Graduation address – Brendan Cassidy

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate our new graduates and to wish them well for the future. The fact that they chose to study at this great and ancient university already marks them out as people of superior discrimination.

You graduates arrived here four years ago – eager, expectant, excited and no doubt a little apprehensive. Some of you may have thought, ‘Will I be smart enough for St Andrews?’ Well now you know. So what’s happened along the way. You undoubtedly know more – about Economics or Mathematics or Psychology; and if you don’t then you’re sitting there under false pretences. But I would hope also that you have learned a great deal else besides, from simply being part of this extraordinary cosmopolitan community. Conversations with friends and acquaintances about politics, books or ideas over a decaf latte or a glass or four of Chardonnay, although it pains me to admit it, may have had just as formative an influence on you as the time spent in libraries or listening to the likes of me in lecture rooms. And what else will you have learned – well you now know that that you can survive a Sottish winter with only five hours of daylight without developing rickets. And I would hope you have learned more about yourselves. This, of course, may be a good or bad thing depending on what you’ve learned; self discovery always involves a degree of risk. You may have discovered only that you have a particular aptitude for sleeping or procrastination.

The years you have spent with us have been focused on one end. We have tried to fill your heads with information and ideas and to fine tune that exquiste machine that is the brain. Good universities are gymnasia for the mind. The exercises may be strenous; we expect you to absorb large quantities of information; to assess its reliability and relevance; to question what you read and what you’re told; to think for yourselves and to express your thoughts clearly and precisely. The purpose of these mental callisthenics is to make you fit – not just for careers but also to exercise clarity of thought and judgement in the conduct of your lives and to give you the confidence to question the world as you find it and to suggest ways for its improvement. This is what universities like St Andrews do and there is no more important work – we train the educators and innovators, the decision makers and opinion formers of the future. Among you today are a few people of whom we’ll say proudly in years to come, “I was at St Andrews when they were there”.

Your intellectual achievements, however, are not to be credited entirely to St Andrews nor to yourselves alone. Your parents must be given their due. Many of you are here because of the sacrifices they made. Their genes (that’s genes with a ‘g’) contributed to your brains, and their wallets to your education.

This year marks a major anniversary for St Andrews. Six hundred years ago in 1411 Bishop Wardlaw issued the foundation charter for the university and since then, apart from a couple of sleepy centuries in the middle, this little town has been been home to people who have had a lasting impact on the world. You may not achieve the distinction of a John Napier, the deviser of logarithms, or Sir James Black who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 and you have missed the chance of being King or Queen of England, since those positions seem destined for two of our other graduates, but you still have it in you to add to the sum total of human achievement, of human goodness and, dare one say it, of human happiness. It is unlikely that a happiness index will ever replace GDP as a measure of a nation’s success – despite the musings of our politicians. The emotion is surely too subjective to lend itself to measurement. You psychologists may tell me differently, however, for we have much to learn from you about how we perceive the world, how the mind works and why we behave as we do.

You mathematicians are blessed, for what you do is highly valued. We live in a Golden Age of science and technology the success of which is largely underpinned by your calculations. You may talk a language which most of us can only dimly grasp, but the results of your work has borne extraordinary fruit from which we’ve all benefited (I shall avoid the temptation to tell you to go forth and multiply). As for you economists, was there ever a time when your talents were more sorely needed ? And as long as you avoid bad company – such as rogue bankers – you too have the potential to do enormous good in the world.

Whatever you end up doing you are on the threshold of life’s next great adventure. As ever Shakespeare had the words for the occasion: “There is a tide in the affairs of men”, he wrote, “which taken at the flood leads on to fortune” (Julius Caesar). You have reached one of the high-water marks in your lives. Whether you end up surfing the waves or paddling in the shallows is partly up to you. You have the intelligence and you have the education. What you make of them will now depend on your energy and ambition, your determination and appetite for work, as well as a deal of luck. We are living in uncertain times. However, with your St Andrews degrees you are better placed than most people to determine the kind of life you will lead.

Whether you end up surfing or paddling we hope that you’ll look back fondly on the years that you spent here and that you won’t forget us. We will certainly remember you – our Development Office will make sure of that.

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