and learning the campus culture, then settle down to work. The clock is wound, and begins to tick: professors teaching, administrators administrating, and librarians librarying and otherwise being their bad (as in good) information-professional selves.
When I think about the harsh words tossed at higher education, I am reminded not only of the dishonoring of great poems by forcing them through a chemist’s retort of present-day sensibility, but also how some leaders–and I have been guilty of this myself–are in such a rush to embrace new ideas (particularly our own new ideas) and express our pride in our forward-looking stance that we forget that many times, things were the way they were for a good reason that made sense at the time; and we also forget that in a decade or two our own ideas will be found ill-suited for the way things are done in that new era. When we do that we hurt feelings and body-block the gradual changing of minds, and for what purpose? We can and should continue the hard work of making higher education better, but we should also honor and embrace the past. Give the past its due, because for all of its failings, it birthed the present.
I see now that part of the thrill of convocation for me is how it fills a necessary void: the honoring of my own conflicted past (and all human pasts are conflicted), as well as my commitment to movement into the future. We have events honoring our own birth and also the calendar year, but too many cultures lack a Yom Kippur or Ramadan to help us reset and recommit. Lent comes close, but it is now nearly ruined by Secular Easter and muddy symbolism; as Sandy observes, it is strange behavior to celebrate the Lamb of God, then roast him for Easter dinner. I am also impressed by how many clueless people schedule ordinary events for Good Friday, which is the religious observance that makes Easter Easter.
So onward into the academic year. The spreading laurel tree of academic custom, framed by convocation in early autumn and graduation in spring, gives my life well-framed pauses for introspection and inventory, pausing the slipstream of dailiness, stirring memories, reflection, atonement, and even where warranted, a little quiet praise. Births and deaths, broken friendships and promises, things (to borrow from the Book of Common Prayer) done and left undone, achievements big and small, harsh words and kind actions, frustrations and triumphs, times of fear and times of fearlessness, critical moments of thoughtlessness and those of careful consideration: tomorrow morning, dressed as one does for signature moments, I will tag along behind librarians as they wend their way to a place I have never visited and yet will come to know well, and learn a new way of coming together, in this autumn that closes one book and starts another.