I was recently invited to attend an inaugural lecture by an academic who is an old friend of mine, and who had just been appointed to a professorship in his university (not DCU). His lecture was a tour de force on aspects of law and society, and the whole thing was most enjoyable and stimulating. But what struck me almost as much was that he appeared (as did the senior university officer who chaired the event) in a gown. And so I was transported between intellectual admiration and a feeling I was sitting by the set of Goodbye Mr Chips.
However, I should be honest about myself. When I delivered my very first undergraduate lecture in 1980 as Trinity College Dublin’s brand new Lecturer in Industrial Relations, I did so in a gown. It’s not that this came naturally to me, but I was encouraged by my Head of Department to do so, and so I did. And I even kept it up for a while, until I thought that this was simply too daft for words.
But then again, as I watched my friend I did have just a moment when I thought that it was really rather nice, a moment for intellectual tradition to be clothed formally. But it only lasted for a moment. Those times are gone, really.
You’ll still find me in a gown at graduations. We owe that to the students, and probably more still they owe it to their parents. But not otherwise.
But perhaps the bigger question we need to address is what value we place on academic traditions – or whether the whole idea of tradition may be intellectually stifling.