Why Do We Make College Graduates Wear Such Dorky Hats?
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This week, millions of college kids are preparing to migrate to warmer regions for their spring breaks. Animals are also taking advantage of the warmer weather and beginning their spring migrations.
Birds are the champions of migrations, but butterflies, snakes and even salamanders migrate in the spring. For nature-loving humans with cabin fever, the spring migrations can be the year's first chance to take in the wonder of wildlife.
The American robin, the classic harbinger of spring, has already made its spring trip to the backyards of most in the United States. The first robins of the year were recorded in January in the south, and birds have already been seen as far north as Maine.
Nature's road ragers, geese, migrate in noisy, honky Vs that help the birds reduce wind drag and avoid collisions.
One subspecies, the lesser snow goose, has learned to make use of human-made pit stops on its long aerial drive, gorging on waste grain from farm fields. Many of the birds make their southbound trip through the central United States, which also boasts some of the best farmland in the world. Snow geese used to survive on the humble roots of marsh grasses, but have adapted to rice, wheat, corn and other grains left behind after the harvest.
Spring breakers head for the coasts, but tundra swans swoop into the east and west coasts of the United States in the fall. Now, the birds are heading back north. Like spring break revelers making poor choices, the swans like to get higher than kites while they travel, as high as 2.5 kilometers (nearly 8,000 feet) during their 6,500-kilometer (4,000-mile) trek north.
Tundra swans head further north than their larger cousins the trumpeter swan, but they may be losing breeding ground due to climate change. Tundra swans breed in the far north. The birds depend on the frigid temperatures to keep the larger trumpeter swans from muscling in on their territory.
Trumpeter cygnets need at least 145 days to grow strong enough to make the migration south to ponds that don't freeze over in the winter. However, the Arctic is warming, which is allowing trumpeters to move north to breed, according to a study published in BioOne.
Some over-partying super seniors may be making their fifth or sixth spring break road trip, but that is nothing in comparison to sandhill cranes.
Fossils provide evidence that sandhill cranes are one of the most ancient species of living birds, going back at least 2.5 million years.
Eighty percent of the world’s sandhill crane population makes a stop to fatten up in Nebraska every spring. Approximately 400-500,000 cranes use a 75-mile stretch of the Platte River’s sand hills as a stopping point during their migration north to breed in Alaska and Canada.
Kitchin and Hurst/Corbis
Kirtland's warblers get to chill out in the Bahamas in spring. This small, yellow-breasted bird escapes the harsh Michigan winter by migrating south from August-October.
Until 1995, the birds returned to breed in only a small area in the north of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The birds depended on large expanses of jack pine for their breeding territory. Loggers leveled much of the jack pine forest in the southern Great Lakes region in the 1800s. By the middle of the last century, the loss of that breeding habitat nearly drove the warblers to extinction.
Now though, the Kirtland's warbler has made a stunning comeback from the brink of extinction. The birds have adapted to use jack pine forests that are being managed for lumber and paper production.
Scarlet tanagers also winter in the balmy tropics. They make an even longer trek to flee the frosts of the eastern United States. These beautiful bright red migrants travel through Mexico, Central America and eventually reach South America each autumn.
The tanagers are now on their way back to U.S. forests to look for breeding spots. The birds will set up their spring fiesta by late April or May.
Mexico is as popular with migrating animals as it is with spring breakers. And it’s not just birds taking a break south of the border. Many monarch butterflies migrate to the highland forests in Mexico, where they spend the winters. The butterflies are now on their way back and will soon be feeding on milkweed plants from coast to coast.
Sexual hijinks and spring break trips go hand in hand. In early spring, spotted salamanders feel a need to breed and stage the amphibian version of an orgy.
When the weather starts to get warmer, the salamanders awake from hibernation and head for temporary pools of water. The salamanders breed in the temporary spring ponds because fish would eat their tadpoles if they used permanent bodies of water. The downside is that the salamanders need to rush for the breeding sites before they dry up.
Copperheads wake up from hibernation in large groups in rocky shelters. In spring, they need to split up to find food.
Rowdy guys are a notorious spring break problem and male copperheads can be just as feisty. Male copperheads will wrestle with each other to impress the ladies, joining the throngs of spring breakers from all species.
It's the time of year where students of all kinds — high school, college, graduate school, etc. — are graduating. And everyone, except for doctoral students, has to wear the mortarboard. Which is, objectively, a ridiculous hat. So why are thousands of students struggling to keep these monstrosities on their heads this month?
In a lot of commencement programs, there is a section explaining the outfits worn by graduates and the school's faculty. Because everything people wear is part of a code that can be deciphered to reveal what degree a person has and where they got it. Undergrads wear the plain robe that is what likely comes to mind when you think of robes. Masters robes have square bits on the sleeves. And doctoral robes have cuffed sleeves, three velvet stripes on the sleeves, and velvet stripes down the front. Presumably, this is an attempt to melt doctoral students, by making them wear the heaviest possible robe during an event that takes place close to summer.
Masters and doctoral students wear hoods, with doctoral degrees granting longer hoods (again, doctoral graduates have the most fabric). The inside of the hood has colors reflecting the degree-granting institution and the velvet part of the hood is in a color that indicates what field the degree is in. For example, business degrees in the United States are officially denoted by the color "drab."
And then there's the hat. According to the Academic Costume Code:
Material Cotton poplin, broadcloth, rayon, or silk, to match gown are to be used; for the doctor's degree only, velvet.
Form Mortarboards are generally recommended.
Tassel A long tassel is to be fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap only and to lie as it will thereon. The tassel should be black or the color appropriate to the subject, with the exception of the doctor's cap that may have a tassel of gold.
'Mortarboards are generally recommended.'' This is a hat that consists of a hard square attached to a skullcap. It is not comfortable, easy to wear, or particularly good-looking. So why is it the recommended hat of the Academic Costume Code?
The Origins of the Mortarboard
Even the name of this thing isn't complimentary. Two things are called "mortarboards": the square boards that masons use to hold mortar, and the hats that looks like them. And the hat that students are forced to wear was probably more useful as a building tool. How it got that way is a tale of escalating hat size. First, academics and the clergy wore skullcaps. Then they added a slightly squared hat to the top. Then they started getting bigger, to show allegiance to the church. The clergy kept the seams that put a cross on the top of the hat, while the secular groups flattened the shape into what we see today.
The hat has its origins in the cap worn by the clergy to protect their heads. In the academic setting, caps were worn only by "doctors in the superior faculties," which meant divinity and law, which were pretty intertwined back then. So was education — which explains the back-and-forth hat innovation that followed.
Originally, the academic hat was the pileus, a skullcap with a point at the crown. In the thirteenth century, the pileus started to merge with the clergy's barret cap, which was taller and squarer than the pileus. Over time, the clergy moved to wearing the "biretta," which was even more exaggerated in its proportions than the barret cap and worn over a skullcap.
So the pileus was well on its way to squared splendor. In early Tudor times, doctors started wearing the pileus quadratus, which, as the name implies, was square. At the time, those with lower degrees started wearing the pileus rotundus, the round version. In some schools, the round hat survives — but not here in the United States.
Painting of Noblemen in the Pileus Quadratus in the Monastery of Markovia
After the Restoration, the hats' squareness was exaggerated yet again to show loyalty to the newly established churches. In order to make that structure possible, the square top was merged with the skullcap into a single hat, like what is worn today.
The American preference for the exaggerated square cap is likely related to our English history. Where the clergy of the 17th century all wore square caps, England started enlarging the square flat top of their hat, where the rest of Europe added material to the sides of the hat. This version of the biretta is still worn by Lutheran clergy, German lawyers, deans and rectors of continental European universities.
In England, Oxford and Cambridge went through several different variations on who wore square caps and round caps, and how to distinguish those with degrees in divinity. In 1636, Oxford's Laudian Code granted the pileus quadratus to pretty much everyone, with the pileus rotundus granted to "commoners and all who were not on the foundation of the colleges." And in 1769, Cambridge's undergrads successfully petitioned to wear the square cap.
In the United States, the popular form of the mortarboard can be traced to a 1950 patent filed by inventor Edward O'Reilly and Joseph Durham, a Catholic priest. The patent introduced a metal filling into the hat, making it more sturdy.
The mortarboard is now worn by most graduates at commencement, there are a few chances to get out of the hat. In England, doctorate holders more commonly wear a round hat called the "Tudor Bonnet." In the United States, doctoral graduates can wear a four-, six-, or eight-cornered velvet tam instead. And, for a while, women had the option of wearing a soft square tam instead.
As shown above, American universities' academic dress is described in the Academic Costume Code, which is the product of the American Council on Education. The first code was written in 1895. Prior to that, every university adopted its own academic costume, with no reference to each other. The 1895 code was the product of an intercollegiate commission consisting of representatives from Columbia, New York University, Princeton, Yale, and "technical adviser" Gardner Cotrell Leonard, whose company manufactured academic dress. Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume was adopted on March 16, 1895 and was based on Columbia's own academic costume code. In comparison to its European counterparts, the American code had much vaguer descriptions, but it applies to all colleges rather than just each individual school.
The American Council on Education (ACE) got involved in 1932, appointing a committee to determine whether the old code needed revision. The 1932 committee left the 1895 code mostly unchanged. Since then, the ACE has changed the code three times: 1959 (which approved the soft version of the mortarboard for women), 1973, and 1987 (removing the option of the soft hat for women). The 1987 revision was the last, and that's where we get the current general recommendation of the mortarboard.
It should be noted that the American Costume Code is technically just a guide, and schools aren't required to follow it. For example, while the code recommends black robes, many schools will have graduates wear robes in the school colors.
So, the next time you see a student struggling to keep a mortarboard on, know that there's a lot of history behind the choice to put him or her in this stupid, stupid hat.
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