Friday, May 18, 2012


In the next few weeks there will be many graduation ceremonies and despite trends to the casual, these are steeped in tradition. From the sheepskins to the caps and gowns there is great history being reinacted. 

So, we’ll start with the term “sheepskin”, meaning, of course, the diploma. From the Greek meaning “paper folded double”, a diploma, in our context, means, a certificate issued by a school, college, or university to a student, indicating the completion of a prescribed course of study. During the medieval period, the skin of animals was prepared for writing or printing upon by a laborious process that produced a translucent material we call vellum. Important papers were inked on vellum. Vellum can be far more durable than paper and there exists many examples of medieval documents remaining in collections. Today, there are still uses of animal vellum, although due to the expense, there is a modern version of plasticized cotton. 

My niece, Jenn 

While institutions in other countries have unique diversity in academic dress, the US has standardized a definite system that is followed by American universities and colleges. This is called the Academic Costume Code and Ceremony Guide. The American Council on Education has an appointed committee that periodically reviews the standards. The code covers the pattern of the gown (pointed sleeves for bachelors’ degrees, oblong sleeves for masters’ gowns and bell-shaped sleeves for doctorate degrees). Also covered is the color, trimmings, linings, hoods. For all academic purposes, the colors of the gowns and trimmings are associated with different disciplines, such as Theology (scarlet), Nursing (apricot), Philosophy (dark blue).

The cap usually worn consists of a square board fixed upon a skullcap. This is commonly referred to as a “mortar board” named after the board used for carrying mortar by masons. Middle Age scholars wore a similar cap which some thought actually helped them think (“thinking caps”). In the US mortarboards are worn also by high school graduates. A long tassel is fixed to the center point of the cap. A charm indicating the year may adorn the tassel. In some ceremonies, the student wears the tassel on one side until the diploma is received , then it is switched to the other side.

So we continue with all the Pomp and Circumstance. Congratulations to all of this year’s participants.

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