Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, and especially new graduates of the University of St Andrews:
What just happened here? I don’t mean what happened here in a literal sense. We can all see that: you walked across the stage, a hood was placed on your shoulders, Latin was spoken, a
nd you had your picture taken. Rather, I mean: what was the meaning of what just happened here?
I’d like you to reflect on that question by inviting you to think back to your arrival here almost four years ago. Many of you will remember in your first year knowing an apparently worldly wise, mature fourth-year student who seemed to own this town, to know everyone in it, and how everything works around here. Perhaps that student was your academic father or mother, or a friend who played a significant role in helping you to settle in. I want you to take a moment to think of that person and what you can remember about them now. What are they doing now? Are you still in touch? Have you heard about them through mutual friends?
Now imagine them sitting here, in this room, perhaps in the same seat you’re in, three years ago, going through the same rite of passage you’ve just been through. Perhaps too, in the bleary early hours of a late Raisin Sunday night, or an early Raisin Monday morning, you listened to anecdotes from that student about his or her own academic mother or father and the high jinx that they got up to three years before you even arrived here. This then – two generations of students, or six years – is about the length of living institutional memory in this place. That’s how far back into the past your collective memory goes, before this institution becomes a different place, full of different people whom you never knew.
I’d like the graduate right at the far end of the back row now to place his or her right hand on the right shoulder of the student in front. And I want you all to imagine that that link represents the two generation institutional memory that we were just talking about. That person in front of you is, let’s say, the academic father of your academic father, the one you heard the anecdotes about when you first came here. Your arm is a bridge six years back into the past, to those stories that are passed on orally from student to student. So the person in front of you is the year 2006. And now I’d like that graduate – year 2006 – also to reach out and place your hand on the right shoulder of the graduate in front, making another six year link back into the past to the year 2000, four generations ago. And can each graduate in that end row do the same as they feel the hand of the generations behind you touching your shoulder.
Just four graduates along and we’re already back to a time before many of you were born. When the chain reaches the front row we’re back at the year 1952, when there were only around 2000 students at the University, less than a third of the size of the student body now. If the graduate at the front of the row can reach to the left and link arms with the student in the next row along, I’d be very much obliged. And if you students in the second row form those two-generation bridges to the back of the room, you’ll find that we are now connected back in links of shared memory to the year 1892 when women were admitted as students of the University for the first time. That’s only twenty of these generational links back. A woman called Agnes Blackadder was our first female graduate – she’s the academic grandmother of you all.
I want you to think how much an institution can change, and be changed, within a short space of time. If the back of the second row of graduates would now link across to the third row and the third row continue placing their hands on the shoulders of the student in front, we’ll reach the year 1832 at the front of row three, passing through the time when the philosopher John Stuart Mill was our Rector, and when the physicist David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope, was our Principal. Row four: as keen-minded, quick-witted St Andrews graduates, you’ll probably have anticipated what I’m about to ask you. So if you continue to form our human snake towards the back of the hall we’ll reach the year 1772, passing through the year 1800 (graduate number five) when one of your predecessors, John Honey, swam out to a shipwreck in St Andrews Bay after Sunday Chapel on the 3rd of January, saving five lives, and inaugurating the Sunday Pier Walk, a tradition which you still maintain. Keep going now and at the front of row five we’ll reach 1712. We’ve now passed by James Wilson (second graduate from the back), who graduated in 1761 and emigrated to America where he became one of the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence. When row five links to row six and reaches to the back of the room we’ll arrive in the year 1652, passing through a time when the Regius chairs of Mathematics and Hebrew were established at this University, laying the groundwork for our excellence in both Science and the Humanities. Row seven link up to the front of the hall and we’re in 1592, already earlier than the two years when the Scottish Parliament sat here in St Andrews when Edinburgh was beset by plague, and earlier than the foundation of our Library with books donated by King James the sixth and first.
If you reach across to row eight, and row eight links to the back of the hall, we’re connected to another sixty years of fellow graduates back to 1532 and a time before the foundation of St Mary’s college. Reach over to the first graduate in row nine and that’s Patrick Hamilton, the young Lutheran who was burned out on North Street for the right to hold his beliefs, and whose initials you must have successfully dodged in the cobbles in order to have passed your exams and be in this hall today. If row nine joins up to the front of the hall we find ourselves in 1472 just before the great fifteenth-century poet William Dunbar arrived to study here. Row ten will take us to the back of the room and join us to the year 1412 and to the humble beginning of this great little university, when its masters were waiting for confirmation of their status from the anti-pope Benedict XIII.
Now just hold that chain for a moment and think of the stories handed on from generation to generation, and of the small steps which link us back to our very inauspicious origins. When you leave this building in a few minutes, and we process into St Salvator’s quad, I want you to look at the stone building in the far left corner as we enter – the Hebdomodar’s block. Those stones are the earliest surviving bits of university building we have left. And I want you to imagine those first students (there were just eleven of them) sat in that cold stone building by the fire on a dreich November night with the wind blowing off the North Sea, reading their Aristotle and learning their Latin. Think about how much can come from so little. A handful of seed to sow acres of field across the world. These people, and all the other graduates who have come between them and us, are your academic family. And you have just joined them. Because that’s what’s actually happened here in the last hour. Formally, the University is not a collection of buildings, old or new. It’s the joint body of its academics and its graduates. When the words ‘et super te’ were pronounced over you, you ritually just became part of the General Council of the University of St Andrews. It’s a good example of what John Austin, the speech-act theorist, called ‘performative language’. Some language does not describe events, does not communicate information, but actually effects something, makes change happen. During a wedding ceremony, for example, the words ‘I pronounce you man and wife’ have the same effective power, they bring a change into being. What’s happened here is that you have become the University, like all those other graduates who went before you. You are now the University of St Andrews.
And what does that mean? Because you’re about to leave this town after four years. You’re about to leave this charmed existence in what you call ‘The Bubble’, a miniature world in which together you’ve put on plays, made music, competed at sports, organised film festivals and fashion shows, broken bread together, made bonfires on the beach in the long summer evenings, and even ran into the North Sea at four in the morning on the first of May. And now people are telling you that you have to leave The Bubble behind, to go into the big wide world, to get ‘a real job’, and to work for ‘the man’. You’re like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost being expelled from Eden. And after Graduation Ball, when you pass under the arch of St Salvator’s, perhaps for the last time, you’ll read in a light projection: ‘The Bubble misses you already’. And some of you will undoubtedly cry.
But without you St Andrews never was this charmed, bubble-like place. This is a tiny seaside village with three streets, one cinema, a theatre with a near permanent programme of panto, and a population, the average age of which when you all leave is about one hundred and three. St Andrews should never have been the buzzing, exciting hub of so many rich social and cultural encounters that you will remember all your lives. It became so because you made it so; you performed it, you changed it. You, collectively, pronounced your own form of ‘et super te’ upon it. For which we academics on this platform thank you; you have made our lives infinitely richer and more enjoyable while you have been here.
If you can transform this little place into The Bubble, think what you can do in that mythical place ‘the real world’. Think how much better the real world would be if ‘the man’ was introduced to St Andrews. And he will be. Because now you scatter like seed to the corners of the world to be teachers, journalists, social workers, ministers, solicitors, aid workers, government advisors, hedge-fund managers. But you’re not leaving the University of St Andrews, because you can’t leave it. You are now the University of St Andrews. You take this place with you. So this is my challenge to you; go and make the world more like The Bubble. The world needs you now more than it ever did. And then come back and tell us how you did it. What happens next is going to be even more exciting than what just happened here.
Dr Chris Jones
School of English