Mortarboards: What up with them?

I used the mortarboard tradition in part of my response to another question, and it got me thinking, what WERE they for? There must be some sort of purpose in them SOMEWHERE right? What are they good for aside from balancing large objects on your head at graduation parties?

The only thing a nonconformist hates more than a conformist is another nonconformist who does not conform to the prevailing standards of nonconformity.

As I recall, there were two opposing schools of monks, and they were arguing over a manner of thinking. Eventually, one group of them won out. The “winning” monks wore what we call “mortar boards” and the “losing” monks wore what we call “dunce’s caps”. That’s all I can remember; maybe someone out there knows more. It may be apocryphal, but the mortarboard is indeed based on a monk’s cap.

I’ve also heard the four points represent Music, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Theology. Given that I didn’t take any of those courses in college, I guess I should have had a point-less hat.

“Eppur, si muove!” - Galileo Galilei

I don’t know how they came about or what they’re for, but I do know that there is more variation in them than you might think. At my college, all the students wore ordinary, run-of-the-mill morterboards at graduation, as did most of the professors, but a few profs wore cool, floppy caps made of felt or silk. Some even had floppy octagonal caps. I never learned whether that had to do with the school they went to or was just personal preference, but if I ever get around to finishing my education and go on to grad school, I’m making sure they give me one of those!

PS–The only reason I ever went to any of the convocations or such nonsense was to see my normally staid and respectable (some of them anyway) profs wearing those geeky clown costumes.

well in reference to the different kinds of hats: My aunt recently received her phd in somethingerother from KU and for her hooding ceremony (wich coincided with the normal commencement) she chose one of the floppy octagonal hats. She said it was an option between that or the goofy “frankensteins” as she called them. I don’t know if that is an option available for undergrads as well, but at least for phd’s you can choose that.

The only thing a nonconformist hates more than a conformist is another nonconformist who does not conform to the prevailing standards of nonconformity.

You mean they never carried mortar?

(Guess my education was as pointless as gaudere’s.)


Found this:

“The world ends when I die. And as far as I’m concerned, the rest of the universe might as well call it a day too.” – Matt Groening

All you need to know is, the guy in the mortarboard gets to slap the guy in the dunce cap.

At my graduation, I noticed several teachers wearing the floppy hats. I asked one of them how he got the hat, and he said it was the official graduation outfit from his school in Canada.

Yeah, prof’s are allowed to wear the outfit from whatever school they graduated from. So if they went to some obscure school that has beanies for profs, they get to wear beanies even when they teach at another school.

“Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Re “floppy caps”…

Were these seperate from their hoods, or were they just wearing hoods on their heads instead of mortarboards?

I have a hood from my graduation, but we wore them hanging down our backs with the mortarboards on our heads. If you were to wear it on your head, it would look sort of like a floppy cap.

No, the floppy caps are separate from the hoods.

I think you have to be a doctorate candidate or graduate to get one though.

I do not think that undergrad or even Master’s people get one.

So go get tha Fud (PhD).


The gowns and mortarboards graduates wear are descended from the garments of the middle ages, but the distinction between ecclesiastical and civilian garb was not that great, especially for the lower clerical orders. The hooded sack cloth that we usually associate with the middle ages was only for certain religious orders or those who could not afford something nicer. When education and formal universites started to flourish in western Europe, they were for the clergy, the rich (merchants) and those of the ruling class not likely to inherit the throne/dukedom/estate. Academia has always been a refuge for the useless. As members of a certain social level, and having certain rights and responsibilities (if nothing else, they could read the king’s decrees to those annoying peasants, or figure out how much tax to bleed from them), scholars were expected to dress a certain way. The mortar board and gowns were like the business suit of today.

If I remember correctly, the bachelor’s degree (or lower, I guess) besides the gown, gets the mortar board, the master’s degree gets the mortar board and a separate hood, draped over the shoulders, and those who avoid a real job long enough for a PhD, get a hat to replace the mortar board. (By the way, you have to pay for the hood or hat yourselve - after spending $150K - $180K to reach an advanced degree - no freebies).

I did a web search. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a “bachelors’ hood”, though opinion on it is, well, mixed.

Most places seem to reserve hoods for postgraduate degrees, and the floppy caps (“tams” seems to be the most common name for them) generally are for doctoral graduates only (though not every place uses them).