On May 11, 1970, the Grinnell Herald-Register ran a front page story under the headline, “In ‘grave political and educational crisis’ – College Suspends Classes in Face of Unrest.” I was a member of the college’s senior class that year, and we did not have a commencement. I did not enjoy leisurely good-byes with classmates and professors, last walks around campus and town, or hear the words of our chosen commencement speaker, the renowned author Kurt Vonnegut.
On March 16, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming reality, the Grinnell Herald-Register ran a front page story about the college under the headline, “Students Poised for Distance Learning,” and “Faculty readying to teach students to learn remotely.” I am one of those faculty members. Tucked into the story was the simple sentence, “The college will not hold a traditional commencement.”
In 1970 my parents planned on coming out from Chicago to attend my commencement. Although my father had finished college, my mother’s hopes of doing so had been dashed by the Great Depression’s impact on her father’s small cleaning-and-dyeing business on Chicago’s North Side. So to see her only child cross the platform and receive his diploma . . . you can imagine her disappointment when I phoned them to say it had been cancelled.
Today, another cohort of Grinnell College seniors — and many other college seniors around the country — has had to cram good-byes and last walks around campus and town into a few days. Like my class, they have had to adjust to an abrupt change to a long-anticipated conclusion
of their college education, and they and their parents and families to the cancellation of a traditional rite of passage.
To a great extent our social lives are structured around rituals, from church services to weddings to Thanksgiving dinners to high school graduations. Rituals infuse our lives with pattern and predictability, and they forge social ties among us. What happens, then, when an expected ritual doesn’t happen?
First, it announces that something is wrong, that things are not normal. Indeed, something must be wrong in a big way to lead those in charge to cancel a ritual, especially one that happens only once a year.
A second consequence is that people are left more on their own to come to terms with the cancellation and the reasons for it. “What does it mean?” “What do I do now?” “Will I see these people again?” Even if you are able see those similarly affected (less possible in the current pandemic), it is not the same as being part of an entire group that experiences the ritual together. Going through a ritual as part of a group reaffirms and strengthens social bonds.
A third consequence, a result of the first two, is anxiety. In 1970, we were anxious about the conflict in Vietnam and about social unrest at home. Male students worried about getting drafted to fight a war they thought was wrong and that had no end in sight. Needless to say, the anxiety was widespread, not unique to that year’s graduating seniors.
So is the anxiety today. It is even more ubiquitous, entering literally every dwelling place in the nation. And at this point, although we expect an end to the pandemic, there is again no end in sight. We wonder, as we did in 1970 about the war, how many more lives will be lost? What long-term effects – economic, political, social, spiritual — will this have on the country? What will I do when it is over?
There is another thing a commencement ritual offers to its participants: closure, a symbolic ending to a chapter in one’s life. In 1970, even without a commencement, of course we knew that we had graduated. We received a diploma in the mail, emblazoned with the college’s insignia and signed by the college’s president. This year’s graduating seniors will receive no less. But without the ritual the closure is never publicly marked and remains diluted and diffuse.
There is one final irony about my own Grinnell College graduating class. Not only was our commencement cancelled, so is our 50th year college reunion. I can fully empathize with the graduating class of 2020. I wish them all the best, and I hope that their 50th college reunion in 2070 will be a joyful return to our campus and to our jewel of the prairie community.
Grinnell College class of 1970
Grinnell faculty member 1974-2020