Graduation 2020

This weekend is Graduation for UAS, and it’s a different graduation than normal.  I am missing the gathering of graduates with their friends and family, the speeches giving inspiration of the future, and the coming together to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates.  Instead we are going virtual.  

Commencement 2020

It won’t quite be the same, but in the virtual ceremony we are going to be reminded of the live Graduation we prepare for annually. In today’s Faculty Learning Corner, I wanted to look at a few elements of Graduation, from a historical point of view.

Pomp and Circumstance

Sir Edward Elgar sitting in front of a piano

There is one piece played at every graduation I have ever been to…. Pomp and Circumstance. This graduation song is actually Sir Edward Elgar’s 1901 composition “March No. 1 in D Major.” This march was actually a small portion of his “Pomp and Circumstance Military March” series that he worked on for close to 30 years of his career as a composer.

Album cover of a vinyl record containing Pomp and Circumstance

If you are wondering how this one tune became the iconic graduation piece, it all started when Elgar received an invitation to come to Yale’s commencement in 1905, and receive an honorary doctorate. Yale decided to honor their guest by having the New Haven Symphony Orchestra play parts of Elgar’s compositions as students marched in and out of the ceremony. People enjoyed the tune so much that it soon spread to other schools’ graduations. I can’t think of graduation without Pomp and Circumstance, and you will hear it in virtual graduations as well!


You’ve probably heard that to get that job you need to have your “sheepskin.” This is due to the history of paper!

Early paper was pretty fragile and difficult to make, but parchment was both plentiful and durable. Parchment, of course, is made from the skin of a sheep, goat, or calf, and its durability made it ideal for a keepsake like a diploma. We call diplomas “sheepskin” because they were originally written on thin sheepskin.

Having a diploma that was durable was important in earlier centuries, because it showed that you were educated and had specialized knowledge. It was very important to have proof of this, and so graduates would carry them around with them. It gave the graduate needed proof of having a university degree (typically for traveling overseas).

Creating the diploma was not a simple process. The process of creating a diploma included hiring a calligrapher to write up the necessary Latin inscription on the sheepskin paper. The graduate would then need to pay the university president for his signature.

The school’s president and other officials signed the diplomas which were written entirely in Latin. Older diplomas before the 1800s were all different shapes and sizes.

Mortar Board

The mortarboard hat at graduation is thought to be a centuries-old tradition that originated in the Middle Age stonemason apprenticeship schools of Europe. It is believed that this old tradition occurred when the stonemason apprentice graduated to the degree level of ‘Master Mason.’

In the stonemason’s working world, the mortarboard is a flat piece of wood measuring about twenty-four inches square. It is usually placed on a stand on the scaffolding near the wall being built. The mortarboard held the wet mortar until the stone setter applied it to the stones with the Mason’s trowel. The setter then placed the mortared stone into the wall. After the mortar dried around the stone, a strong solid wall was formed.

A skullcap was a brimless cloth cap typically worn in the ancient stonemason’s day. Taken together, the mortarboard and skull cap look exactly like a modern graduation cap. Today’s graduation caps are even called ‘mortarboard hats.’ 


It is also thought that the mortarboard’s historical roots can also be traced to the medieval square biretta worn by both clergy and laity to indicate social status. As the affairs of the Church and academe became separated over the centuries, so did their hats. The biretta was modified and became the headwear of the clergy, and the mortarboard (or flattened square tam) became the hat of the academic. 

Throwing your motarboard in the air

It’s thought that the practice of throwing the mortarboard in the air at the end of the ceremony started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduation. For the first time the Navy gave the newly commissioned graduates their officers’ hats at graduation, so they no longer needed the midshipmen’s caps they’d been wearing for the past four years. To show how pleased they were, the new officers tossed their old headgear up in the air.

Is throwing your mortarboard actually dangerous?

Apparently so. “Don’t throw your cap!”may sound like ominous “You’ll shoot your eye out” kind of nagging from your mom, but the pointed caps have been know to cause injuries. England’s Anglia Ruskin University banned cap-tossing in 2008 after a student received stitches when a mortarboard hit him on the head, and there have been many cases of facial injuries, including retinal trauma. Don’t throw your mortarboard!!!!

I hope you enjoyed this special graduation edition of the Faculty Learning Corner. Enjoy Graduation this weekend!!!