September 09, 2013

Ritual and Renewal

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

At the start of the fall semester, my university held a convocation to formally welcome incoming freshmen and transfer students to the student body. Students wore ceremonial gowns, and faculty wore the decorative gowns of their alma maters. Parents of incoming students looked on with pride, and applauded loudly when their student’s dean formally “presented” them to the university president.

Although most students I observed seemed less than excited to be at the early morning ceremony, rituals have a purpose.  That’s why we have so many.

Rituals may provide a sense of connection with others, what sociologist Emile Durkheim called collective consciousness, or shared values and norms. At the new student convocation, the 130822_001students were taught the university’s motto (“Fight On!”), hand signs, the school song (called an alma mater), and encouraged to attend football games even if they were not football fans. These rituals serve to induct new members to help them feel like part of a community.

We have larger rituals too, like national holidays or days of remembrance that serve to provide shared activities and mark milestones on the calendar. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are about more than just honoring parents; they also mark the passage into spring and summer. Likewise, Memorial Day and Labor Day are technically days of appreciation for service members and workers, but they have come to mark the unofficial start and end of summer. Families and friends often come together and have cookouts, spend time at parks and beaches if they are fortunate enough to have the day off from work.

Not all rituals are shared by an entire society: religious holidays are typically only celebrated by the faithful (although non-religious people sometimes enjoy Christmas, Hanukkah, and Easter ). Families and individuals may have their own rituals for birthdays and other occasions that may be rooted in their shared past.

Durkheim also explored how societies distinguish the sacred from the profane; rituals help us do this as well.

Some groups perform rituals as a link to the past—many people feel connected to their ancestors by carrying on religious traditions that their forbearers once practiced. Some rituals might have had meaning once but are now only meaningful as a link to the past. In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert undertakes a journey of spiritual healing and learns a story of an old tradition of a group that would always have an animal tied to a tree outside during their services. It had taken on a sacred meaning, but originated when an animal just happened to be tied to a tree during a service. There is comfort in the familiar.

Carrying on rituals may give group elders a sense of purpose. Parents who had not been religious might find their way back to their religious heritage in order to pass along beliefs to their children. Holidays long ago abandoned might be celebrated again.

This applies to educational settings too. Returning students might take on the role of elders for new students: advising on what classes to take, informally teaching the social customs of a campus, and initiating new members into fraternities and sororities. Even though they might not have enjoyed being hazed as a freshman, it may feel like part of a senior’s “duty” to carry on a group tradition.

Rituals help welcome new members and affirm the status of continuing members. At the new student convocation I attended, the university’s president, provost, and deans wore their ceremonial garb and their status as leaders was reinforced. Parents—perhaps struggling with the reality that their child is now an adult and a college student—got the chance to celebrate this transition. And the ritual reaffirmed that new students who might have been nervous are indeed a part of the community.

What other rituals are part of the educational experience?


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