A Historian's Thoughts at Commencement

James J. Sheehan, May 2005

Those of us who are fortunate enough to spend our lives at universities cherish the rhythms of the academic year; we look forward to the sense of renewal and possibility that comes at the beginning of classes in the fall, and we welcome the feeling of closure and relief that arrives in the spring. In its own way, the life of the university resembles those natural cycles of planting and harvest around which most of humanity once organized its existence—although, of course, we sow in the autumn and reap in the spring.

For each year's graduates and their families the spring harvest festival has a special meaning since it brings to an end an important chapter of their lives. This is, for them, a time to reflect on past accomplishments and, no less important, to savor the excitement of the challenges and opportunities ahead. It is, in other words, a historic moment, charged with memories of the past; it is also a moment that invites us to reflect on the historical meaning of the symbols and ceremonies with which we celebrate this day.

The most prominent of these symbols is the academic gown, which faculty and graduates wear to indicate Commencement's extraordinary character, to set it apart from everyday life. In our secular, informal society, this is one of the few occasions on which people wear special clothing (weddings are the only other one I can think of.) But these academic costumes do not simply set the day apart, they also establish a web of connections. First of all, they connect the graduates to one another, marking them as a class bound by common experiences and accomplishments. They also connect the graduates to their teachers—identifying faculty and students as the citizens of learning's republic, the authentic core of the university. Among the faculty, the gowns, some of them elaborate in design and striking in color, connect their wearers to the universities from which they received their doctorates and to the disciplines they studied. And finally, the gowns connect faculty and students to the university's past, to those long forgotten scholars of law, medicine, and theology in whose footsteps we walk. It is sometimes easy to forget that while modern universities are devoted to innovation, to creating new knowledge, to teaching new generations, they are among the oldest human institutions, with roots reaching back into the rich soil of medieval Italy and France.

I would like to suggest that these academic gowns have another, perhaps less obvious meaning: by setting those who wear them apart from everyday life, they should remind us not only of this particular occasion, but also of the duties, privileges, and responsibilities that education imposes on us.

I want to make this point with a quotation from Ernst Kantorowicz, the great historian of the medieval world. Kantorowicz, who was born in 1895 to a prosperous Jewish German family, fought in and was wounded at the battle of Verdun, and was decorated with the Iron Cross. He went on to become a historian and wrote an extraordinary (and controversial) biography of the medieval emperor Frederick II. Nevertheless, he was forced from his academic position and eventually into exile by the Nazis. He ended up at the University of California at Berkeley, a university he came to love and admire. But in 1949 he resigned his position rather than sign the so-called loyalty oath, which required that all university employees swear they were not Communists. Now Kantorowicz was certainly not a Communist—in fact, as he pointed out in one of his letters protesting the oath, he was not only deeply conservative, he had also been a member of the counterrevolutionary Free Corps during the chaotic early years of the Weimar Republic. His objections to the loyalty oath had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with what he regarded as his dignity, both as a human being and as a scholar.

Here is how Kantorowicz explained his difficult, painful decision to leave the university that had given him shelter and that he regarded as his second home:

There are three professions which are entitled to wear a gown: the judge, the priest, the scholar. This garment stands for its bearer's maturity of mind, his independence of judgment, and his direct responsibility to his conscience and his god. It signifies the inner sovereignty of those three interrelated professions: they should be the very last to allow themselves to act under duress and yield to pressure. It is a shameful and undignified action, it is an affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity that the Regents of this university have dared to bully the bearer of this gown into a situation in which—under the pressure of bewildering economic coercion—he is compelled to give up either his tenure or, together with his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and responsible sovereignty as a scholar.*

Judges, priests, scholars—we know, of course, that members of these three professions are not always true to their calling, that judges ignore the law, priests betray their vocations, and scholars abandon the disinterested search for truth. We also know that there has rarely been a time when human dignity and scholarly responsibility have not been at risk, threatened by the repressive power of the state and the often no less potent forces of conformity and social pressures. That "inner sovereignty," the necessary foundation for any disinterested search for truth, is both vulnerable and fragile, difficult to acquire, hard to sustain. Nevertheless, however imperfectly and incompletely achieved, the aspirations and ideals which Kantorowicz so eloquently expressed remain no less important to remember, no less essential for those who claim the right to wear a gown.

—James Sheehan (Stanford Univ.) is the president of the AHA.

Note

*From Kantorowicz's statement to the Academic Senate, June 14, 1949, published in The Fundamental Issue: Documents and Marginal Notes on the University of California Loyalty Oath. The best collection of materials on the oath and its consequences is the Websource (at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/uchistory/archives_exhibits/loyaltyoath/symposium/index.html) created for the symposium held in October 1999 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the controversy.