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The Seamless Black Dress

February 23, 2016

 Tonight was an historic night for the Millis Institute.
 
We opened the book—literally—on two new liberal arts courses.  With Dr Darren Iselin (President of CHC), Mr Graham Packer (Chairman of the CHC Council), Emeritus Professor Brian Millis, Pastor Ron Woolley and a number of family, friends and special guests on hand, the Millis Institute held its inaugural Matriculation Ceremony.

 

Professor Darren Iselin and Dr Ryan Messmore (pictured with the Matriculation Book) 
welcome 15 new students to the Millis Institute

 

In the Western academic tradition, Matriculation is a ceremony marking students’ formal entrance into a university.  In Latin, a “matricula” is a list or register.  During our ceremony, students signed the first page of the Millis Institute Matriculation Book, adding their names to a list of students that will, by God’s grace, fill many pages in the future.    
 
Each student was also presented with a black academic gown.  Why do we engage is this strange activity?
 
Throughout life we often mark special moments with special clothing.  For a high school formal dance we may don a tie or dress; at funerals we wear black to express mourning; and, of course, at weddings the groom is clad in a sharp tuxedo, the bride in a beautiful gown, and the bridesmaids in something they’ll likely never wear again!  
 
Clothing also tends to denote membership in a particular group.  Think of students wearing the same uniform at a school, nuns wearing the same habit in a religious order, and athletes wearing the same jersey on a team.  Many sports fans even wear the same jersey as the athletes to express loyalty to—and to participate as a vicarious member of—a particular team.  (After Duke University’s basketball team won the National Championship in 2010, the next day I wore a Duke warm-up jersey to the think-tank where I worked!)  Clothing somehow has a way of uniting people to share a common goal or identity.

 

In the Western academic tradition, Matriculation is a ceremony marking students’ formal entrance into a university.  In Latin, a “matricula” is a list or register.  During our ceremony, students signed the first page of the Millis Institute Matriculation Book, adding their names to a list of students that will, by God’s grace, fill many pages in the future.    
 
Each student was also presented with a black academic gown.  Why do we engage is this strange activity?
 
Throughout life we often mark special moments with special clothing.  For a high school formal dance we may don a tie or dress; at funerals we wear black to express mourning; and, of course, at weddings the groom is clad in a sharp tuxedo, the bride in a beautiful gown, and the bridesmaids in something they’ll likely never wear again!  
 
Clothing also tends to denote membership in a particular group.  Think of students wearing the same uniform at a school, nuns wearing the same habit in a religious order, and athletes wearing the same jersey on a team.  Many sports fans even wear the same jersey as the athletes to express loyalty to—and to participate as a vicarious member of—a particular team.  (After Duke University’s basketball team won the National Championship in 2010, the next day I wore a Duke warm-up jersey to the think-tank where I worked!)  Clothing somehow has a way of uniting people to share a common goal or identity.

 

The same is true of higher education institutions in the Western tradition. When students entered a medieval university like the University of Paris or Oxford, they were robed in black academic gowns, symbolizing membership in a community of learning. Thanks to a generous donor, the Millis Institute is able to share in this tradition by presenting our students with academic gowns at Matriculation.

 

The goal is to remind our students that their academic course is about something bigger than themselves—it initiates them into something more than just a first job.  As liberal arts students, they take part in a great educational tradition that reaches back hundreds of years.  As this semester gets underway, they are entering a conversation that began long ago, and they have the privilege and responsibility of helping to pass it along to future generations.
 
In modern society, the little black dress has become known and appreciated for being seamless.  We think our students’ black academic gowns express a similar quality: not only the integration of different fields of knowledge in one course, but also the continuity of liberal arts study down through the centuries. 
 
We are thankful for our first cohort of students and we ask you to join us in praying for their formation and growth over the following months. 

 

 

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