Graduation address: Professor John Haldane

Monday 1 December 2014

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, graduates honorary and regular, this and today’s earlier graduation ceremonies bestow recognition on achievement: the achievement of those whom we honour for very significant accomplishments in their fields of work and service: but principally the achievements of our students who have studied and succeeded, and who have processed singly across this stage and who will shortly process collectively from this hall onto North Street, and from there progress into the world beyond this small sea-swept corner of it.

St Andrews is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world and anyone who is associated with it, whether as staff or student or relative or friend, will know that it has recently celebrated the 600th Anniversary of the reception in 1414 of six papal bulls. These were not male cattle but bullae, named as such for the lead seals that authenticated the charters to which they were attached. It was through these patents or licenses that the school of higher studies chartered in 1411 by the Bishop of St Andrews, Henry Wardlaw, was elevated to the status of a university.

Within a generation of that establishment James Kennedy, Wardlaw’s successor as Bishop of St Andrews, laid the four cornerstones of the Chapel of the College of St Salvator which on one side opened then, as it does today, onto the town. This was part of Kennedy’s design: to bind together the ecclesiastical and spiritual, the academic and educational, and the mundane – the secular world beyond.

If the founding bulls were not animals they were nonetheless sources of life and evidently potent ones, for here we all are today, members of the same university, and related, through twenty-five to thirty overlapping generations of teachers and students, to the Bishop Wardlaw/Pope Benedict foundation.

These observations are historical and it is customary in graduation addresses to speak of the future. But what do we know of the future or what can we sensibly say of it save by drawing from the past? Science deals with events and causes, subsuming them under universal laws of nature, thereby predicting continuity. But history deals with human actions and these are the subject of interpretation, with any predictions depending upon an implied view of human nature. The human world is materially grounded but it is significantly composed of meanings, purposes and values. That is why history matters, for it is in the present interpretation of the past that we discover who we, humanly and continuingly are.

This is also the significance of material symbols: they are embodiments of meaning, value, commitment and hope. Having laid the material foundations of St Salvator’s College, Bishop Kennedy then commissioned a silver and gilt mace to serve as a symbol of its purposes and its academic authority. St Andrews is unique among British universities in its collection of mediaeval maces and here today those of the Faculty of Arts and that of Canon Law stand alongside Kennedy’s College mace. But now they are joined by another: the Sixth Century Mace.

Like the ancient ones, this is an expression of Catholic patronage of education. More specifically it is a gift of the Scottish Catholic Church to the University and it was presented to the Principal yesterday by the present day Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews (and Edinburgh) Leo Cushley in a service in St Salvator’s Chapel. Its design is simpler and its treasure more modest than the mediaeval maces but that is apt, not only to our age but to that fact that it comes bearing the arms of Pope Francis who is far from the mediaeval grandeur of sovereign popes and prince cardinals.

This marks, however, a triple papal recognition of St Andrews’ six centuries. During his visit to Scotland at the outset of this decade Pope Benedict referred to the University beginning to mark the 600th Anniversary of its foundation, then last year Pope Francis sent a message of congratulation encouraging [I quote] ‘all the members of Scotland’s oldest University to devote themselves whole heartedly to the pursuit of learning, in accordance with the high ideals that inspired its foundation’. Now he has granted permission for the inclusion of his coat of arms together with those of the University, and these two only, on the head of a new mace commissioned to mark the completion of several centuries and the beginning of who knows how many more.

I have spoken of associations and re-associations that are religious, but the deeper point is more general and appreciable by those of all faiths and of none. Part of it was well-expressed by the Irish parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke when he wrote that a human society is to be regarded with a certain reverence, for [I quote] ‘it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’.

This University is just such a partnership. Those of us who are part of it, whether as students or staff, are so only for short periods. It existed long into the past and it will continue long into the future. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius observed that ‘In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux’; but through our participation in the life of this University our lives have been extended and stilled: extended through association with something ancient and ongoing, and stilled in the process of reflection, whether in private study or shared discussion, or on occasions such as this when the University as a whole is assembled in celebration of the achievements of its new graduates.

Who knows what lies ahead. Whether you will soar or struggle, whether you will walk in the sunlight or in the shadow, whether the road will rise with you or against you, these are unknowns. We live in a world not of our making under conditions we did not choose, over which we have little control. But we can prepare and draw strength by keeping company with deep down things; and that is what membership of an ancient university such as this provides for.

Whatever subject you studied, whatever career you aspire to, whatever comes your way, I hope you might reflect back on this occasion and think that you are part of something larger from which you have drawn, to which you have already given and to which you should aim to contribute in the future, doing so with the sense of being living partners with those who went before you and with those who will follow you, some of whom will be your children and grandchildren.

More immediately, however, I hope you enjoy your celebrations. You deserve them, as do those who have supported you through your studies, and to all of you I say ‘thank you for what you have contributed to St Andrews’. We are deeply grateful for it.

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