Graduation address

Monday 30 November 2015


Vice-Chancellor, Honorary Graduate, colleagues, new graduates and guests, welcome to St Andrews on this very special day when one door closes and many others open. It is of course special for another very particular reason and that is, as most of you are aware, our Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Louise Richardson, is also about to close one door and open a new one elsewhere. I wish every one of you good luck and good fortune as you step through them!

You will have been told that your years at university will be among the best that you will ever experience. You have had the time to think, read, reflect, make friends, many of whom will be lifelong, and engage in a range of extracurricular activities, some of which you may consider wise to leave at the gates of the University. There is truth in that statement of course, even if, I have often thought, it seems to carry with it the seed of pessimism. It is surely not all downhill from here? There is excitement to be had in the challenges and opportunities that will await you and for which St Andrews will have (hopefully) prepared you. That said, if my experience is anything to go by – and bear in mind I represent that class of people who enjoyed it so much they refused to leave – a longing for a ‘simpler’ time will increasingly come into focus.

Indeed, as your graduate years recede towards the horizon, your university experience, especially this one, compact, engaged, dynamic and above all friendly, will be viewed through a haze of nostalgia, a degree of clarity and structure that you will find wanting out there in the real world. This distinction may become all the more apparent as the challenges, opportunities and sheer complexity of the real world become apparent: the decisions made or not made, the compromises we end up making and, of course, the regrets that shape our lives.

When I was graduating from my postgraduate degree – many years ago – I still remember one of my tutors in her farewell lecture telling us that the greatest challenge of our generation would not be avoiding nuclear holocaust, but the challenge of global poverty. This was back in 1990 as the Cold War was coming to an end and the much anticipated peace dividend had yet to be spent. The world to us appeared more promising than it had been for a while and yet, as we watch the flow of migrants grow ever larger, her warning has proved all too prescient, if the causes have proved depressingly familiar and far more complex than any of us could have imagined.

Indeed looking across at the region I work on, the Middle East, one cannot help but feel bewildered at the extraordinary complexity of developments, in which enemies are not only swapping places with friends, but enemies are treating enemies as friends while allies turn on each other, all according to circumstance, situation and location. There is an incoherence at the heart of this theatre of the absurd that is truly breathtaking. We wallow in a surfeit of information but have little knowledge.

It seems to prove ever more difficult to make sense of the non-sense that surrounds us; a brief excursion to the Internet will provide us with any number of explanations inventing a coherence and a logic that does not exist beyond the fertile imagination that conceived it. Indeed the vast panoply of conspiracy theories – that curious process of speculative rationalisation that joins disparate dots into a seemingly coherent whole – has been enabled rather than diminished by the revolution in information technology that we are living through. We live, as they say, in an information age rather than an age of knowledge.

As I peruse the papers and websites from both East and West, but in my case more East than West, I continue to be impressed by the range and sheer depth of the various conspiracy theories on offer. Very occasionally reality bites but like water round a stone, and the conspiracy theorist will find a way of explaining away the anomaly. One day I came across an article in the Iranian press that appeared to provide a solution. The author argued that the root of the problem lay in the fact that his country lacked ‘gentlemen’. So determined was he to get his point across that the English word was transliterated and it was this that caught my attention. In order to procure more gentlemen, he argued, it was important to send aspiring young men (and one may assume women) to the best Western universities where they could acquire these particular skills. As you can imagine it was not long before ridicule was heaped on this particular gentleman as he was accused of talking nonsense, and there was much mirth all round. And yet… was there a flicker of sense in the morass of nonsense? Had the author actually hit on something quite sensible?

What is education? Education is the acquisition and application of knowledge. And what is knowledge but the judicious interpretation of information. Translating information into knowledge requires judgement. Judgement requires analytical awareness and the acquisition of what used to be termed manners. Manners allow the transformation of the vulgar towards the civilised, through the medium of education. In Persian the description is different though perhaps more attractive and easily digestible. For Iranians the difference lies between someone who is raw and cooked, with the implicit assumption that one should never be over-cooked (or indeed half-baked?).

An over-acquisition of ‘manners’ is just as disastrous as its absence and it follows that the application of judgement should itself be judicious and balanced. This is not an exact science. The problem for Iran, the author appeared to be arguing, was that there was a failure to use information effectively, to apply knowledge for the good of the many, because education had concentrated on the acquisition of information, but not knowledge. The twin pillars of a coherent educational system, the acquisition of information and the ‘manners’ essential to their productive application, was found wanting.

That he felt this could only be addressed by sending people overseas is perhaps the only really problematic part of the argument. The acquisition of manners has been a staple of Persian historical and literary writing for centuries and ‘mirrors for princes’, guides to ethical  and what we might understand as ‘civilised’ behaviour, were circulating in the Persian world long before they became a popular genre in Western civilisation. There should in sum be no shortage of material that could have been sourced at home. Perhaps he felt that the Iranians had become over-cooked and needed some rebalancing?

Be that as it may, the sources for an education are many and varied in the Persian world, and among the most prolific and well known is the medium of poetry. The existence of a rich poetic tradition has long been considered one of the pillars of a well-developed (well-cooked) civilisation and we can even see today how politicians will, on occasion, turn to their national poets as a means of conveying this point. A good example may be found in the great moral and educative poet of Iran, Saadi.

Now, it is a tradition at graduation addresses in St Andrews for the speaker to end with a piece of Persian poetry. Like all good traditions this has been wholly invented – in this case by me. It is – alas – not a tradition that has been widely respected. This particular poem, mediaeval in origin (thirteenth century) has proved both extremely popular and relevant, such that it adorns the entrance to the UN in New York. It has also been quoted by politicians, most notably President Obama, though for reasons known only to the White House he was unable to proceed much beyond the second line. A pity, because the point of the poem lies in its conclusion. It is perhaps a good example of the triumph of information over knowledge.


‘The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,
Having been created of one essence. [So far so good but it goes on.]
When the calamity of time affects one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If you have no sympathy for the troubles of others,
You are unworthy to be called Human.’

It remains for me to bid you a fond farewell. Good luck.

Be gone, be good, and make us proud!

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