Oh my dear Lord, it’s over! Finally! No more sadistic teachers assigning papers over the break. No more masochistic late nights catching up. The dues have been paid, and now it’s smooth sailing through life. Make yourself a nice drink with
an umbrella in it, and kick back.
Then let reality wash over you like a tidal wave. Job. Family. Postgraduate education. Really, what is this horrible thing called graduation but a lie – or at least it is a lie if we think of “graduation” as the end of something rather than a step on a long journey.
In fact, this is almost exactly what graduation means: to divide into degrees or steps. It used to refer to the gradual refining of a substance or element by several iterative steps, a process originating with alchemists seeking to either turn lead into gold, the old alchemical pipe dream, or to find the universal solvent that could dissolve anything.
In this sense, when you graduate, it means you have been treated, tempered, and refined into a being fit to meet the vicissitudes of the real world. But perhaps this sense is a little too self-aggrandizing – depending on who you ask, only 25 to 28 percent of Americans have graduated from some level of college. Is most of the country then supposed to be unprepared for life? I, for one, think they are.
Maybe a better way to look at graduation is through the lens of its linguistic origin. In Latin the word “gradus” refers to a level, or degree, and from this we get “grade,” a word we are all-too familiar with. So perhaps graduation just means to have received the grades, to have passed, which is factually the case. You do get a degree, and it is based on grades. But that is just a little boring, and too self-effacing. We all did a bit more than get a grade while at this university, or the cool kids did, anyway.
“Gradus” comes from an older word linguists have pieced together through years of research, the Proto-Indo-European “ghredh-,” which meant to go, wander, walk, or journey. It didn’t refer to some walk in the park either. The sense is more confrontational, like a quest or an ordeal, something that really grinds the gristle.
This ancient word remains entrenched in our language in more than just “graduation.” An entire array of words that use it: Progress, digress, degree, gradual, and regress, just to name a few. Congress is a particulay favorite, since its original sense, “to fight,” gives us a whole new bizarrely awesome take on the later sense of “sexual union.” At any rate, all of them retain this idea of never-ending, difficult, but usually worthwhile movement.
It is almost trite to say that graduation is just part of an ongoing ordeal, rather than the end – there’s a reason the graduation ceremony is called commencement. Still, this is what graduates have done. Wandered through a difficult and trying wilderness, and come out different – perhaps no more refined or perfected – but certainly changed, and hopefully for the better.