Freshers’ Week: a rite of passage

Sally Feldman on students’ transition from adolescence to adulthood

September 26, 2013

Last week, I conducted a baby-naming ceremony. There was no praying or sprinkling of water, no driving out of the Devil, no mention of God. Instead, like all the events I lead as a humanist celebrant, it was specially tailored for the proud parents, using words and readings that they had chosen. And what care they’d taken!

Everyone had to bring a small gift or charm, for them to fashion into a bracelet for their child. And there were 10 – yes 10 – godparents, each representing a different value to pass on to the baby: empathy, generosity, wisdom…it was like the story of Sleeping Beauty, but without the wicked fairy. And the joy and emotion of that gathering was typical of a new appetite, especially among younger people, for ceremonies to mark significant rites of passage.

Maybe it’s a generational phenomenon. As children of the 1960s, I and my friends recoiled from ritual. We wanted to be free, and to defy conventions that seemed to us repressive. Radicals and hippies, revolutionaries and liberationists, we felt almost heroic in our shedding of the past with its meaningless customs and false expectations.

These traditional rituals, whether among primitive tribes or more modern religious communities, serve a serious purpose: they bind a society, sanction the entry of new members, strengthen historic bonds and ensure their continuation

So, naturally, none of us would have dreamed of attending graduation. After all, there is something rather comical about these overblown, frequently pompous events. Especially as the newer the university, the more medieval its trappings: the mace and the trumpets, the Latin and the sonorous orations, the elaborate costumes, the doffing of hats.

We saw the whole rigmarole as the very epitome of hollow ritual – and therefore to be shunned. No one was interested in getting married; those who did avoided anything smacking of tradition. And the idea of creating ceremonies for babies would have never occurred to us.

Now, though, the couples I marry say they want to declare their love publicly, in front of friends and family. In some cases there’s an almost Oprah-like atmosphere as they sob through their vows. And that’s just the bridegrooms. And funerals, too, have transformed in the past few years from grim, cursory, buttoned-up affairs to extravaganzas of imagination: people show videos, sing football chants, take the coffin by double-decker bus, shoot the ashes into the sky or turn them into diamonds. As for graduation – it’s hard to get standing room these days, as whole families turn out to cheer.

And it’s not just that individuals want these public affirmations. According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, societies actually need them in order to function. “It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought,” she writes in Purity and Danger. “It is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts.” There’s no point in trying to stifle rituals, because “if ritual is suppressed in one form it crops up in others”.

Over the next couple of weeks, one of those new rituals will be in full swing across the country in university corridors and libraries, lecture halls and canteens. There they all will flock, the bright-eyed and eager, the nervous and anxious, clutching their free memory sticks and branded sweatshirts, jostling to get a seat for the dean’s induction, then on to the ice-breaking sessions, the welcome barbecue, the film night, the disco.

And as you watch those first-years, at the very start of their new lives, crowding through the Freshers’ Fair, exhorted to join the Fetish Society or the Quakers on Campus or to try out for the football team, what you will be witnessing is a living, breathing initiation rite – a distant relative of those practised across the globe by different peoples, marking the metamorphosis from adolescence into adulthood.

The most prevalent of these is the coming-of-age custom of circumcision. And it’s not for the faint-hearted. Among many tribes, young men are removed from the general population for days, even years; the excruciating mutilation will be accompanied by taunting, the initiated being covered in clay or whipped with yuccas; or, like the boys of the Dowayo tribe of Cameroon, stripped naked and threatened by growling knife-wielders on the way to the penis-cutting.

Such practices do make the induction of new students – the wet T-shirt contests, the binge-drinking, the all-night raves – seem laughably feeble by comparison. But there’s another significant difference. Traditional rituals, whether among primitive tribes or more modern religious communities, serve a serious and a time-honoured purpose: they bind a society, sanction the entry of new members, strengthen their historic bonds and ensure their continuation.

In today’s more secular world, where communities have fragmented and there is no single connecting vision, can there be any point to these newly fashioned rituals? Arnold Van Gennep, in his celebrated study The Rites of Passage, offers one rationale. He uses the term “liminal” to describe a transitional phase between childhood and maturity.

Everyone has to make the crossing: Cinderella at the ball that will determine her destiny; Jack Kerouac when he sets off in On the Road. And, of course, undergraduates who begin at Freshers’ Week and eventually consummate their new status at the graduation ceremony.

Growing up is universal and its marking defies mockery. Which is why, every single time, as I watch them parading across the stage in their tottering heels and with new haircuts, there are tears in my eyes. It’s a significant moment – the sending of another batch of birds out of the nests, to fly into the unknown skies.

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