Friday, March 20, 2015

Graduation Time(s): Pomp and Imperialism (10 June 2014)

       It was my pleasure in late May of 2014 to see my great/grand-niece graduate Deerfield High School, in one of the more education-friendly of the Chicago suburbs. I was however, less than gleeful at attending another graduation ceremony.

            I taught at Miami University, Oxford, OH, for 35 years, and in many of those years we got the message, "Members of the University Senate" — all full-time faculty at that time — "are expected to attend commencement."

            Uh-huh. Are "expected to" by whom, and so what? Since that message was written on heavy and expensive paper with the University seal at the top and the President's signature at the bottom, I inferred that we were expected to attend by "The President and Trustees of The Miami University" (sic on the "The" there) and the upshot was, "Untenured assistant professor, get your ass to commencement."

            Miami U's 1971 commencement was the second college commencement I attended. My somewhat-older sister was very far along in her pregnancy with her first child when she would have gone through commencement and was discouraged from attending, and I attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where you got your bachelor's degree by having your college contingent stand and have it announced, as we wise-asses paraphrased it, "L-A-S stand up. You've all BA's and BS's. Sit down." Or something like that. I got my master's diploma from Cornell by mail, and I would've gone for my PhD ceremony except my father had a heart attack, and I was doing family things.

            (I picked up my diploma at the Illinois Admin. Building and recall the moment mostly for the tackiness of finding under my diploma the first "hit" letter from the Alumni and U of I Foundations. Illinois wasn't much into sentiment. Then again, Cornell solicited contributions with late-night phone calls — but those are other stories.)

            Anyway, the only commencement I attended before I became a faculty member was that of my friends from Cornell, in 1968. So I was there for the 1968 demonstrations and Cornell's 100th Commencement and the first and maybe only time they had an outside speaker to address the graduates: John Gardner, who'd been Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and was to move on to found Common Cause. He gave a good speech.

            In 1971, though, The Powers That Were at Miami U desired faculty to attend commencement — that varied from year to year, I found, depending on the demand for seating — and I was in no position in 1971 to resist that desire.

            Which gave me a common problem. I hadn't attended my PhD graduation and didn't own a cap and gown and hood and so rented them — and went to pick them up at Follett's and found they'd sent the wrong hood. "Sorry about that," the clerk said; "we'll give you a Miami PhD hood, no charge." And I told myself "Hey, that's a good deal; I won't have to pay for the hood. I mean, this is all bullshit; I don't take the medieval regalia seriously, and the dumb-ass status symbols" and then paused and said, "No thank you" and took the cap and gown and went out and asked around and borrowed the hood I'd earned: from Illinois at Urbana, a Big Ten and Big Time university.

            "I'm a hypocrite," I told myself; "I do care about such bullshit." And so within a few months I got myself the full outfit: gown and hood in black and Illinois's orange and blue, and the a blue velvet Frisbee with a big gold tassle for a PhD cap.

            And so I had a cap and gown and hood, and this eventually got me a job in the film industry — in another story that would further extend an already-too-long introduction — and which, relevantly, got me to attend a fair number of graduations: I paid $400 for that costume, and graduations and a couple events by The Society for Creative Anachronism were my only opportunity for wearing it.

            I figured out early on to bring some reading to graduation. I carried a small, inconspicuous book, although the first commencement exercise I attended I somehow ended up in the second or third row after the entry procession — we "processed" by rank and seniority, and I had little rank and no seniority — right behind a very large, very old, very senior professor who soon took out a copy of the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer, a full-size newspaper, and read it, turning the pages loudly. When the Miami President made his major speech, he could look down at the professor reading the fully extended comics section, making, I assume, some sort of retirement statement.

            I heard one really good commencement address at Miami, by Art Buchwald, and sat through pretty much interminable speechifying and the reading of names of recipients of advanced degrees.

            Miami was more personal than Illinois about handing out diplomas, but I don't think they read out the names of the various bachelors. I'm not sure. I'd learned in ROTC how to zone out during drill and had perfected the technique at a number of academic meetings — and I'd taken a quick course in Transcendental Meditation and had gotten pretty good at a kind of self hypnosis, so I wasn't exactly there for much of the ceremony.

            And, sometimes, I just got immersed in the book I'd brought.

            Anyway, by the time I got to my great/grand niece's graduation, there was just something about the striking up of "Pomp and Circumstances" that really got me emotional: a touch of foreboding, a dash of dread, and a bit of an adrenalin rush as the fight-or-flight reaction set in.

            So I found myself lustily singing the lyrics that I remembered from "Pomp and Circumstances" and really, really wanting to boot up my iPhone and look up the rest.

            "Land of ho-ope and glo-ry" I remembered, "mo-ther of the free," and then something something something, something ending with "God who ma-aaade thee migh-ty, make thee might-i-er yet" and "God who ma-aaade thee migh-ty, make thee might-i-er yet!"

            And then repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.

            I knew some of the words because "Pomp and Circumstances" had been one of the songs celebrated, so to speak, on an NPR broadcast on "One-Hit Wonders": songs by guys who'd written one big hit, and that was it. Not Edward Elgar, who'd done the music for "Pomp and Circumstances" and several more respectable works but — for 500 Trivia points give the name! — the guy who'd written the lyrics.

            Didn't get it, did you? It was and is A. C. Benson, writing in 1902, and however good a teacher and essayist and author of ghost stories and all-around nice guy Benson might've been, the "Land of Hope and Glory" lyrics to "Pomp and Circumstances" really suck.

            And, hey, I've taught "The Defence of Fort M'Henry (= all four stanza's of "The Star-Spangled Banner"), all of that Old English classic of jingoistic bad poetry, "The Battle of Brunanbruh," and excerpts from Michael Wigglesworth's versification of Puritan doctrine in "The Day of Doom." I also got to listen to anti-war protest poetry that I found just about physically painful, so trust me here: in terms of lyrics, we're talking bad. Maybe not "MacArthur Park" bad, but bad.

            Have a read:
                               Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
                               How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
                               Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
                               God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
                               God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

There are solos as well as the Chorus, and they are worse, but let's stick with the Chorus, 'cause that's what I'll be singing if I turn up at one more graduation (along with belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner," since I get a kick out of the fact that I know the lyrics better than the jingoes who get all choked up over the song).

            The land of hope and glory referred to in 1902 was not the United States but the British Empire, and the Wikipedia entry correctly notes that the song was created "contemporaneous with the publication of Cecil Rhodes' will—in which he bequeathed his considerable wealth for the specific purpose of promoting 'the extension of British rule throughout the world', and added a long detailed list of territories which Rhodes wanted brought under British rule and colonised by British people. The reference to the extension of the British Empire's boundaries may reflect the Boer War, recently won at the time of writing, in which Britain gained further territory, endowed with considerable mineral wealth."

            The Brits, of course, ran into a couple world wars, and their imperial bounds became narrower and narrower. Indeed, those bounds may soon get to where we can no longer speak of "the Brits": there's a fair chance the United Kingdom will disunite into its constituent nations of Scotland, England, and Wales, and the English may yet lose what a fair number of people where I grew up thought of as "the occupied counties" in the north of Ireland.
            It was we Americans who, arguably, took up "the White Man's burden" as Rudyard Kipling advised in 1899 and got into the empire business with a westward movement that got as far as the Philippines. And, arguably, it was the products of America's colleges and universities who provided and still provide the imperial staffs for the wider and wider bounds of the American territory of "Hope and Glory."

            So "Pomp and Circumstances" for a long time was appropriate for American graduations: the stirring music with the imperialistic lyrics forgotten or — far more often — never known, but always there as a subtext. That subtext was made explicit about 2004, in comments reported by Ron Suskind. An aide to President George W. Bush, plausibly identified as Karl Rove, said that reporters and analysts and academics like Suskind were part of what movers and shakers like Rove "call 'the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' ... 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

            Kipling knew better than Rove — or whatever arrogant American if not Rove — about the realities of empire in 1899 and was to learn more when the son he worked so hard to get into British imperial forces died in "The Great War" in 1915. And, I think we Americans who are not Karl Rove and the neocons and movers and shakers are learning. We may still want the hope and to be free, but ever-expanding "glory" comes at too high a price.

            We might want to get a new tune for graduations in the United States: maybe John Philip Sousa's internationalist but thoroughly American "Hands Across the Sea" or something short and relatively innocuous while a group more colorful but smaller than the whole damn graduating class march in. An academic procession, after all, is a good idea: it has the nice symbolism of everyone ending up more or less in the right place, without ever being in lock step. We should keep that, but cut "Pomp and Circumstances," and all of the echoes of expanding imperial glory.

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