Graduations are surreal here in Thailand. On the whole, university commencements resemble a fair more than a solemn ceremony.
There is a core event that is fraught with solemnity, highly enhanced if the one presenting the diplomas is a member of royalty, as is generally the case. Every facet and movement is choreographed and rehearsed to perfection. Despite the number of participants, being in the thousands, there is a tiny moment, often literally one second long, when every individual is face to face with a Prince or Princess of the Kingdom. That moment must be preserved photographically. There is no chance for a repeat, so, just to be sure, two expert photographers take prized pictures of the diploma passing from the royal hand into the hand of the graduate. That picture is displayed forever-after in the graduate’s home in a place where it can’t be missed. That is the moment that validates all the expense and effort of going to university.
Commencement ceremonies to mark the culmination of successful educational undertakings are markers of real accomplishment by many stakeholders, including the graduate, the family, the faculty and the university. But there is something exaggerated about the celebration.
For days, a graduate dons the cap and gown that will be worn at the ceremony and sallies forth with a team of photographers and a bevy of well-wishers to take pictures for an album. It seems that quantity is what counts. First, of course, are the iconic places on the university campus. There must be pictures of the graduate, standing, sitting, lying down or even posing grotesquely in front of every one of those. The larger the campus, the more pictures there will be of this type. But the world is the campus at large, so the photographic expedition then moves to signature sites around town, whether they have any particular relevance to the graduate or not. On the day before commencement there will be a final dress rehearsal. That will also be an occasion for group photographs. Two pictures, at least, are necessary: one of the whole graduating class and another of the graduates from each college or faculty. But that’s just the beginning. For hours, each graduate corrals as many teachers and groups of friends as happen to be within range. On commencement day the carnival atmosphere is in full swing. Whole families and sometimes truck-loads from afar converge on the commencement arena. Picnics are everywhere. Booths near every avenue to the grounds sell bouquets of flowers, leis, wreaths and corsages, but also balloons, dolls and stuffed animals.
That is our main clue as to what this is all about, and what sets it apart from a commencement in Oxford or UCLA where the message the graduate wants to communicate is about completion, independence and setting forth. Thai commencements are about creating a fantasy. It is far more important than the silly frivolity it appears to be. A stuffed panda, a crown of daisies, and an armload of bouquets signify nothing about the meaning of the occasion except that “I am affirmed.” Each toy and blossom underscores that. Although there is no contest as such, one can take pride in the unwieldy volume of affirmations heaped on, and the stacks of photos recording evidence of at least as many momentary admirers.
We might wonder why this affirmation is so aggressively asserted if there is no doubt about it. Might there be something in Thai psycho-social reality that denies the significance of a young individual? Until recently (in historical terms) there were few, if any, avenues of upward social mobility. One was what one was born to be. Education is an escalator. But there are forces still powerful to reduce the affect and to restrain those who try to rise too high. Current social and political unrest, I am convinced, can be viewed through this lens.
Post-modernism is the philosophical equivalent of global warming. The frozen masses are thawing. This is an age of individualism in which every person is of ultimate significance, while collectively being insignificant. How significant is any single person to Mitsubishi world enterprises or Nestle S.A.? But the mega units of society and culture cannot contain and define the new generation.
A graduate may be subjected to the mass market before the roses in the graduation bouquets drop their petals, but the pictures fade slower. They attest: “Let the evidence show there was one day when I was inundated with affirmation. That day I was outstanding.”
Note: the picture accompanying this essay is from the Payap University website documenting commencement the last weekend of November 2013. For more pictures, access www.payap.ac.th
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.