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Commencements are about more than delivering degrees – and cancellations leave students disconnected and disillusioned.

Following the wave of protests against the war in the Gaza Strip, several American universities have decided to cancel or slow down the opening ceremonies. Others should follow.

In announcing their decision, these institutions cited security concerns linked to the unrest and divisions that followed the demonstrations. However, this might just make a bad situation worse.

As an anthropologist who studies the human need for ritual, I have spent two decades studying the role of collective ceremonies in creating meaning and belonging. I’ve also seen the flip side: depriving people of meaningful rituals can lead to disillusionment and social disengagement.

Rites of passage

From cradle to grave, the most important moments of our lives are ritualized. From personal events such as birthdays and weddings to societal changes like the transfer of government power, all major transitions are surrounded by ceremony. The fact that these rituals occur without exception in all human societies underlines their importance.

Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep called these ceremonies “rites of passage.” He noted that in all cultures they have a similar structure and achieve similar results.

Rites of passage generally involve three stages. First, participants are separated from their previous way of life, physically or symbolically, and move toward a new status and identity. For example, civilians may abandon their usual routines and move away from friends and family to join the military. Students do the same when they leave campus to join the job market.

The second phase is the liminal period between stages. It is characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty, as initiates abandon their old status but have not yet assumed their new role. During this period, a cadet may feel neither like a civilian nor like a soldier; a wife neither single nor married; and candidates who are neither students nor graduates.

In the third and final stage, the transition is complete and the initiate is reintegrated into society with a new status. Just as a military initiation transforms civilians into soldiers, an initiation transforms apprentices into skilled professionals.

Rituals can shape social reality

Rites of passage do not simply celebrate the transition to a new state: they actively create this new state in the eyes of society.

Research shows that people unconsciously perceive ritual actions as causing real change in the world. This is why even minor changes in the protocol can feel like a failure. When Barack Obama delivered the words of the presidential oath in the wrong order, the legitimacy of his power was called into question. Eventually he had to take the oath again. Additionally, when an action is ritualized, it seems more special and appealing.

This is why ritual accompanies all the special transitions in our lives. And the more significant the moment, the more pomp it takes. The grandeur and formality of the ceremony activate psychological processes related to how we evaluate the world. Good things require the expenditure of effort and resources. A ritual laden with opulence signals that this is a moment worth remembering.

The opposite is also true. Without a meaningful rite of passage, a significant transition can seem less real and its meaning diminished. Imagine no one remembers your 50th birthday; or that, as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, you find yourself on a desert island. Assuming you have a clock with you, would this transition be the same?

A passage without rite

A student wearing a flower-adorned graduation cap that reads “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
A graduation ceremony at North Carolina Central University on May 4, 2024 in Durham.
DeAndres Royal/University of North Carolina via Getty Images

Not everyone cares about a graduation ceremony. Indeed, some graduates choose not to attend theirs. But these are rare exceptions. The vast majority of graduating students care, and so do their families, as evidenced by packed auditoriums and stadiums across the country.

In spring 2020, the University of Connecticut, where I teach, announced that it was suspending all campus activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That day, the first question my students asked me was “Can we have a graduation ceremony?” » As in most universities around the world, the answer was no. I still remember the disappointment on their faces.

Most high schools also canceled their graduations in 2020. And now, many of these students are feeling a sense of deja vu. Once again, they will be deprived of the opportunity to celebrate their achievement.

Graduating from college can be one of the most significant transitions in a person’s life. Unless they pursue higher education, this involves radical changes in their lifestyle, social relationships and overall role in society.

The absence of a symbolic act to demarcate this change may leave graduates, in Van Gennep’s liminal space, feeling that the transition has not been properly completed. In the words of anthropologist Victor Turner, they are caught “between and between.”

In addition to their personal importance, rituals also play an important role in the formation of group identities. It could even be argued that the only time a conglomeration of individuals truly becomes a group is when performing collective rituals. After all, extended family members tend to only come together for events like weddings and funerals. Religious followers only gather to perform a sacred ceremony. And a student body only comes together to participate in a commencement.

Graduation ceremonies embody not only the sanctity of education and the importance of student achievement, but also the bonds that bind graduates to their institution and to their peers. As such, such gatherings may be more necessary than ever in a context strewn with divisions.