John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Baptism as Ritual: What’s the Analog in Higher Education?

I am moved to blog about baptism because I participated in one this weekend. As context, I confess that I am a thoroughly secular person and haven’t gotten this close to an altar since I was a child. But recently my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I were asked by a mother of a new baby, to become the child’s “godparents” and to participate in his baptism. This little boy, about six months old, had lost his father even before his birth, due to a plane crash which took the father’s life. Betsy and I are very fond of the child’s mother and so we gladly consented.

My self-concept is that I am a responsible adult but this request made me reflect why I had never been asked to serve in this capacity before– maybe because this Christian custom is not all that common anymore, at least in my circle of personal acquaintanceship. Or maybe anyone who knew me well enough would assume my secular approach to life’s most important transitions would not permit me to assume such a role. I don’t know. But I am glad I agreed as I enjoyed the whole process: the rehearsal, the ceremony itself, the celebratory lunch to follow, and the realization of the importance of committing the whole village to raise the child.

Strange as this may appear, my mental thoughts standing there in front of the altar included:
1) my noting my respect for the importance of rituals to mark important life stage transitions;
2) my personal enjoyment of formalized rituals;
3) the role of ritual in binding people together in community;
4) raising the question about what, if anything, might serve as a counterpart to baptism for today’s students as they enter our colleges.

And so I reflect: what would it mean to “baptize” entering students? Well, of course, we wouldn’t want to use that decidedly Christian verb, particularly in governmentally supported institutions. Some related questions:

1. How do we formally celebrate the entry of the group’s new lifeblood, using ritual, song, reciting of creeds and important values, beliefs, candles, processions?
2. OK, so most of us don’t. But would it make a difference if we did?
3. How do we gather the receiving community together to welcome the new entrants and to pledge our support?
4. How do we designate “godparents” which I guess would be the equivalent of some kind of mentors who commit to invest in the development of the new member?
5. And for those of us who don’t do anything that might approximate any elements of the above mentioned kind of ritual, what informal actions do the students take to provide rituals for themselves because we aren’t meeting this basic human need for them? That’s right: all humans need and therefore create ritual, and have been doing so since the beginning of human kind. I hope your college or university has some kind of holy water to sprinkle on new students other than beer.

-John N. Gardner

One Comment

  1. BryceJuly 2, 2010 at 12:42 pmReply

    Great post John. I think you're right about both the importance of and current lack of meaningful rituals in higher education.

    At first thought, I wonder if a well-designed New Student Convocation could serve as a useful ritual. This sort of convocation might explicitly welcome new students onto a campus, introduce them to the common aims of the institution, connect them with the institutions history and traditions, and then ask for some sort of pledge or commitment from students. Washington State University has (or did a few years ago) a great Convocation that includes many of these elements, including a formal "pinning" ceremony where alumni or students "pin" new students with a school pin.

    It would be great to see some sessions at the next FYE conference in Atlanta devoted to this idea of ritual. I think you're on to something important. . .

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