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Graduation address – morning of Wednesday 23 June 2010

The following Graduation Address was delivered by Professor Paul Boyle on the morning of Wednesday 23 June 2010.


Vice Chancellor, honoured guests, parents and families and, of course, graduating students.

When I was asked to give this graduation speech, I really had little idea of what I should say. For inspiration, I asked one or two colleagues what they would say. All they responded with were some don’ts. Don’t make it too long, don’t make it too short, and don’t ask the parents for any more money. Not much to go on there.

I then decided I should ask some people closer to your age and I turned to my children and asked them what I should say at a graduation address. I turned first to my eldest daughter – an art student at one of the lesser Scottish institutions: “What should I say to those students and parents who are graduating?” Her response: “I can’t believe that they have asked you to do it – a white, middle class, male – typical”, she said. Of course, I was taken slightly aback, but responded proudly pointing out that while St Andrews may be an ancient institution, with one or two rather traditional customs, the appointment of Louise Richardson – the first female Principal and Vice Chancellor in our 600 year history – was evidence that this is clearly a place committed to equality. She may not be able to join the golf club, of course, but we are working on that.

So I turned to our second eldest daughter… the terrifying teenager. Her message was simple: “Like, whatever” and she turned back to Facebook.

So I turned to the third child – the six year old. So, Joe, what should your dad say at a ceremony where our students are awarded a prize at the end of their education? Tell them: “they should all pay their taxes, should not go to war and should not swear.” That boy is growing up too fast, I thought.

So, I turned to the fourth child (don’t worry, that’s it) – the three year old. William, what would you say to the students who are leaving the University? “Hot dog” was his response – I’m afraid that seems to be the answer to everything at the moment. What would you like for dinner? “Hot dog”. Shall we go to the cinema? “Hot dog”. Time for bed? “Hot dog”. He even says it with an American accent, which is very disconcerting.

I am not sure that any of these words of wisdom were entirely helpful, so I decided I would simply give you three truths and three notes of thanks in the short (you’ll be pleased to hear) remainder of this graduation address. The first truth is that you will not remember what I am going to say, at least not for long. I might as well sit down now! I can’t remember what was said at my graduation, I would wager that none of my colleagues here can remember what was said at theirs, and your parents, those who were lucky enough to graduate some years ago, almost certainly can’t remember what was said at theirs. What you will remember is the weather, your friends and relatives who are here to celebrate this with you, the paraphernalia and spectacle of the celebration. This is a most special day, but my part in it is really quite small.

The second is that you cannot comprehend how proud your parents and loved ones are of you today. Yes, you know of course that they are proud, but the depth of that feeling will only become obvious to you once your role is reversed and you are sitting out there celebrating your own children stepping up to receive their degree. This really is a momentous day; the culmination of years of education and the beginning of new careers, global travels or for some further postgraduate study. We are usually reasonably modest in this institution, but I am not sure that modesty is appropriate for today. This is an ancient place of learning that has spawned some of Scotland’s greatest thinkers over the last 600 or so years. We are fortunate that we attract and accept only the brightest students, that this small University is consistently ranked among the top of the UK universities, and that it is certainly leading the pack in Scotland. Graduating from this institution is an impressive achievement and your parents and families should indeed feel rightly proud.

Third, you do not yet fully comprehend the value of the education you have received; the skills you now have, the ability not only to regurgitate, but to question, to critique, to debate, to influence, to innovate. Yes, you have the ability to answer exam questions, have some letters after your name, and will earn larger salaries in the future as a result (probably much larger than mine). But more importantly, you will walk out of here equipped to face up to a range of challenges. Today is not a day for doom and gloom, but it is true that you graduate in some of the most testing times. The economy is shot, we have a Conservative government in power who will be imposing significant cuts to services (I’ll say no more about that), we are facing real problems of climate change, the potential of reductions in oil flow (with some estimating that peak oil production could really happen in the next 15 years or so), population ageing (and I predict that the retirement age will be at least 70 by the time you reach that stage), and ongoing troubles in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Your generation will have to face up to these problems and help us through some troubled times. We can only hope that some of the things you have learnt here will equip you well for this task – not the detailed knowledge that you furiously scribbled down in those exams (much of which you have already forgotten), but hopefully the ways of thinking, the thirst for innovative understanding and the desire to improve the lot of those around you.

I also want to give three sets of thanks. First, and perhaps rarely on this occasion, and on your behalf, I would like to thank the staff and faculty at St Andrews, some of whom are here with us today, who have supported, cajoled and encouraged you through these years. The University would not manage to rank as highly as it does so consistently without a body of dedicated and utterly committed staff.

Second, we must thank you, the parents and families for giving us the privilege of educating your sons and daughters. We all know that the move away from home to university is one of the bravest moments of your lives – no, not for you the students, but for your parents. Dropping off your loved ones, knowing that they had virtually none of the practical skills required to look after themselves, was a day you will never forget. But nor will you forget this day which is the culmination of it all, including for most of you at least a welcome reduction in those monthly bills.

And third, of course, I would like to thank you, the graduating students. Now is the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of all the students sitting here today who are receiving the formal recognition that they have completed their studies. When you arrived we were your teachers; standing at the front of the class, trying to keep you awake in those 9am slots, if in fact you made it at all. We were supposed to pass on knowledge to help you pass those testing exams. Of course, that is not exactly how we see ourselves and, hopefully, by the end of your studies, that is not how you now see us. Yes, teaching is a priority for us – nearly all of us love to engage with students and help you learn new ways of thinking about the world around you. We are passionate about instilling ideas – exciting people about subjects that they could not believe they would be interested in when they first arrived. But, we are also researchers. We are creators of knowledge as well as people trusted to pass that knowledge on. And it is when this leading edge research is integrated into teaching that we have the ability to really inspire. As you will have gradually realised, rather than teach you what you need to know, we aim to teach you how to learn what you need to know. But, it is also important to understand that you, the students, play a vital role in helping us learn more about the subjects we love. Through engaging with bright students we think deeply about the stories that we are telling, and we refine our ideas about how the world around us works, or doesn’t. So, thanks to you for giving us the privilege of educating you over the last few years.

To finish you must realise that while you are graduating from St Andrews, your education should and will continue – it is far from over. We have simply helped guide you along this path for a few years and you, like us up here on the stage, still have much to learn. I thought I would finish, therefore, with some useful advice from Grouch Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

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