Graduation Address June 2012
Empathy and Hope
Chancellor, honoured guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. First and foremost, warm congratulations to those of you graduating today.
I know that there are a lot of mixed feelings in this room, though I don’t doubt that the predominant one is the aspiration that I don’t speak too long as, from looking at the programme, you know that we are approaching the end of the ceremony. But I’m thinking of other emotions. I know that you graduates are anxious to get outside, even if it is raining, to see your friends, to express loudly your pleasure that you are a university graduate, and to get to the garden party, and the celebrations beyond.
Behind the excitement, however, there has got to be some trepidation at leaving the Bubble that is St Andrews, the place that four years ago seemed so foreign but that you have now made your own. What is it with these woolly red robes, you must have wondered. While you were here, it was always fairly clear what you had to do next (even if the King James library was impossible to find, or the course credit system seemed impenetrable.) Now you are leaving the security of all that behind. Every adult you have met for the past six months has probably asked you what you are doing next, and almost as many have been willing to offer advice, solicited or not. There are choices to be made, and that can be tough.
Robert Frost had only two paths to choose between. He chose the one less travelled and that made all the difference, but he had it easy. You have any number of paths to choose between. The important thing is to make a choice.
The reality of the mixed emotions behind graduation – rather than the unalloyed joy we see here in the smiling faces of graduates, and the proud smiles of parents peering from behind cameras – was brought home to me this time last year when my eldest daughter graduated from university. On no less than four occasions in the course of the several day celebration, I walked into a quiet room and happened upon a mother and daughter in the midst of a flaming row, robes askew, tears flowing, mascara running. I never stayed long enough to get the specifics but the theme appeared always the same: the kids saw the occasion as being about them, and wanted to spend the last hours together with their friends. The parents had other ideas, they had travelled long distances, they had bankrolled four years, this was an important occasion for them too, and they wanted to be a part of it. (It seemed clear even to me that the underlying cause was deeper, was the strain of the watershed both were facing.)
As you know, space is at a premium in St Andrews. There are very few quiet rooms to be found, so in order to protect some unsuspecting person like me from walking into the middle of an intense family quarrel, stop, and try to think for a moment what this occasion must feel like to your parents. They are very proud of you and happy for you, but as parents we cannot help ourselves from feeling affected by your moods, implicated by your decisions, responsible for your actions, so do take the time to share this occasion with them. Introduce them to your friends, show them your favourite St Andrews haunts – well, you might want to be a little selective there – help them to understand the depth and the range of your experience here. Besides, let’s face it, the odds of their being willing to underwrite a graduate degree are better if they have a good time this week.
The ability to empathise, (to, as Attitus Finch memorably told Scout, ‘climb inside the skin of another and walk around in it’,) to see the world from another’s perspective, is a critical life skill, it is a hallmark of a vibrant democracy and a civilised society. You won’t find it in any matrix of government stipulated employability skills. It isn’t easy to teach. It requires practice, so get some practice today by seeing these celebrations through the eyes of your parents and sharing it with them.
I would also like to ask you to spare a thought for some people who are not here. This community has been rocked the past three weeks by the deaths of two of our students and a third who graduated last year. One of those students was due to graduate on Tuesday. Just think what his parents would give to be here, with him, today. So before you feel sorry for yourself that you are entering a difficult job market, or rail at the injustice of the fact that someone less talented than you secured that high flyer job with a fast track to the boardroom of a Ftse 500 company: Stop, and think about how extraordinarily lucky you are to be here today. There is a real responsibility that goes along with being so fortunate, with having so many options, and I expect the weight of that responsibility is quietly weighing on many of you here in Younger Hall. One place to look for guidance is to people you admire. For all the venality and mendacity evident in public life there are many admirable people to whom you can look for inspiration. Their example should serve as an antidote to cynicism.
This week Aung San Suu Kyi revisits the UK. She has provided the entire world with a model of quiet determination, moral fortitude, and dignified but unshakable resistance to tyranny.
Earlier this year one of my heroes died. The poet, playwright, prisoner, and president, Vaclav Havel. He wrote to Alexander Dubcek in August 1969 after the apparent failure of the Prague Spring: “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.” He believed in hope, hope born from uncertainty and distinct from optimism. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well” he said, “but the certainty that something makes sense irrespective of how it turns out.” He would advise you to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
Someone who knew all about success, Steve Jobs, also died this year. He would encourage you to have the courage to follow your intuition.
All three, with different careers and from different parts of the world, have become globally recognised names. None of them set out to be. Each of them has experienced failure as well as success, and they would each say that failure is a much better teacher. Each would say that many of the most admirable people they have met, are the least well known. Each of them had the courage to choose, and so should you. You are an extraordinarily privileged group of people. Appreciate that. Go forward with empathy and with hope. Do good, have fun, and leave your children a better, fairer, safer world than we, your teachers and parents, have left you. And finally, never forget St Andrews. We are proud of our role in your education. If you do end up being as financially successful as Steve Jobs, remember to share that success with us, so that future generations can enjoy the St Andrews education you have had.