On Friday, May 16, I was privileged to attend the graduation ceremonies of the Class of 2014 at the California Institute of the Arts. Over the two years during which our son completed his Master’s of Fine Arts in Jazz, I have concluded that this institution structures its programs and practices to respect the autonomy, individuality, and potential of each student. Indeed, according to its mission statement, CalArts strives to “educate artists in a learning environment founded on artmaking excellence, creative experimentation, critical reflection and the diversity of voices. . . CalArts urges collaboration and reciprocity among artists, artistic disciplines and cultural traditions.” Every aspect of that ceremony honoured the institution’s principles.
1. Graduation is a day to celebrate.
More than a thousand white garden chairs line the courtyard behind the music building. The ceremony is outside because this is California in May, and they can. Records shatter like Corel dishware on a ceramic floor as temperatures soar into the +40’s C. For this reason, the ceremony is moved to 6 p.m. from the traditional noon.
The CalArts African Music & Dance Ensemble leads the graduating students in a procession reminiscent of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. A flag bearer hoists the colours of the particular school: Critical Studies, Art, Theatre, the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance, Film and Video, the Herb Alpert School of Music. Four hundred and forty-six students enter in single file down a ramp to the right of the stage. Traditonal graduation garb is not required, in deference to mission to innovate or to the heat, I’m not sure.
As they come down the ramp, some students wave and cheer in gladness, some dance, some amble to soak in the moment, others come costumed in character or in a traditional cap and gown. As each student passes, relatives, friends, and colleagues stand, applaud, cheer, whistle, and call out in recognition. One family of a graduating film director has had T-shirts made for their group. On the front of a white shirt: a photo of the graduate behind a hand-held camera, baseball cap turned backwards. On the back, in bold black letters: a message that says, “I am Karissa Hahn’s proud [mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother, etc.]. The processional takes thirty minutes. Jubilation reigns.
2. Individuality matters.
Each graduate is celebrated for his or her individual growth and accomplishment. Recipients of Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s degrees for each school are grouped by alphabetical order for the presentations and demarcated in the program, but no announcement is made. Creativity and experimentation mark this part of the ceremony, too. Some students lead their children by the hand, others, a dog. Still others wear a distinctive costume or suit. I see Mary Poppins, a member of the Star Trek crew, a superhero with a billowing white cape. One dancer poses triumphantly on an arm bridge formed by two smooth-chested, muscular young men clad only in royal blue silk boxer shorts bearing one thick letter of the graduate’s first name in gold sparkles on each cheek. There’s time to acknowledge everyone.
Pixar/Disney Chief Creative Officer and CalArts alum John Lasseter receives an Honourary Doctorate. In his address, he encourages graduates in their vision. “Your voice is worthwhile,” he says. “Have faith in your voice and your vision.” He shares his own career path as a testament to that confidence and perseverance.
3. Every single graduate has accomplished great things.
In her welcome message, trustee Joan Abrahamson springboards on the grad theme, We have arrived. The invasion of the CalArts graduating class of 2014. “It takes two years to travel from Earth to Mars,” I hear her say, and miss the rest, lost in the thought that her words capture our son’s growth in his two years at the school. He has traveled from Earth to Mars. So have other students. If, as President Stephen Lavine says, their mission is to “bring something into the world that did not exist before [they] imagined it,” the school has prepared them. Lavine quotes Elizabeth Streb, founder of the dance company STREB, in referencing “basic training for tough souls,” so that graduates will "have the ability . . . to have the capacity to break the rules and to deal with the judgment that happens when you break those rules.”
No students receive awards. No medals are handed out, no scholarships awarded, no honours bestowed, and no stratospheric GPA mentioned. No one student is singled out for special attention during this celebration (the Herb Alpert award winners, one from each school, had been recognized at a luncheon the day before). Everyone is important.
I ask myself if here isn’t a model for schools searching for a way to recognize the achievements of their students in an outcomes-based, non-percentage environment. Celebrate the attainment of a goal within a rigorous environment. Resist the temptation to form an elite club of achievers separated from the rest by decimal places.
4. The institution and the students are bound to each other and to past and future alumni in a perpetual symbiotic relationship.
The second message Lasseter wants to impress on graduates is that they need others. Collaboration yields better results than competition. “When everyone around you is making great art, it makes you better.” Success paves the way for more success. “Great art makes you want more,” Lasseter adds; after all, if you witness one amazing performance, you want to experience more of them. Lavine picks up that theme in his concluding remarks, urging students to exploit the resources CalArts offers to alumni as well as to students, to stay in touch with faculty and staff, and with alumni all over the world. They are forever CalArtians.
As we cheered on our son when he walked across the stage and shook hands with Dean David Rosenboom, I thought of all he had learned that was at once connected to music and still so much larger than any one discipline. Supported in his development and in his innovation, he now belongs to a club that lives out that tradition. The fireworks that colored the sky at the end of the ceremony capped off an induction as much as a graduation. Fitting, really, as the moment marks a beginning as much as an end.