Closing Graduation address

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The following address was delivered by the University’s Deputy Principal and Vice Principal (Research), Professor Christopher Hawkesworth, closing the St Andrew’s Day Graduation ceremonies.

Chancellor, Honoured Guests, Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Welcome, and very, very many congratulations to most of you here. I hope it feels good, this is your day, to celebrate, to remember the good times and to look forward to the opportunities that lie before you. And a warm welcome to your families, many of whom have travelled considerable distances to be with us today. We appreciate that, we hope you have a most enjoyable visit in this distinctive corner of Scotland, and we look forward to meeting at least some of you in the celebrations afterwards.

Most of you are graduate students who have experienced equivalent ceremonies before. From many parts of the world you selected St Andrews as a place for further study, we are honoured by your choice, and we hope your experiences here lived up to and, indeed, exceeded your expectations.

For us, it is a huge challenge to digest the history and the lessons of the last 600 years to develop new ways of interacting with and of shaping the demanding world that lies ahead of us. But you are very much part of that development as we try and learn from our mistakes, to take the best of our traditions and think of new ways to move forward.  We thank you for what you have taught us by bringing your experiences and your ideas to this wind swept corner of the Fife coast.

I wonder how you have found it.  A long time ago I came from Ireland to be a graduate student, and I still remember the luxury of being from somewhere else in the streets of Oxford. Much has been written about the experiences of new arrivals, of outsiders in new and strange places. What I still remember is my delight in the opportunity to identify with those aspects of Oxford and England that I liked, and my certainty that all the rest had nothing to do with me. I hope that St Andrews has offered you the same opportunity, indulgent though it may have been.

Graduations are a particular time to take stock, to look back at where we have been and to wonder about the future. These are challenging times as we ponder what I trust is a short term crisis in the financial markets, and the longer term concerns of environmental change and our role in that. However, perhaps there is some reassurance in that other generations too graduated in difficult times, I suspect that we would much prefer to be looking forward to the future today compared with how it may have looked in the 1930s. The challenges are different, but the tools of education and of communication are now much better developed.

HG Wells famously warned that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”  – and with luck we are now perhaps more likely to emerge victorious in that particular race. I am a geologist, and after decades of research we know a great deal about the climate changes that have occurred and how that happened. We also know that it is not the Earth itself that is in peril, it will outlive us all, but we may make it a very different place to live on with huge costs to us and to future generations. We know that, and we know many of the things that need to be done, it is increasingly obviously in our hands.

More broadly this sense of ownership should be important to us all. I profoundly hope that education gives us that sense, we are who we are, we need to know ourselves, and I hope education has given all of us the confidence to take ownership and to delight in change. As John F Kennedy admonished us “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Change makes us uneasy, it can be challenging and even threatening, but turn it around – would we enjoy life without change? Where then would be the new ideas and new experiences that engage and excite us, that are part of what I hope for all of you will be a continuing journey of learning and of discovery. If you are ever in doubt about that think back to today, when you shared your graduation with an exceptional scholar who continues to write in front line international journals in both physics and philosophy, at a time, at least in this country, when he might formally be retired.

Let me end with one other thought about what we hope to do in universities. It is about the ideas that we are introduced to, that we discuss, that we try and understand and to improve on. Too often we confuse our reactions to ideas with our reactions to the people who hold them. That may be inevitable in some contexts, but many of the best scholars I have been privileged to know and to work with, are marked by the ability and the insight to challenge our ideas and yet still want to have dinner with us afterwards. Perhaps we don¿t keep the ideas and the personalities separate often enough.

Just for now, perhaps we should let the future take care of itself. There is much to be done, but this is very much your day, the result of your hard work and I hope also a lot of fun. Very many congratulations on your graduation, and please make the most of what lies ahead. Please remember us, come back whenever you can, you will always be very welcome.

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