Carla Carlisle on graduation day

There are many reasons why graduation ceremonies in Britain are not the emotional affairs that they are in America. For most Americans, seeing their offspring through college is the biggest financial commitment they ever make, second only to the purchase of the family home. It’s an investment made in hope and faith, because there is no guarantee that it will pay off.

I knew a man who believed that university education was a crapshoot. When each of his four children reached 18, he offered them $100,000, which they could use to pay for further education, to buy a house, travel or start a business. I wish I knew how that story ended.

The cost for an undergraduate at Yale 2012-13 will be $58,600 (£37,900). That figure includes tuition, room and board, books and travel. Multiply that by four (US and Scottish universities run four- year courses) and you have a house with a double garage in a safe neighbourhood. But that’s not my point. When you’ve invested that much money in your child and the end is in sight, you want a ceremony that rewards your sacrifice.

Not a Las Vegas floor show, but a big-name speaker, beautiful robes and tickets for the entire family: Mom, Pop, grandparents (who no doubt also invested in this day), siblings and close friends. Printed invitations are sent to everyone you’ve sent graduation presents to in the past. Recipients aren’t meant to accept, simply to reply with a gift. A leather-bound complete Shakespeare printed on India paper is nice, but a portrait of Benjamin Franklin as he appears on a $100 bill is gratefully received.

I’d been warned that the gradu-ation ceremony at the University of Edinburgh was rather low-key
-understandable, as Sam’s ceremony was one of 14 held that week. Still, I went with a handbag stuffed with tissues and my husband took a clean handkerchief. This was a rite of passage that had been long in coming. We were also tearful with pride as his degree was higher than any Carlisle has ever achieved and all the more surprising as his parents have only ever seen him poring studiously over Salmon Rivers of the World.

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I didn’t mind the absence of mortar boards, and bare heads made life easier for the Vice-Chancellor, who confers the degree by touching the head of the graduand with a cloth cap. Legend has it that the cap was originally made from the breeches of John Knox, a 16th-century minister of the Christian gospel who advocated violent revolution. It’s a sign of the ecumenical spirit of academia, as Knox himself studied Theology at the University of St Andrews.

Perhaps the audience appreciated the speed of the Vice-Chancellor’s remarks, but I missed the great feature of the American graduation, the address by the visiting speaker, usually a successful alumnus, who delivers a wise and witty speech to guide the new graduate into the real world. These speeches are a literary form all their own. Some can be found on YouTube. My favourites include Jon Stewart at William and Mary, Ann Patchett at Sarah Lawrence (my college), Steve Jobs at Stanford and Bill Gates at Harvard.

Nowadays, the theme is one of apology: ‘Our generation has amassed unprecedented power and wealth at your expense. We bequeath you a world with disproportionate levels of economic, social and political power. You will have to pay heavier taxes, work longer for less money and live in your parents’ basement until you’re 40.’ The speaker then implores the graduates to put the world right.

There is usually a nugget of wisdom such as ‘Love what you do. Get good at it’. And ‘Education is like a snake swallowing a chicken egg; it takes a while to digest it’, elegantly harvested thoughts that give punctuation to one of life’s great occasions. I think that, as fees rise, British universities should take note. The investors will be wanting more bang for their buck.

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