Skip to navigationSkip to content

ℹ️ You’re reading Quartz Essentials: quick, engaging outlines of the most important topics affecting the global economy.


Published This article is more than 2 years old.
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 1

    Graduation ceremonies have a low entertainment value for how highly anticipated they are. More simply put, they tend to be very dull apart from the few moments that focus on the graduate you’re there to celebrate. The class of 2020—and likely the class of 2021, as social distancing keeps gatherings to small sizes—may be saved some of the tedium of sitting in the hot sun in a long black robe. They will, though, be missing out on a real rite of passage.

    Most graduates haven’t stepped foot in a physical classroom in weeks, and many won’t get to wear the ceremonial cap, let alone toss it in the air. They may be looking ahead to a virtual ceremony, take part in a drive-through graduation or a graduate parade, or listen to Barack Obama or Lil Nas X deliver televised commencement speeches.

    It’s a huge break with traditions that date back centuries, and that note the shift from one phase of life to another, whether that’s the transition between schools, or from educational institutions to the workforce. How graduation ceremonies continue to evolve remains to be seen, but for now they’re certain to be marked less by pomp and more by the circumstances.

    1 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 2

    1.5 seconds: Time MIT spends on each graduate’s name before moving on

    2,400: Students in a typical MIT graduating class

    200,000: Bachelor’s degrees conferred in the US in 1940

    1.9 million: Students in the US who received a bachelor’s degree in 2019

    8.7 million: Expected college graduates in China in 2020

    $135,000: Commencement speech fee (plus travel expenses and an agent’s fee) the University of Houston paid University of Texas, Austin grad Matthew McConaughey in 2015

    € 595: Price of a doctoral hat at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland

    € 245: Price of a doctoral sword

    2 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 3

    Although some institutions are sticking to their original commencement plans, the CDC recommends canceling events with more than 250 people to limit the spread of Covid-19, meaning most graduation ceremonies are a no-go.

    So how are grads planning to celebrate? Many are doing what they’ve done throughout quarantine—substitute long-planned rituals with makeshift celebrations in backyards and living rooms. Some universities are working to curate and share videos of students celebrating with their families. With the move to virtual spaces, all commencements can be star-studded affairs, like the planned live-streamed ceremony that will feature Oprah, Miley Cyrus, Awkwafina, and Jennifer Garner on May 15.

    Virtual graduations have taken a nontraditional path, as well. Following the example set by a Japanese elementary school, many university Minecraft clubs in the US have built replicas of their campuses (down to food trucks and local sculptures). Come May, they’ll be hosting their ceremonies on the “Quaranteen University” server, specifically made to host all Class of 2020 graduations. They were up to representatives from 278 institutions by the end of March, The Verge reports.

    3 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 4

    “Maybe the boredom serves a kind of function—that is, your child walking across the stage becomes a more peak moment against the backdrop of the boredom. That’s about as generous as I can be.”

    George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, to The Atlantic

    “We never got a last day. We never got a prom. I might not see any of my teachers again or any of my friends.”

    Abbey Shea, a senior at Spruce Creek High in Port Orange, told USA Today of her graduation feelings.

    4 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 5

    What does it mean to be a modern worker? Before Covid-19, the phrase connoted a certain frame of mind—the kind shared by people who have a deep relationship with their work; who derive some portion of their identity from it; who want their teams equipped with tools to make them as creative and productive as possible, for love of the work or sense of purpose as much as for profit. Now it seems we are all modern workers, whether on laptops in living rooms, on the frontlines of healthcare, or on apps that allow us to patch together gig jobs or network for new opportunities, all the while trying to not only balance work and life but to do it simultaneously. Quartz at Work gets down to business in a new weekly email newsletter called The Memo.

    5 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 6

    Salutatorian: The student with the second-highest grade point average, typically speaks first at the commencement ceremony.

    Valedictorian: The student who receives the highest grade point average, and who traditionally has the speech which closes the ceremony.

    Abitur: The exams students in Germany take in order to attend university.

    Tam: The hat that a student receiving their doctorate wears on graduation day. They can have four, six, or eight sides.

    Mortarboard: The square cap that is traditionally associated with graduation. It gets its name from the shape, which was similar to the device masons used to hold mortar.

    Studenterhue: The Dutch student cap which comes in two colors: black (for the winter uniform) and white (for summertime). There are 27 public rules and traditions around when to wear your hat, and how to treat it.

    The last bell: The colloquial shorthand for graduation in Russia.

    H.A.G.S.: Yearbook shorthand for “have a great summer!”

    6 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 7

    If you’ve ever been honored in a graduation ceremony, and been cooked under the hot sun wearing stuffy, starchy robes, you may have wondered why we expect grads to wear them at all. The use of the graduation gown began in the 12th century, specifically in response to the opposite problem: During the 1100s, universities lacked sufficient heating. So scholars and graduates took to wearing long robes with hoods to stay warm. Think Hogwarts, but make it medieval and a lot less magical.

    Though the 12th century would be when gowns became the “official” attire of academics, the graduation cap wouldn’t be adopted until a few hundred years later. They became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, donned by many artists and students to signify intelligence (and, for some, a smug sense of superiority). They emulated the “biretta” hat commonly worn by Roman Catholic clergy, and so they were commonly red to signify blood and life.

    It wouldn’t be until 1894 that the American Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia to agree to some sort of standardization for the country’s robes and hoods. Today, every school has its own way of distinguishing degrees and areas of study based on the style, material, and embellishments of robes, caps, gowns, and hoods worn by graduates and faculty.

    7 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 9

    If you’ve ever watched new graduates toss their hard-cornered hats into the air and winced, your instincts are correct. The tradition didn’t start with dangerously hard-edged mortarboards, but with softer Navy hats.

    We can date the tossing of the graduation caps back to the Naval Academy in 1912. “Before then, graduates had to serve a couple of years as midshipmen in the fleet before they could be commissioned as officers, so they needed to (literally) hang onto their hats,” according to Southern Living. The class of 1912, however, got to throw their hats with reckless abandon—they didn’t need to worry about getting them back. The tradition really took off, and now many graduates are stuck dodging sharp edges and trying to get their carefully decorated mortarboard back. After the toss at the Naval Academy, children are allowed to race in and try to claim a hat. So a lot of newly minted Annapolis grads pin an inspirational quote or even money to them.

    8 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 10

    Graduates in Argentina wear clothes they don’t care about to the ceremony—so they can properly celebrate by being pelted by their families and friends with things like eggs, glitter, flour, ketchup, and shaving cream.

    9 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 11

    The Business Breakthrough University in Japan dealt with the challenge of commencement in the time of Covid-19 by hosting a “robot graduation,” where students marched by remotely controlling robots from their homes.

    10 of 11
  • Quartz Obsession — Graduation — Card 12

    Every year the students of the Kanazawa College of Art in Japan, wear elaborate costumes to their graduation ceremony. They’re so creative that it’s become a local media event, with reporters interviewing graduates dressed as comely zombies, Sailor Moon characters, or Pokémon. Whether it’s robots, or robot costumes, seems like all the best graduations are in Japan.

    11 of 11