Graduation address – Lorna Hutson

Thursday 23 June 2011

Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen

After the years and months of lectures, tutorials and study, and after the weeks of examinations, marking and results, we’ve come at last to the week of celebration, of graduation ceremonies, of honouring those whose work we greatly respect, and of thanking friends and families for all their love and support. For most of this ceremony, apart from the laureations of these two great craftsmen of language, Alistair Reid and Les Murray, we’ve been listening to the sounds of names – the names, beautifully pronounced by the Dean of Arts, of graduate after graduate, followed by the Latin words ‘et super te’, ‘and upon you’. For most of the last hour or so, you have clapped, and paused to hear a new name and to watch another elegant figure move across the stage, and then you have clapped again, looking out, perhaps, for that one person who is special to you – your son or daughter, relative or friend.

But of course, within every single one of these sonorous names lies an inner landscape of experience: of each person’s four years’ of living, working, thinking and feeling here in St Andrews. Each of you who has been named and honoured as a graduate today has a vast store of memories from those four years – memories of arriving, of being new, of adjusting or not adjusting, of partying into the night, of freaking out over essay deadlines, of making friends, of breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, of loneliness or embarrassment, of camaraderie, perhaps of political activism or triumphs in theatre or sport, and surely – whatever else – of new discoveries about yourself, and about the world. These memories can’t be distilled into your degree and measured or ranked like a qualification, but they are nevertheless indissolubly bound to that degree, as the form taken by your experience of learning at this great and ancient university.

Recently, as I am sure you know, politicians in this country have been questioning the fundamental purpose of universities and have been trying harder than ever to find ways to collect data to measure their benefit to the nation’s economy. As part of this, they have promoted something called ‘the student experience’. The ‘student experience’ is, at its best, an idea about providing people with information on the quality of university facilities, helping them make choices. But at its worst, as with all attempts to quantify what can’t be numbered, the idea of ‘the student experience’ loses sight of the very thing it is trying to measure – with the definite article before it, your ‘experience’ becomes a commodity to be served up, and you – our former students – become satisfied or dissatisfied consumers.

The thinking behind this separation of ‘student experience’ from the larger purpose of education assumes that education is a commodity in which you invest merely in order to get a better job. Because this rather dry idea of learning as earning power leaves out all fun side of university life, politicians felt the need to invent ‘the student experience’ to describe that part, and to justify its competitive marketing. So students’ education and students’ experience have been artificially distinguished by politicians in order that each can be more effectively used to measure and rank what universities are supposedly ‘selling’ to you.

But, as those of you who have just walked across this stage know best, the learning you have acquired isn’t separable from all your other memories, both good and bad. It’s not separable from physical sensation, from the emotions you’ve felt, from friendships you’ve made and even buildings and spaces you’ve traversed and inhabited. Learning isn’t separable from embodied and impassioned experience, and neither of these can ever be reduced to the data that will rank us as an institution or you as a person. And those of you, friends and family, who have known these new graduates the longest, you will bear me out here, and bear witness to the inseparability of the intellectual and personal changes you’ve seen in them over the four years they have been here. The learning you, the new graduates, have been doing in dialogue with your teachers and fellow students, whether it has involved art history or the mastery of other languages, will spill out into the rest of your life and will radically alter the lives of others. You will take away with you, we hope, a habit of critical interpretation, and an ability to inquire into the patterns and motivations of human artifice and interaction. This will give you lifelong pleasure and confidence, but it should also help you confront and resist, for all our sakes, the more sinister and uncritical manipulations of data and information that are becoming common in the world in which we now live. After all, you are the future: we depend on you.

This is why learning and experience aren’t commodities and why they are above price. The seventeenth-century poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, following Seneca, put it like this:

The price of many things is far above what they are bought and sold for. Life and health, which are both inestimable, we have of the physician; as learning, and knowledge, the true tillage of the mind, from our schoolmasters. But the fees of the one or the salary of the other, never answer the value of what we received, but served to gratify their labours.

Learning – ‘the true tillage of the mind’ – is of inestimable value; it’s not a for-profit affair (if we think that profit only equals money) because, like health, the value of learning as an activity is simply incommensurable with that for which it can be traded. And Jonson’s image of learning as cultivation or tillage of the mind reminds us why this is so: teachers may begin that culture but it continues as a creative, self-forming process practised by all of us all our lives. The image is particularly apt here, for in Fife, all around St Andrews, the tillage of the fields is unceasing, just as your learning will go on and on, affecting all around you and spreading that process of cultivation.

Jonson shows us how learning breaks free from the brokerage of power and money, but his times also show us what happens when universities put competition for prestige above openness to new learning. How many of you graduates here remember trying not to step on the ‘PH’ in the pavement outside St Salvators? That ‘PH’ stands for Patrick Hamilton, a young student who, when he returned to St Andrews in 1528 from visiting the University of Wittenberg, was burned at the stake for criticising the curriculum and expressing the ideas he’d learned from Martin Luther. But this violent act of censorship shot St Andrews to the top of the early modern league tables in Theology: the Head of Theology at the more prestigious University of Louvain wrote to congratulate St Andrews that its Theology Department was now ‘equall to ours or elles above’.

Of course, Theology at Louvain was wrong: Patrick Hamilton’s ideas came to shape a new curriculum for St Andrews and a new faith for Scotland. Ranking orders imposed by current political orthodoxies can’t anticipate the effects of humane, open-ended dialogue and inquiry that universities can and should foster, and that you, we hope, will continue to stimulate and develop among others in whatever career or work you choose to go on to do.

So congratulations to you all: not statistics in league tables, but people who’ve responded to the charisma of intellectual proximity and of co-existing in a great community, of being with each other and learning from each other, but also of being helped by friendly office staff, student support staff, tutors, lecturers, supervisors and postgraduates. And congratulations to all you parents and friends who have supported these graduates from afar, have listened on the phone, and have sometimes written to me, and to other Heads of School, to alert us about something that affected your child, once our student, now among our graduates and alumni. We are all of us a community united by our belief in the value of learning, and this is not a competition, but a process of giving back to, and interacting with, a world that’s given us so much, and that now needs you. So don’t be strangers when you leave, but keep in touch, and come back and see us: you are always welcome here. But meanwhile, get out there and celebrate! This June, this graduation, is harvest time, and the fields are white. It’s time to reap and enjoy the fruits of all that tillage of the mind

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