Commencement Traditions Change

High school and college seniors today are often graduated with a minimum of ceremony. But for our parents and grandparents commencement was an elaborate affair, with most graduates actively participating. Sometimes each senior prepared a special essay and delivered it from the platform to an audience of admiring friends and relatives.

John Nelson’s photograph, probably a graduation picture from 1907-17, depicts a large group of men holding rolled and tied diplomas. NSHS RG3542-72-4

John Nelson’s photograph, probably a graduation picture from 1907-17, depicts a large group of men holding rolled and tied diplomas. NSHS RG3542-72-4

These traditional student speeches, so painstakingly prepared, had their drawbacks. The Capital City Courier (Lincoln) on June 14, 1890, noted that the University of Nebraska had substituted an address by a well-known speaker not connected with the school. The Courier said:

“The State University introduced a commendable departure in commencement exercises this year. With thirty or forty graduates the faculty have been confronted with the trying task of selecting a half dozen to deliver commencement orations. Do as they will, this always leaves heart burnings and ill feeling. . . .  The class of ’90 asked the powers that be to do away with the ‘little pieces’ of the graduates and substitute, an oration by a speaker of national reputation. . . . The orator gave a fine address, full of sense and humor, and captivated his audience. No one of his hearers would willingly have lost it for the sake of listening to the efforts of the graduates.”

Not all approved of this new trend in commencement procedure. Omaha High School’s High School Register in October 1901 said, “The class of 1901 showed very poor judgment when they decided to ask for a speaker for commencement instead of having class representatives. We are surprised that the members of this class do not want to have a program consisting of interesting essays and orations by the most talented speakers which the High School has produced for many years.”

An invitation to commencement ceremonies at Union College of Law, Chicago, in 1883. William Jennings Bryan was a member of the graduating class. NSHS 3801-112

An invitation to commencement ceremonies at Union College of Law, Chicago, in 1883. William Jennings Bryan was a member of the graduating class. NSHS 3801-112

Read more of the Register’s arguments for retaining student speeches at commencement in a Timeline column on the Nebraska State Historical Society website. Generations of students (and the audiences at graduation ceremonies) are probably glad they’re gone. — Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications

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