Chancellor, Principal, ladies and gentlemen, and new graduates of the University.
It’s a great pleasure to congratulate you on your achievement. Graduation is a special, happy moment in the university year, when we celebrate the success of many remarkable young people who have achieved much in the last four years or so, and I hope that even if you don’t remember every last detail of today’s ceremony, you’ll take with you memories of the pride and happiness and goodwill that surrounds us in this hall. It’s already been a long day, and there are plenty more celebrations to come, so I promise to be brief.
My first task is to offer thanks. You are no doubt already thankful that a busy final year, or arduous examinations, are now behind you – but spare a thought for your predecessors, the University’s first graduates in 1414, for whom final examinations consisted of being ‘called in turn to sit on the black stone to be questioned by each of four examiners’. Many of you have been kind enough to thank your teachers. But we’d like to thank you, too. Sometimes, when faced with a forbiddingly high pile of essays to be marked, it can be all too easy to forget just how fortunate I and my colleagues behind me are to have the privilege of teaching and learning with such bright, interesting and energetic students. Our discussions with you in the classroom really do make us think differently about subjects that are familiar to us through years of research. So thank you for all that you’ve contributed to your own success here. Thanks to your parents and families too, for entrusting us with the education of your children. We hope that we and they have provided a happy and proud ending to the chapter that began nearly four years ago when you dropped them off, no doubt with an element of nervousness and uncertainty.
Graduation is also a time for reflection. What will you take from your four years of studying Art History or History? What have you learned from your time in St Andrews and specifically from your study of how people in the past lived, thought and expressed themselves? One thing you’ll have learned is just how frequently Art History and History students are asked to explain their choice of degree subject! At a time when university education is increasingly presented as a commodity in which one might invest to secure a brighter economic future, it would be easy to become defensive or insecure about the place of the humanities. But I’m sure you know that such pessimism and cynicism are unfounded. In truth, as globalisation makes the world smaller and perhaps more homogenous, the study of past societies, their ideas and their culture, actually offers a unique opportunity to test your ability to deal with the unfamiliar: to understand different ways of seeing the world, and to respect difference. This sensitivity to difference and a capacity to make sense of the unexpected make you very well prepared indeed for whatever path you now choose. You’ve learned to gather evidence and to analyse; to argue from the particular to the general on the basis of that work; to seek out all the information and ask all the questions before reaching your decision; and to be sceptical (but, I hope, not routinely cynical) about what you read and hear. You’ve also amassed a wealth of other skills that are not commonly found in the glossy pages of brochures for prospective students: the ability to work all night when a forgotten deadline looms; to make it through the early-morning tutorial after a late night; to think on your feet when some crucial piece of information buried deep within your notes momentarily escapes you; to plough on through the unavoidable dull-but-worthy tome, and feel all the better for doing so. But in addition to all that, you’ve surely also acquired a love of your subject, and more generally a curiosity and a love of learning that you will take with you.
As students of past societies, you’ve become used to thinking about time and its effects: you’ve analysed how people, institutions, ideas change over time. Amidst all the excitement and celebrations of your graduation, take a moment to think how you have changed in your time in St Andrews. Perhaps you’ve become more confident, more resilient, more thoughtful. You have also become part of a six centuries-old institution, joining those very first graduates from 1414. You become bearers of the University’s proud traditions of excellence, rigour and integrity. And in a few minutes, you’ll leave this hall perhaps for the last time, no longer students but graduates imbued with six centuries’ worth of achievement. We very much hope that you will keep in touch with us, maintaining that historic connection that unites the worldwide St Andrews community. Above all, we hope that all that you’ve learned here will serve you well, and we wish you all every happiness and success.
Dr Stephen Tyre
School of History