I graduated from University a couple of weeks ago. Like me, there were hundreds of others who donned their togas and attended their respective graduation ceremonies. That ceremony and everything that came with it remains one of the most special days in my life, and no doubt in the lives of many others.
It was only a few days after that I read an article published on Lovin Malta saying that togas for graduation ceremonies should be banned. The writer makes a variety of points to support his argument that the ceremonial attire should be banned, ranging from aesthetic reasoning to drawing a paragon between them and Malta’s obsession with tribalism. The writer is, of course, entitled to his opinion; but nonetheless, it’s an opinion that I (and, judging by the spate of comments on the article, many others) disagree with.
Let’s start with the origin of the toga. The term toga can of course refer to an ancient Roman dress, but in this case it refers to the black gown which forms a key part of academic regalia used for ceremonies. This regalia, along with the ‘mortarboard’ caps, was in actual fact officialised in the early 1300s by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and has since – albeit with some minor variations over time – withstood the test of time. Its undeniable that the toga and its accessories are a key part of the University tradition; a symbol of accomplishment and of a jump into the real world.
But what else does the toga represent? One of the main criticisms of the “shiny tablecloth”, as the writer succinctly puts it, is that it removes the individuality of each person. It may indeed be the case that nobody got to see the snazzy new suit I was wearing during the ceremony; but there is a reason for that. Aside from being a symbol of accomplishment – the toga is also a symbol of the democratisation of knowledge. It is the most paramount symbol of equality and a clear representation of everyone’s right to access education, regardless of who you are, what your socio-economic background is, where you’re from, or whatever piece of fancy dress you’re wearing under it.
Another argument made is that the toga reinforces Malta’s affinity with tribalism, namely through the different sashes that signify each course. Its ironic that the toga is lambasted for making everyone look the same, but then the only element that distinguishes one group from another is lambasted as well. And why shouldn’t people be distinguished according to their course? Each degree carries value in society – from the linguist, to the artist, to the engineer, to the doctor, to the lawyer. The sash isn’t a hierarchy of any sort; it symbolises a sense of pride in an area of study, and a sense of camaraderie between course members.
One more source of criticism is that one can simply “scan the room” and make “snap judgements” about each person based on what sash they’re wearing (and, by right, what course they’d be graduating from). Yes, because the inherent problem that society has with judging books (or rather, people) by their covers is the fault of the sashes and not of our upbringing in an environment that seems to promote these same snap judgements. Right.
I’ve written a lot about the general symbolisations of the toga in this piece so far, but possibly the most key element of the toga’s significance is in what it means to the wearer – something which is different from person to person.
Indeed, for many the toga isn’t merely a signification of a completed degree, or a representation of gallons of coffee and dodgy energy drinks whilst blazing the night oil in the middle of the KSU common room, or a symbolisation of the truckload of colourful expletives you inevitably let out when your printer decides to go on strike ten minutes before you need to leave the house with your completed assignment in hand. For many, it’s much more than that.
Donning the toga made me the first person in my immediate family to do so since my grandfather, who I never met and who I am named after, did in 1949. The pride I felt in putting on that toga and following in his footsteps is indescribable, even now, a couple of weeks later.
That is however only what it means to me; the toga means different things for different people. One friend of mine dedicated her graduation to her recently passed grandfather, whilst another spoke of her pride and joy in wearing her mother’s old sash during the ceremony. Like myself and these two people, there are no doubt hundreds of others for whom wearing the toga holds a special place.
I have, in actual fact, missed one major point that was made against the toga in the article that I am responding to; its aesthetics. Now, I am in no way a fashion expert – the people who know me can most certainly attest to this fact – but what I will admit, is that the toga is indeed clunky and at times uncomfortable. Hell, I almost got myself stuck on the set of railings underneath the stage and ended up on my backside in front of the whole of Sir Temi Zammit Hall. But considering all that the toga stands for – should it be banned just for that? Most definitely not.