Academic dress could be the feather in our cap

1st January 2016 at 00:00
Universities still recognise the ritual value of gowns and mortar boards – and teachers should follow suit to reinforce their intellectual standing

Back In 2003, the University of Oxford held an election to appoint its next chancellor. The office is nearly as old as the institution itself, but on this occasion, there was to be an innovation. Although the electorate (essentially, all of Oxford’s living graduates and academic employees) were still required to attend Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre in person to cast their ballot, they were freed of the obligation to wear academic gowns while doing so.

Such freedom from what some might see as fusty constraints was mildly deplored by some in the university. It was spectacularly rejected by the master and fellows of All Souls College, who emerged from their gates, resplendent in all the hoods and robes they were entitled to, and marched in file to vote, which they were permitted to do.

But as one aspect of Oxford’s ritual culture was abandoned, another was reinforced when, also in 2003, a new vice-chancellor was installed, who – for the first time – was not a former head of an Oxford college. As a result, his gown had to be specially commissioned, since otherwise, in the words of one aghast academic, the vice-chancellor-elect was “entitled to a gown no more impressive than that of a clerk!” A golden filigree confection was thus born, later enriched by a fine stole bearing the crests of all the university’s colleges. The latest vice-chancellor still wears it.

Oxford’s students, too, are bound by strict requirements to wear full academic dress, including either a commoner’s (cuts off at the waist, no arms) or a scholar’s (cuts off just below the waist, big flappy arms) gown, both to be formally inducted into the university and to sit their exams in order to get out a degree out of it.

Of course, it is not just Britain’s oldest university that clings to its gowns: university graduation ceremonies the world over endorse the value of a little bit of ritual dressing up, ranging in level of ostentation from black with extra fur, through to rich crimson, up to one institution of higher learning (which shall remain nameless) whose graduates are entitled to a sort of sky-blue kaftan and lampshade option. If Wall Street had been set in a university, Michael Douglas might have found himself in pinstripes overlaid with a flowing black coverall declaring, “Gowns are good.”

But where you don’t see gowns much anymore is schools. You did once, and of course our older public schools still maintain the tradition – if you wish to see a piece of ritual theatre as ancient and solemn as anything from Oxford, Westminster School’s annual founders’ Mass at the Abbey is awash with the begowned in sombre parade – but state schools have long since dispensed with the notion of teachers wearing gowns at all.

I think that this is immensely sad. As their continued use in universities suggests, gowns are no meaningless frippery: they speak to the status of the wearer as a qualified member of an educated community. On the most formal of ceremonial days, the full regalia of gowns with hoods allows the interested observer to detect the qualifications of all those gathered, but even the day-to-day observation of a plain black gown hung on a tutor’s door is a constant reminder of that person’s effort and engagement with their subject.

Teachers ought to be entitled to some part of this profound symbolism, too. Teachers all possess degrees. They are entitled to the gowns of their academic station, and they are entitled, too, to make clear to each other, to their students and to the wider community that they have valid and valuable academic qualifications and merit a certain level of respect for them.

Symbolic power

In general, state schools seem to pay too little attention to the value of ritual and symbolism, although schools are, of course, awash with it – whole-school assemblies can be found in every state school in the land, and although I have often seen their potential thrown away through ill-thought-out messages or bad planning, these moments of communal togetherness reveal to our students who we are and what we value.

Are students welcomed to the stage to receive a commendation in a respectful silence or are the certificates just sort of handed out casually, as if we’re all a bit embarrassed by them? Do teachers sit among their students on an equal footing to their charges for those moments, or do they stand around the edges as observant overlords? Or do they not come along at all, providing no role models for students on how they should behave at such events?

Gowns are a less direct form of ritual than the ceremony of an assembly, but they could be significant, nonetheless. Teachers are not their pupils’ friends, or fellow students, or parents, but something else that combines aspects of all of these and significantly more. They are entitled to respect for their academic accomplishments and for their work; a mark of the distinction of their role and of their own achievements would, I think, be no bad thing.

I don’t imagine schools will be rushing to reintroduce the gown for their staff, but I do hope that more people start to wonder why universities have kept them and we have not. After all, are our greatest houses of learning those places with the richest research or those where the foundational work of learning for life is done? Why should university colleagues be resplendent in their gowns and teachers be left in the cold?

John David Blake is a history leading practitioner and a writer on education @johndavidblake

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