Monday, August 17, 2009

Why no caps and gowns at Friends school graduation?

I am trying to find information/explanation on why Quaker school students do not wear caps and gowns to graduation.

Dear [friend],

Each Friends school is independent from every other Friends school. Each school community discerns for itself how to interpret Friends testimonies and traditions, so our schools do not all develop the same practices. I have attended a high school graduation at a Friends school where caps and gowns were worn, so I know it is not a uniform determination among all the schools to do without them. I can make some guesses that could explain why some Friends schools have not adopted caps and gowns for graduation, but the only truly accurate explanation for a particular school would have to come from the school itself.

My first guess relates to the Friends testimony of simplicity, which has evolved from the historic tradition of plainness. Material simplicity has to do with not owning or using things that are unnecessary, including items of apparel that encourage pride of appearance or are dictated by changing fashions. Students, families, and teachers may feel that it is a frivolity, or a waste of resources, to spend money on ceremonial attire.

Another tradition that may explain such a practice goes back to the beginnings of the Quaker faith: rejection of ceremony, symbolism, and formal ritual. This is why Quakers do not perform outward sacraments (such as water baptism), and why you will not see symbols, such as crosses, in a Friends meeting house. Friends traditionally avoid the outward forms that may distract us from the inward experience those forms are meant to signify. So again, ceremonial attire may be seen as going against Quaker culture.

My final guess has to do with the emphasis on each person's uniqueness. When Quaker educators get together and discuss what our schools do have in common, one principle that invariably comes up is an emphasis on the special individuality of each student -- the importance of honoring each child's special gifts and appreciating differences. So it may simply be that the idea of having every student appear in identical costume goes against the values and spirit of the school's community.

I am copying my response to Sarah Sweeney-Denham at the Friends Council on Education. She may be able to add to or clarify what I have suggested.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery

Sarah's comment:

I agree with you. Of the reasons you explore, I believe the practice that some Friends schools have of not wearing cap and gowns is most strongly felt and linked with Friends schools' essential belief in that of God in each person, which leads to an appreciation for diversity and individuality, as well as celebrating that which connects us all. Many Friends schools design "Meetings for Graduation," giving every person in attendance (students, parents, grandparents, teachers) a chance to be part of the occasion, by speaking from the heart and spirit within. In some Friends schools each member of the graduating class makes a speech, further celebrating each student's perspective while also celebrating the group as a whole. These practices seem aligned with these ideas as well.

Thanks for asking,

Sarah Sweeney-Denham


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