Graduation day, for me, is more an emblem of the past than the future. I attended the graduation of my older sibling a long time ago and after enduring the tedium, the artificiality, the ostentation of it all, I was pretty determined not to attend my own. For the most part I’ve always perceived it as an exclusive, grandiose and anachronistic ritual through which parents could finally witness the (almost necessarily cynical) aspirations they sought to embody in their children vicariously bear fruit. I always thought of it as a simulation of some grand denouement or landmark of conquest, an exercise in sitting restlessly through tired platitudes about ‘ambition’ and ‘journeys’ and ‘the excitement of the next chapter’ expressed by self-aggrandizing managers and bureaucrats on obscene salaries, who do and have done many an unscrupulous and venal thing to clamber up the sordid rungs of capitalist society.
It feels somewhat like a coronation in atmosphere, as if we are processions of loyal subjects queuing up to be graciously bequeathed a gift by the array of aristocrats and professionals donning extravagant gowns lined up on stage at the front – stages reserved for orientation speeches, ceremonies, gatherings of honoured guests, where the curtains open and close and conceal beneath all the splendour what actually happens here. You get the sense that even the esteemed individuals delivering the speeches don’t much believe in what they’re saying, nebulously appealing to notions of ‘society’ and ‘community’ and ‘tackling pressing global issues’ whilst in their own institutions presiding over declining wages for academics, slashed paid breaks for cleaners, desperately underfunded mental health services, and relentless attacks on working conditions. It’s why this rhetoric of aspiration really rings hollow – especially in this vast, coldly-lit, adorned theatre, the stage like a distant altar at which dissenting thought, passion and justice are nominally extolled and gracefully sacrificed. This is a drama of lavishly garbed ghosts, entertaining incantations of promises already broken and never to come to pass.
We’ve all been waiting for this moment, right? This is why we clawed our way here through depression, trauma, obstacles and adversity: for this curtain call, drawn down finally with glory and pride and closure. In a way, they were right: it’s a fitting end to a process of higher education that has become more and more performance to serve the ends of the rich of this society, a reminder of the history and legacy of universities as institutions of the elite. Of course, universities are much more job factory than sites simply in which the ruling classes and technocratic elites reproduce themselves now, much more bound up with training skilled professionals than channeling elites into parliamentary and managerial positions – but you get the sense of ossified tradition here, a carefully choreographed set of proceedings designed to convince us that this place and the debt-ridden chase of phantasmal, degree-ticketed wages are altogether more noble than perhaps we would otherwise believe them to be. The meritocratic myth seeps through proceedings, that we can all be our own boss and should indeed want to be, micromanaging our time and our lives to best serve the ends of individual success and acquisition. It’s still this acting out of hierarchies, this preservation of a mythology of universities as distinguished and enlightened sites of knowledge and development and not deeply authoritarian, exploitative and ruthless institutions embedded in the barbaric projects of imperialism and neo-liberalism.
This is what we worked so hard for, right? Those gilded certificates finally in our grasp like trophies, like fragmented vessels into which our ambition, conviction, and capability are distilled – our education an illustrious commodity purchased and earned to rent out to the bosses of this world, to vaunt on our CVs as a quantifying representation of our accomplishment and self-worth. I understand why people want to attend graduation – especially those who have struggled the most. It would be unbecoming of me to deny that we deserve to feel pride for our achievements. But – perhaps because I am profoundly, intransigently unambitious – my mind lingers on those who had to drop out because of mental health problems, who failed because of personal difficulties and hardships, or who could never even attend university in the first place. It lingers on those who have had to retake or have been awarded degrees that apparently don’t deserve ceremonies like this, or who have been informed last-minute that they can’t attend because of outstanding fees. It lingers on all those under-remunerated, exploited, precarious, alienated workers who only get to see this stage in the capacity of cleaning up the dirt of aristocrats and professionals who would deport them without remorse if it served their business projects. It lingers on all those the spotlight excludes, all those who have struggled with little to no support throughout their degree, who have bled and cried to reach this day but to no avail. The margins are firmly reinforced around these rites, and so many should be here who aren’t.
To so many this will be like a banquet after a war or a celebration of finally being rid of this place and all its alienation. To some it’ll be a bittersweet commemoration of one of the best times of their lives finally passing. Maybe that’s why I was kind of sad upon receiving the email saying that because I hadn’t yet been awarded a degree my place at graduation would be cancelled. Not because I ever wanted this, but because I damn wanted that opportunity to not shake Croft’s hand, to not stand for the national anthem, because for all its artificiality and pomp at least there was an illusion that this moment was one to remember, one to feel pride in, one that was ours. This university affords us so few moments of revelry and I swear just for a moment I wanted to see my family smiling and proud of me again, a moment of normality, a respite from the battles we’ve all had to fight, the chimes of celebration signalling that this has all come to a close, that we’ve finally been victorious, and that maybe it is in our power to do great and exceptional things. However artificial, I wanted to take that moment and relish it for all it was worth – because for all the time I’ve been here it’s felt like Warwick has not even performed the principles and virtues it waxes so lyrical about and every day has felt like a struggle. It wasn’t about the ‘distinguished’ speeches, it wasn’t about the ceremony or the rites, about the feeling of eminence and prestige – but a feeling of triumph. I’m sad that I’m not sadder to leave this place.
Someone once told me that closure is a fairytale, anyway. It’s clear neo-liberalism sells us lots of myths to obscure the brutal realities of its functioning. I think I’ll remember university not for the story it mapped out for us and expected us to tread, but for the narratives we forged with occupations, with protests, with dissent, with real community, with a real sense of belonging and camaraderie. All this university’s extravagant, hollow spectacles couldn’t even begin to emulate that feeling of empowerment and affirmation in seizing and repurposing corporate space on campus, collectively confronting injustice, finding real friendship, affection and compassion to heal all the cracks alienation has wrought across our lives. We haven’t been spectators, but have grittily done everything in our power to change things.
I’m proud not of what I’ve done to subordinate and advance myself as a ‘paying customer’ and ’employable graduate’ but everything we’ve done to resist that logic, everything we’ve learned, every moment of resistance and adversity and solidarity. I’m proud of disobeying, acting out, surviving. I’m proud of the communities we’ve created, the bonds and alliances we’ve forged, the strength we’ve found. I’m proud of the drop-outs, the undesirables, the troublemakers, the professional agitators. I’m proud not of what this university has granted us as ‘consumers’, but everything we’ve created and discovered and reclaimed as collective social agents. I won’t remember the moments I’ve been in the audience and witnessed the ceremonies play out, but rather every time we’ve spoken out, stormed the stage, sabotaged the charade with blazes of banners and choruses of chants.
It’s a story that’s not simulated, that’s not perfect, that’s not proofread, that’s not reputable, that can’t be packaged. But it’s mine, and it’s ours, and I believe in it.