The pomp and ceremony of the graduation ceremony can lend itself to accusations of irrelevance and elitism. Such criticisms I think miss the point. The occasion certainly wasn't irrelevant to the students and families who attended on the day. In fact it was laden with meaning. Many had shown remarkable fortitude in seeing through their studies often in the face of competing personal, family and financial circumstances. In a number of cases the students were the first in their families to have attended university. For many of them, the very fact of walking up to be capped by the Principal, rather than being elitist, strikes a blow against the system of privilege that universities once perpetuated.
Quite apart from that though, the graduation ceremony fulfils an essential human function as a ritual of transition, in this case marking the move from student to worker. In an age when we maybe don't recognise the importance of marking significant transitions in our lives, graduation is a tangible and memorable way of doing so. There was also an inspirational aspect to the Principal's speech. He reminded new graduates that they had an obligation to make a difference to the world they were going out into, that academic knowledge had to coexist with and inform practice and that there might be times when they would have to challenge and put a stutter into dominant narratives. How true this is for those going into social work in its current state!
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Last year in Scotland we ran an international child and youth care symposium. It was eventually called Rhythms and Routines. I had suggested that we should call it Rhythms, Rituals and Routines, but others didn't like the term ritual, feeling that it had connotations of ritualistic. It's a pity because the notion of ritual is a powerful one in child and youth care. It's through rituals that meaning is made between youth and their carers.
The importance of rituals was brought home to me with my own kids. One of them went through a stage of arranging his soft toys on his pillow with geometric precision before he could fall asleep at night. Another insists, to the point of obsession, on a particular order for having breakfast or getting ready for bed at night. These are the kind of things that are generally incomprehensible and often annoying for any caregiver eager to get a particular part of the day done and dusted. Yet such rituals make sense and are important to the kids.
This personal experience has made me reflect back on some of my work practice. How often did I ride roughshod over behaviours that had some sort of significance to kids but that I put down to them just being awkward? Whilst many rituals are personal and just seem to emerge, we can, through appreciating their existence seek to arrange them. Think about the rituals of encounter involved in how we greet kids on a daily basis. I remember Colin. Every time we passed in a corridor we would lower our shoulders and gently nudge each other. Iíve no idea how this little ritual started but it was one way for two emotionally inarticulate Scottish males to say to one another, Hey, I like you!
We can also try and arrange rituals at a more formal level. How do we mark the start and the end of meals for instance? How do we manage bedtime? Without some element of ritual, these times become pretty soulless and probably troublesome ones in a centre. Yet in our fear of being accused of institutionalising kids and regimes, we have lost sight of the benefit of how we might build in some meaning and significance to everyday events.
I could move on to consider rituals of initiation. But thatís the area of my PhD. And since I donít want to go off on holiday thinking about what I havenít done on that, Iíll leave rituals of initiation for another day.