Why do we hold graduation ceremonies? You don’t have to attend the ceremony to collect your degree; your education would be just as complete without it. Why do we maintain this seemingly needless ritual?
Philosopher Elijah Millgram argues that the ceremony provides a motivation to persist through an otherwise uninspiring mountain of work. Education is a “jam-yesterday-jam-tomorrow” good — we value it when it’s in our future or in our past, but the experience itself is often stressful, difficult, or boring. “On any given occasion, a student is likely to be plowing through a hard-to-read book, or writing a difficult paper, or trying not to doze off in lecture,” he writes. “The education is all these things, and is correctly understood to be a great (and an intrinsic) good; but it is hard to stay focused on its value just because one does not see it, moment to moment.”
The graduation ceremony, with its colors, music, and ritual, provides a highly visible “dummy goal” that helps to motivate students to complete their requirements. Without it, the vague prospect of “jam tomorrow” — the promised satisfaction of holding a degree — might be too little to spur some students to finish their studies. “If students had to make their own moment-to-moment decisions as to whether to read the book, or write the paper, or stay in the lecture, on the basis of its intangible contribution to their education,” Millgram writes, “they would be all too likely to put off the unpleasant tasks to some other time.”
(Elijah Millgram, “Virtue for Procrastinators,” in Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, eds., The Thief of Time, 2010.)
Rousseau asks: Suppose that you and I hunt a stag. This requires long hours lying in wait along the trail, and it entails the risk that the stag will not appear. If, after some time has passed, a hare appears, either of us could seize it, abandoning the hope of capturing the stag but getting an immediate meal for himself. To hunt the stag successfully we have to agree to trust one another, knowing that each of us has an immediate reason to betray the other.
This gets even harder when many people are involved. David Hume writes, “Two neighbors may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each others mind, and each may perceive that the immediate consequence of failing in his part is the abandoning of the whole project. But ’tis difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action.”
How did our society ever get off the ground when cooperation requires a faith in one another that simple self-reliance does not? It seems that our very rationality makes such a leap harder: Animals such as social insects work harmoniously together, but “the agreement of these creatures is natural,” writes Thomas Hobbes. “That of men is by covenant only, which is artificial.”
No one knows who devised the cross-references in William Hawkins’ 1795 Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, but he was either very wry or very cynical:
Cattle see Clergy.
Chastity see Homicide.
Coin see High Treason.
Convicts see Clergy.
Death see Appeal.
Election see Bribery.
Fear see Robbery.
Footway see Nuisance.
Honour see Constable.
Incapacity see Officers.
King see Treason.
Knaves see Words.
Letters see Libel.
London see Outlawry.
Shop see Burglary.
Threats see Words.
Westminster Hall see Contempt and Lie.
“A plain, unlettered man is led to suspect that the writer of the volume and the writer of the index are playing at cross purposes,” noted the Monthly Magazine. Perhaps they were.
n. fullness of years, length of life, agedness
Index entries from A. Lapthorn Smith’s How to Be Useful and Happy From Sixty to Ninety, 1922:
Absurdity of voluntary retirement at sixty
Adding ten years to life
Alcohol as cure for insomnia, very bad
All day in garden
Beard, long white, don’t wear
Carriage and pair shortens life
Cause of insomnia must be found
Cook, good, source of danger to elderly men
Crime to die rich
Engine drivers over sixty, what to do with them
Garrett, Mrs., of Penge, active voter at 102
If no relatives, spend on poor
Young people, company of, at sixty, how to keep
When Wilhelm Kieft tried to outlaw smoking in New Amsterdam in the 1630s, he brought on a unique protest. Washington Irving writes:
A mob of factious citizens had … the hardihood to assemble before the governor’s house, where, setting themselves resolutely down, like a besieging army before a fortress, they one and all fell to smoking with a determined perseverance, that seemed as though it were their intention to smoke him into terms. The testy William issued out of his mansion like a wrathful spider, and demanded to know the cause of this seditious assemblage, and this lawless fumigation; to which these sturdy rioters made no other reply, than to loll back phlegmatically in their seats, and puff away with redoubled fury; whereby they raised such a murky cloud, that the governor was fain to take refuge in the interior of his castle.
Wilhelm finally gave in — people could smoke, he said, but they had to give up long pipes. “Thus ended this alarming insurrection, which was long known by the name of the pipe plot, and which, it has been somewhat quaintly observed, did end, like most other plots, seditions, and conspiracies, in mere smoke.”
Educator Bronson Alcott punished students by making them punish him:
“One day I called up before me a pupil eight or ten years of age, who had violated an important regulation of the school. All the pupils were looking on, and they knew what the rule of the school was. I put the ruler into the hand of that offending pupil; I extended my hand; I told him to strike. The instant the boy saw my extended hand, and heard my command to strike, I saw a struggle begin in his face. A new light sprang up in his countenance. A new set of shuttles seemed to be weaving a new nature within him. I kept my hand extended, and the school was in tears. The boy struck once, and he himself burst into tears. I constantly watched his face, and he seemed in a bath of fire, which was giving him a new nature. He had a different mood toward the school and toward the violated law. The boy seemed transformed by the idea that I should take chastisement in place of his punishment. He went back to his seat, and ever after was one of the most docile of all the pupils in that school, although he had been at first one of the rudest.”
Some of this may have been wishful thinking. Alcott’s grand ideas were often poorly received, and he found it a struggle to support his family, including daughter Louisa May. He once told his mother he was “still at my old trade — hoping.”
A gentleman, who had been described as a ‘Pettifogger,’ accused another gentleman, whom he had styled a ‘Fish-fag,’ with an assault. It being a very intricate point, it was of course referred to the Lord Mayor. It stood as follows: — ‘Whether puffing a cloud of tobacco-smoke in a man’s face constituted an assault?’ After some grave consultation with that encyclopaedia of wisdom, Mr. Hobler, the decision ran thus — The Lord Mayor: ‘There has been no assault; nothing but words, words.’ — Complainant: ‘I beg pardon, my Lord.’ — The Lord Mayor: ‘Well, then, all smoke, if you please, or words and puffs. There have been no blows.’ — Now we beg his Lordship’s pardon. Pray what is a puff but a blow?
– The Age, Aug. 8, 1830
A curious bet was made in one of the London clubs, some years ago, that will doubtless point a moral. It was that a certain member could not, within two hours, on London-bridge, sell one hundred new guineas at a penny apiece.
The man took his place on the bridge with a little tray on which he had the coins. He informed the passers-by that they were genuine gold coins from the Bank of England, and that they were to be had for a penny each.
The cartmen and policemen laughed at him. When the time had expired, such is human incredulity, that he had sold but two, which a maid-servant bought to amuse her two little charges.
– London Reader, July 11, 1885
The Waterford Chronicle requests that persons supplying the Journal with obituaries will attend to the following scale of prices (the idea is droll); for a simple death two shillings and sixpence. For the death of a person deeply regretted, five shillings. For the death of a person who lived a perfect pattern of all the Christian virtues, and died regretted by the whole country, ten shillings. For the death of a person who possessed extensive literature and profound erudition, superadded to which, his whole life was remarkable for piety, humility, charity, and self-denial, one pound. For the death of a lady, whose husband is inconsolable for her loss, and who was the delight of the circle in which she moved, one pound ten shillings. For the death of a gentleman, who had only been six months married, who was an example of every conjugal and domestic virtue, and whose widow is in a state of anguish bordering on distraction, two pounds. For the death of an aristocrat, who was a pattern of meekness, a model of humility, a patron of distressed genius, a genuine philanthropist, an exemplary Christian, an extensive alms-giver, profoundly learned, unremitting to the duties of his station, kind, hospitable, and affectionate to his tenantry, and whose name will be remembered and his loss deplored to the latest posterity, five pounds. For every additional good quality, whether domestic, moral, or religious, there will be an additional charge.
– Birmingham Journal, Aug. 21, 1830
In October 1780, a month after Benedict Arnold defected to the British, this acrostic appeared in American newspapers:
B orn for a curse to virtue and mankind,
E arth’s broadest realm ne’er knew so black a mind.
N ight’s sable veil your crimes can never hide,
E ach one so great, ‘twould glut historic tide.
D efunct, your cursed memory will live
I n all the glare that infamy can give.
C urses of ages will attend your name,
T raitors alone will glory in your shame.
A lmighty vengeance sternly waits to roll
R ivers of sulphur on your treacherous soul:
N ature looks shuddering back with conscious dread
O n such a tarnished blot as she has made.
L et hell receive you, riveted in chains,
D oomed to the hottest focus of its flames.
Arnold’s perfidy so blackened his name that he’s strangely absent even from his own memorials. A monument (above) at the site of the Battle of Saratoga depicts only a boot, to reflect the leg wound that ended Arnold’s fighting career. His name appears nowhere in the inscription:
In memory of
the “most brilliant soldier” of the
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
and for himself the rank of
A second monument at Saratoga includes four niches: Three contain statues of Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, and Daniel Morgan, but the fourth niche is empty.
And West Point displays a commemorative plaque for every general who served in the revolution. One plaque bears a rank and a date (“Major General / Born 1740″), but no name.
“It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety.” — Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1856
The Journal of Portfolio Management published an unlikely article in 1986: “Is Time Travel Impossible? A Financial Proof.”
In it, California economist Marc Reinganum notes that anyone with a time machine would have an enormous incentive to manipulate investments and futures markets, using his knowledge of the future to amass huge profits.
If this were possible at all, it would be happening on such a large scale that interest rates would be driven to zero.
So the fact that we see positive interest rates proves that time travelers don’t exist.
Life in Puritan New England was so hard that children who were abducted by Native Americans often refused to come back. Eunice Williams, abducted in 1704 at age 7, refused to leave the Kahnawake Mohawks despite her father’s pleas — he found she had forgotten the English language and adopted Indian clothing and hairstyle. “She is obstinately resolved to live and dye here,” he wrote, “and will not so much as give me one pleasant look.” The Mohawks were much more indulgent of children than the colonists, and women were counted equal to men and played an integral role in society and politics. Eunice married a Mohawk and lived with him for half a century.
A returned captive named Titus King reported that many young captives responded similarly. “In Six months time they Forsake Father & mother, Forgit thir own Land, Refuess to Speak there own toungue & Seeminly be Holley Swallowed up with the Indians.” In 1753 Ben Franklin wrote:
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble there is no perswading him ever to return. … When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
A 14-year-old named James McCullough, who lived with the Indians for eight years, had to be brought back in fetters, his legs tied under his horse’s belly and arms tied behind his back. Even so he escaped and returned to his Indian family. Children “redeemed” by the English often “cried as if they should die when they were presented to us.” The Indians freed children of the work obligations they faced in the colonies — boys hunted, caught fish, and gathered nuts; and girls cultivated corn but had no master “to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.”
(From Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, 2004.)
Excerpt from the 1791 will of an English gentleman who had been sent unwillingly to live in Tipperary:
I give and bequeath the annual sum of ten pounds, to be paid in perpetuity out of my estate, to the following purpose. It is my will and pleasure that this sum shall be spent in the purchase of a certain quantity of the liquor vulgarly called whisky, and it shall be publicly given out that a certain number of persons, Irish only, not to exceed twenty, who may choose to assemble in the cemetery in which I shall be interred, on the anniversary of my death, shall have the same distributed to them. Further, it is my desire that each shall receive it by half-a-pint at a time till the whole is consumed, each being likewise provided with a stout oaken stick and a knife, and that they shall drink it all on the spot. Knowing what I know of the Irish character, my conviction is, that with these materials given, they will not fail to destroy each other, and when in the course of time the race comes to be exterminated, this neighbourhood at least may, perhaps, be colonized by civilized and respectable Englishmen.
From Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911.
Reva Keston patented this “chewed gum receptacle” in 1949. “It has always been a problem for those addicted to the habit of chewing gum, when tired of chewing, where to store the same until again wanted or as to how to finally dispose of it.” Keston’s solution was a cardboard blank scored for folding: Impale your gum on the barb, fold up the flaps, and you can carry the wad around unstickily until it’s wanted again. “The receptacle may be carried in a purse or pocket or it may be provided with a safety pin for attaching the same to a piece of clothing.”
This would have been handy in Singapore, which has banned chewing gum since vandals began sticking it on the door sensors of MRT trains in the 1990s. No gum can be bought or sold inside the country. “If you can’t think because you can’t chew,” said former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, “try a banana.”
In 1959, Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin used drugs and sunlamps to darken his skin and then traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia posing as a black man and keeping a diary of his experiences. He found it to be “the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and the detested.” When he applied for work at a plant in Mobile, the foreman told him, “No, you couldn’t get anything like that here.”
His voice was not unkind. It was the dead voice one often hears. Determined to see if I could break in somehow, I said: ‘But if I could do you a better job, and you paid me less than a white man …’
‘I’ll tell you … we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?’
‘I know,’ I said with real sadness. ‘You can’t blame a man for trying at least.’
‘No use trying down here,’ he said. ‘We’re gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We’re taking it slow, but we’re doing it. Pretty soon we’ll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have.’
‘How can we live?’ I asked hopelessly, careful not to give the impression I was arguing.
‘That’s the whole point,’ he said, looking me square in the eyes, but with some faint sympathy, as though he regretted the need to say what followed: ‘We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.’
In a Mississippi bus station he felt a “hate stare” that would grow familiar. “It came from a middle-aged, heavyset, well-dressed white man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: ‘What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?’”
In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.
The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:
There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Which they kept up day and night,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.
The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.
Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”
– Louis Phillips, Academe, February 1979
Vienna’s Café Central was crowded with intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century, including Freud, Lenin, the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, and endless chessplayers.
When Victor Adler made the argument that war would provoke a revolution in Russia, Leopold Berchtold replied, “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein sitting over there at the Café Central?”
Mr. Bronstein was Leon Trotsky.
From Benoni Lanctot’s Chinese and English Phrase Book (1867), phrases for English-speaking employers of Chinese-Americans:
- Can you get me a good boy?
- He wants $8.00 per month.
- He ought to be satisfied with $6.00.
- When I find him useful, I will give him more.
- I think he is very stupid.
- Do you know how to count?
- If you want to go out, you must ask me.
- Come at seven every morning.
- Go home at eight every night.
- This lamp is not clean.
- See that the money is weighed.
- If there is any thing short, I will make him pay the difference.
- Take this plate away.
- Change this napkin.
- Did you prepare any toast?
- The tea is too strong.
- Make me a pigeon pie.
- Get a bottle of beer.
- Please carve that capon.
- Tell the cook to roast it better next time.
- This wine glass is not clean.
- The cook is very strange.
- Sometimes he spoils the dishes.
- Tell the cook to fry some pancakes.
- Don’t burn them.
- He did very bad last time.
- I want to cut his wages.
- This tea is very bad.
- Get out of the way.
- Don’t speak with me.
- Who gives you permission?
- Don’t be lazy.
- You ought not to do so.
- Pick this up.
- This is nothing to you.
- He is fit for nothing.
- That belongs to me.
- Carry it up stairs.
- You ought to be contented.
Phrases for Chinese speakers:
- Good morning sir.
- When shall I begin?
- I beg your pardon.
- Lunch is on the table, sir.
- I beg you to consider again.
- It is my duty.
- Sir, what will you have for dinner to-day?
- You must excuse me.
- You must not strike me.
Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to Maj. John Cartwright, June 5, 1824
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.
– G.K. Chesterton
“[John] von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!” — Richard Feynman
He expands on this in Christopher Sykes’ No Ordinary Genius (1994):
“I got the idea of ‘active irresponsibility’ in Los Alamos. We often went on walks, and one day I was with the great mathematician von Neumann and a few other people. I think Bethe and von Neumann were discussing some social problem that Bethe was very worried about. Von Neumann said, ‘I don’t feel any responsibility for all these social problems. Why should I? I’m born into the world, I didn’t make it.’ Something like that. Well, I’ve read von Neumann’s autobiography and it seems to me that he felt perpetually responsible, but at that moment this was a new idea to me, and I caught onto it. Around you all the time there are people telling you what your responsibilities are, and I thought it was kind of brave to be actively irresponsible. ‘Active’ because, like democracy, it takes eternal vigilance to maintain it — in a university you have to perpetually watch out, and be careful that you don’t do anything to help anybody!”
“Feynman somehow was proud of being irresponsible. He concentrated on his science, and on enjoying life. There are some of us — including myself — who felt after the end of the Second World War that we had a great responsibility to explain atomic weapons, and to try and make the government do sensible things about atomic weapons. … Feynman didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I think quite rightly. I think it would be quite wrong if all scientists worked on discharging their responsibility. You need some number of them, but it should only be a small fraction of the total number of scientists. Among the leading scientists, there should be some who do not feel responsible, and who only do what science is supposed to accomplish.”
“I must say I have a little of this sense of social irresponsibility, and Feynman was a great inspiration to me — I have done a good deal of it since. There are several reasons for a scientist to be irresponsible, and one of them I take very seriously: people say, ‘Are you sure you should be working on this? Can’t it be used for bad?’ Well, I have a strong feeling that good and bad are things to be thought about by people who understand better than I do the interactions among people, and the causes of suffering. The worst thing I can imagine is for somebody to ask me to decide whether a certain innovation is good or bad.”
Thomas Jefferson received the following letter on July 31, 1806:
To his Excelency Thomas Jefferson Esq.
It is A Boy of 15 years Old Address to You the following lines. I feel A Strong regard for my Country’s welfair.
I think if I had A been Presendent at the time them opposen Set of People (I allude to the Brittish) appeared before Newyork I Should A been for rasing all the Naval force in the United States and opposed thire proceeding’s. My Father is an Englishman Born. Ever Sence I had an knowledge of Nation affaires I dispised them tirents as there are. I often read of the American War. I fear they Never will Come hear Again. I think if they Should I take up armes boy as I am in my Country’s Defence. If every one was as true to thier Country as me I think the Contest last war would not of been of so long Duration. Conquer or Die is my Wash Word.
A True American though a Youth
Huza to the Constetuon
Huza to the Repubeck
Huza Fredom Independence
Huza to all America.
PS. Sir Excuse the spelling.
After observing security measures at a number of organizations, University of California psychologist Robert Sommer reflected that a person’s status seems to be tied to his keyring:
S is a person’s status within the organization, D is the number of doors he must open to perform his job, and K is the number of keys he carries. A janitor who can open 20 doors but must carry 20 keys has a status of 1; he’s outranked by a secretary who can open only two doors but can do it with a single key. A staff scientist who can open six doors or cupboards using two keys has status 3, and the lab director might open 15 doors with three keys, giving him a status score of 5.
They’re all outranked by the president of the company, who never has to carry keys at all, since there’s always someone around to open doors for him. “With a K of zero and a high D,” Sommer concluded wryly, “his status rank in the company reaches infinity.”
(“Keys, Kings and Kompanies,” from The Worm Runner’s Digest 3:1 [March 1961], 52-54)