Pomp and Rites of Passage

Last weekend, Chris graduated from medical school with about 60 other medical and graduate students. As I thought about the anthropological significance of this occasion, I realized that it was a rite of passage, that rite of passage being medical school.

Rites of passage are celebrated across the globe in many different cultures. A famous example is the Native American vision quest, in which youth went away from their families to fast and survive in their wilderness and seek guidance from the universe. Von Gennep, the fellow who came up with the theory of rites of passage, separated these rituals into three parts; separation from the group (when the individual leaves the community); the liminal space (a kind of “in-between” time); and reincorporation into the group.

Graduation from medical school is a very different sort of a rite of passage than a vision quest. Instead of initiation into adulthood, it represents initiation into Medicine. Medical school a part of this rite of passage. Students leave their families for school and spend four years in the nebulous liminal space of medical school, a time full of uncertainty and lack of belonging. Medical students go through an initial “white coat” ceremony (no white coats at Mayo, but they did have an oath swearing) to separate them from their peers and family. They then undergo two years of brain-crushing basic sciences, the life-changing ritual of dissecting a cadaver (overcoming the natural aversion to opening up a human body), and the life-sucking whirl of clinical sessions. Finally, at graduation, they are reconnected to society in their new role: doctors!

Graduation is a big deal. Families from across the country gathered to celebrate this important milestone. Famous journalist Tom Brokaw gave the commencement speech, welcoming graduates into the complex ever-changing world of medicine. One-by-one the graduates were “hooded” with the awkward ring of cloth signifying a graduate degree.

Afterwards, we were treated to a lavish feast – I mean, reception- cheese and crackers, vegetable, little salads, sandwiches and even bananas foster and chocolate-covered strawberries. Families took pictures in the hall as the graduates milled around in their ornate regalia. Afterwards people filtered away to further celebrations – graduation parties, elegant dinners. We ate at Michael’s, the same place we went for my graduation last year.

Graduation. Celebration. Rites of passage. A great chance to see everyone and celebrate the transition to the next phase of our life. 76

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