The Spirit & Spectacle of Harvard Commencement
by Marvin Hightower ’69
Like endless ribbons, lines wrap about the Yard as Harvard celebrates Commencement Exercises in the Tercentenary Theatre.
Black-robed BAs. Crimson-clad PhDs. Scholars’ garb from round the world bursting forth like brilliant bows. Here, the Sorbonne’s red and blue. There, a flash of Oxonian ermine. And where on earth can one get so strange a piece of headgear? Why, it doesn’t even have a mortarboard!
What is this package called “Commencement?” Whence these traipsings and trappings? The clear-cut lines of history can snip ribbons and bows alike to give us a glimpse inside the box.
Although founded in 1636, Harvard did not hold its first Commencement until September 23, 1642 (Julian date, equal to October 3 Gregorian). In so doing, the College gave the country its first taste of nonreligious European ritual. The “taste” went far beyond mere metaphor. “A prominent feature of the Commencement [was] a feast,” writes the late historian Samuel Eliot Morison in “Three Centuries of Harvard.”
Charles A. Wagner sets the scene for us in “Harvard: Four Centuries and Freedoms”:
The academic procession on that far distant September morning of 1642 counted the nine “commencers,” four juniorsophisters, and eight or ten freshmen, with a motley audience of visitors from Boston and all the settlements nearby; ministers, Indians, residents, parents, and gloating familiars. The people made it a holiday of annual joy in learning. And there were orations by the commencers in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Then, in the afternoon session, came the series of disputations in Latin between commencers on many of the age-old topics of the theses philosophicae and philologicae.
Fine! But what of “commencement” itself? The word reflects the meaning of the Latin inceptio (“beginning”), the name given the ceremony of initiation for new scholars into the fellowship of university teachers in medieval Europe. The event marked the commencement or “inception” of their full-fledged academic lives. Describing the period from 1680 to 1708 in “Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century,” Morison reports that
Between the two halves of the exercises, Commencement dinner was served in college hall, at the expense of those taking degrees, to both Governing Boards, returning graduates, and distinguished strangers…. The President opened the feast by “craving a blessing,” and at the end “gave thanks.” Next, the company sang a psalm…. Finally, there came the pleasant old ceremony of handing around the loving cup, or grace cup, as it was then called. It was the Governor’s privilege to start it on the rounds, with a little speech.
Such gastronomic delights remain with us in present-day “alumni spreads” in the Yard, which trace back deep as the tree roots over which the festivities transpire. In times past, Commencement was the most joyous, even raucous, event of the summer. Searching for an aptly evocative image of the 1745 capture of Louisburg, Dr. William Douglass quipped in 1749 that “the Siege was carried on in a tumultuary random Manner, and resembled a Cambridge Commencement.”
Samuel F. Batchelder wryly agrees in “Bits of Harvard History” (1924):
Our fathers, we may observe, closely associated the thirst for learning and that for beer; at the 1703 Commencement the few graduates present absorbed no less than fourteen barrels. Had the parching sirocco of Prohibition arisen earlier, drying up the very sap of erudition -- but the academic mind turns away in horror.
The Class of 1703 found room for a barrel of cider and 18 gallons of wine as well.
Clearly, Harvard’s puritanical President Increase Mather (in office 1685-1701) had failed to quash the cakes and ale. Amid many belches, Falstaff prevailed. Recording his valiant efforts to bottle up the uncorked spirits of the occasion, Mather lamented: “I endeavoured the Reformation of those excesses … [of] Commencement day and weeke at the Colledge, so that I might [prevent] disorder and profaneness.”
Alas, poor Increase, seeking decrease, found no surcease. By the early 18th century (often described in course catalogs as the Age of Reason), a poem entitled “Satyricall Description of Commencement” evoked the prevailing atmosphere:
All sizes and each sex the Ways do throng
And black and white ride jib by jole along …
The nut-brown Country Nymphs and rural swains …
Appear there on this celebrated Day.
In 1797 a live elephant was brought from Providence, Rhode Island, to be exhibited at Commencement, along with people dressed as mermaids and mummies, and displays of two-headed calves. The Indians of Natick were invited to compete with Harvard scholars in prize competitions of target shooting with bows and arrows. The Indians won.
Both in nature and in numbers, things look somewhat different today. Still, to a discerning eye, past and present stroll hand in hand down the Yard’s dappled lanes, as the academic procession gets under way in the midmorning sun. Although 1642 lies more than 350 years behind us, Commencement numbering progressively fell more and more out of step as exercises were omitted for reasons ranging from war to plague. In 1644 the College found no candidates fit to commence upon any course of action in the world. The cumulative effect is that 2001, for example, marks only the 350th Harvard Commencement.
As recently as Francis Sargent’s 1970 attendance, the Governor of Massachusetts traditionally arrived at Commencement with 17th-century mounted, scarlet-coated guard, which escorted him from the State House to the Johnston Gate. The guard bore pikes, somewhat less useful today than when Governor Thomas Dudley rode to the first Commencement despite warnings of possible ambush by Indians.
Divided into four parts, the academic parade includes candidates for the bachelor’s degree, candidates for advanced degrees, alumni and alumnae, and the President’s Procession. Candidates for advanced degrees gather behind Sever Hall and proceed to their seats in the center right of the Theatre. The University Band, the senior speakers, the senior class officers, candidates for summa cum laude, and four Houses lead the way, advancing to form double files from the center of the Yard diagonally to the southeast corner of University Hall back to Stoughton and down to Hollis. Through these double ranks pass alumni, alumnae, and the President’s Procession. (Only the President’s Procession marches through all three groups of seniors.)
Alumni and alumnae pass to seats on the left (west) side of the Theatre, the President’s Procession advances to the platform on the South Porch of The Memorial Church, and seniors enter last to sit on the left of the center aisle.
The Sheriffs of Middlesex and Suffolk counties lead the President’s Procession, which consists of five parts. University Marshal Jacqueline O’Neill follows, escorting President Lawrence S. Bacow and any former Harvard President who may attend. Next come members of the two Governing Boards -- the Fellows of Harvard College (who, with the President and the Treasurer, form the Corporation), and the Reverend and Honorable Board of Overseers.
In 1642 and throughout the Colonial Era, the Board of Overseers consisted of the honorable members of the Great and General Court of the Bay Colony and the reverend clergy of the Colony’s six leading towns: Boston, Cambridge, Charlestown, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Watertown. Harvard’s break with church and state became final in the mid-19th century; and while no officially “Honorable” Massachusetts legislator nor any “Reverend” minister from the six towns sits on the Board of Overseers today, it remains “The Reverend and Honorable” in deference to tradition. The Governor of the Commonwealth, formerly President of the Overseers, still has a place immediately behind the Governing Boards.
Candidates for honorary degrees and their faculty escorts immediately follow the Governor, forming the second part of the President’s Division. The names of honorary degree candidates remain secret until Commencement Day. By tradition established when Harvard’s first honorary degree went to Benjamin Franklin in 1753, the recipients include men and women distinguished in public life, the arts, letters, science, and scholarship.
To herald the arrival of the presidential procession in the Tercentenary Theatre, the Band bursts forth with brass fanfare from the steps of Widener. Even when a President of the United States attends, the Band plays fanfares for Harvard’s President alone.
In the third and fourth parts of the President’s Division march the Deans and Vice Presidents of the University; then faculty members according to rank. From senior professors to junior faculty, they tread in measured cadence, clad in velvet and ermine-trimmed academic robes with the silk-lined hoods of universities the world over. Holders of Harvard graduate degrees wear crimson. When a scholar earns higher degrees elsewhere, he or she may wear gowns and silken hoods bearing the colors of other universities. Other officers of the University follow the faculty.
The fifth section brings former members of the Governing Boards, past professors, and former alumni and alumnae association officers, along with the Phi Beta Kappa President and Orator, and the Trustee of the Charity of Edward Hopkins. (Hopkins was a Massachusetts Governor who gave Harvard $500 in 1657; his generosity still touches members of the College in the form of “deturs,” undergraduate prizes for high scholarship.) Filling out the last section are “Ministers of the Six Towns” and clergy of the “Old Cambridge” churches, consuls to Boston, state and federal judges, past honorary-degree recipients, public officials, and other guests.
In this academic panoply, the late columnist Joseph Alsop ’32 saw “a sort of living summary of all the forces, public and private, civic and religious, which have promoted the rich and fruitful growth of education in America.”
Up the steps of the banner-draped platform the President’s Procession wends its way. There, President Bacow sits in the Jacobean chair used at every Commencement since the time of President Edward Holyoke (in office 1737-1769). After an invocation, the Commencement Choir intones an anthem. Two seniors then deliver speeches -- one in Latin, the other in English. An advanced-degree candidate also gives an address in English. Students of high standing compete for the honor of delivering these Commencement “parts.”
The “parts” are all that remains of the medieval exercise of “commencers” performing public “acts.” Scholars taking the first academic degree had to submit to a third-degree grilling by their professors during the actual Inceptiones (Commencement Exercises). Young scholars were required to defend their theses, a task for which they prepared over several weeks with their tutors in an early form of final examinations called “sitting solstices.” Theses to be defended were printed and distributed in advance (the Harvard Commencement program still lists all successfully defended doctoral theses), and the youths had to vow to defend their work against all comers.
As Morison points out in “Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century,” “A Commencement Oration or disputation was naturally a very important event in a young man’s life, for in the absence of other academic honors or extracurricular activities, his elders who had jobs to give were apt to judge him on his public performance that day.” Times have obviously changed.
The first scholar in the class traditionally gave an oration in Greek, while other scholars spoke to the assembly in Latin and Hebrew. Every student studied all three classical tongues. Latin was the language not only of the first disputations and thesis defenses but also of the President when he conferred degrees. Harvard students had to study Latin until 1883, the Commencement program was in Latin from 1866 to 1943 (preceded by mixed English and Latin), and College diplomas came in Latin until 1960.
After another anthem from the Choir, President Bacow rises from the knobby chair and steps forward to confer degrees. Graduate degrees are conferred in the order in which the various schools were established. However, to pay tribute to the central role of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, its Ph.D., A.M., and Extension degrees are the first bestowed. Likewise, in recognition of the special place of the Colleges, bachelor’s degrees are conferred last, after a fourth anthem. Each degree recipient receives a diploma at separate ceremonies held at the Houses and the various graduate schools later in the day.
A third anthem, which comes between conferrals in Arts and Sciences and those in the other graduate schools, is a metrical rendering of Psalm 78. Some version of the Psalm has been sung at every Commencement since at least the early 18th century and possibly earlier. The words recall the dedication and resolve of the New England divines who officiated at the first Commencement.
The President confers the degrees with a different pronouncement for each group of candidates as they rise to receive their award. Doctoral candidates are welcomed “to the ancient and universal company of scholars,” while graduates of the Law School are bidden to “aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make us free.” Like thousands before them, seniors of the latest undergraduate class are admitted to “the fellowship of educated men and women.”
Honorary degrees are the last bestowed. The audience then stands to sing the “Harvard Hymn” in Latin. Lyricist James Bradstreet Greenough, Class of 1856, had a practical bent that no fund-raiser could fail to applaud: “Largiantur donatores” (“Let the benefactors be liberal”) goes one line of it. Following the benediction, final preparations for the buffet luncheons get under way as the Band sounds the recessional.
And thus we come full circle. For between morning and afternoon exercises falls the shadow: “cakes and ale,” as it were. Colonial cakes have given way to mounds of potato salad, barnyards of chicken, glaciers of ice cream. But alumni/ae, graduate schools, and undergraduate Houses still find suitable quantities of liquid to sustain many a Commencement Day toast. Harvard Commencement thus remains a singular commingling of solemnity and festivity, tradition and modernity. Mather might countenance the day’s more solemn traditions. As for the rest, pax, good Increase!