Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 January 2021
In May 2016, the University of east Anglia banned the tossing of mortarboards, citing safety concerns. At that university, the practice of ending a convocation ceremony with a spirited whirl of mortarboards into the air had become a beloved tradition. According to the administration, which together with the photographer handling graduating events provided a detailed explanation to the students of how they should mime the throw (the mortarboards would be photoshopped into the picture later), the issue was one of safety. The university also noted that damaged mortarboards were being returned to the rental agency. The most striking comment offered in response came from Louisa Baldwin, president of the Law Society at the university, who remarked, “If I’ve paid £45 to hire a bit of cloth and card for the day, I should be able to chuck my hat in the air! It's nothing worse than the weekly ritual of dodging VKs as they’re lobbed across the LCR dance floor.”8 In other words, tossing mortarboards is a convocation tradition, and a part of the ritual of graduation that students thoroughly enjoy, even though all those mortarboards rising into the air have to come back down again, with their pointed corners stabbing into the heads, eyes, hairdos, and shoulders of the new graduates below. It's a tradition. It's a ritual. It's part of the liturgy of convocation.
Liturgy and ritual are terms that cause some disquiet in the modern mind, but they are fundamental to human endeavours. Rituals can be small ones, such as the tossing of mortarboards or the assembly of the right pens and pencils for the writing of an examination, or they can be extensive systemic patterns of behaviour that establish membership in a community, offer a sense of security and belonging, and provide an individual with faith for the present and the future. A liturgy is a formal pattern of behaviour with some fixed elements that are required in all repetitions of that pattern, and variable elements that depend upon the day of the year or the purpose of the particular enactment. For example, the liturgy that is enacted every summer day in North America is the baseball game.