Graduation address – Professor John Hudson

Friday 30 November 2012

Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen, and, of course, new Graduates of the University, – it is a pleasure to be here to congratulate another body of graduating students, to thank them for the pleasure they have given us, and to thank others present for the support that they have provided in this achievement.

As you have just heard, one of our honorary graduates today is the director of the film about St Andrews, entitled ‘Ever to Excel’.  And ‘to Excel’ is of course what we have been hoping that all of you graduating today have been striving to achieve.  A St Andrews Day graduation is always special, in part because it involves so many postgraduate students, who have chosen to take their studies further, to learn more and to explore still deeper.  Your topics are important, and it is a pleasure to sit here and listen to the thesis titles and to think ‘that’s fascinating!  I’d love to know about it, I want to try to comprehend it.’  So I hope that the PhD graduates will be an inspiration to the MLitt graduates, and the MLitt graduates to the MAs.  And all of you will be a source of pride to your parents and families, who have given you the base from which to excel.

So what should you have learnt in your years of study?  I do hope you have enjoyed the subject matter for its own sake.  In a less results oriented age, when I and my classmates started our undergraduate History degrees, our tutor told us that he’d have succeeded if we’d all read George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ by the time we graduated.  Such is the rounded education that the Humanities can give you.  I am sure that your teachers here have encouraged in you that love of culture which will remain with you throughout your lives, and which you will continue to associate with your time in St Andrews.

But what more are you to have learnt?  What is special about a top-class education in the Humanities, be it undergraduate or postgraduate?  What else will you take with you into the rest of your lives?  Or, put differently, what should be our vision for the purpose of an education in the Humanities?  My same tutor told me before the first lecture I gave here that an audience can only remember three things that you tell them, so here are my three.

First, you’ll have gained a rigorous, loving, and distrusting attitude to language.  Words are wonderful, words are dangerous.  Just take one example.  Having a ‘vision’ for something, for life, for the Humanities, is so easily seen as in itself a good thing – it resounds of Martin Luther King, of a dream, of seeing from the top of a glorious mountain.  But others too have visions, the vision of Mein Kampf, leading to nightmare and totalitarianism.  And so you’ll need to use your education in language, the sensitivity of your reading, to tackle all the complex instances that lie between these two extremes.

Second, continue the thoroughness, the rigour of research that you have undertaken here.  Some may ask what use is a PhD on, for instance, mediaeval land law.  One answer is that it should have taught you that you must examine all the evidence, answer all the questions, before – say – awarding a franchise to run a railway network.

Third, to be able to argue and analyse and to be sceptical.  JM Barrie, talking in this hall almost a century ago, gave his student audience the following advice: ‘begin by doubting all in high places … except, perhaps, your professors.’

And be clear and – where appropriate – be simple.  You will have spent a lot of time being told and telling yourselves, that a subject you are studying is more complicated than had once been thought.  Often this is true – but it is not necessarily the case, and complexity anyway should not lead to a lack of clarity.  Some of you may have read Ken Segall’s book about Steve Jobs and Apple, entitled ‘Insanely Simple’.  Segall was the advertising man who christened the iMac, the first of the multiplicity of i-names.  And what did that iMac look like?  In the world of the mini-ipad, that iMac looks in comparison almost as strange and as clumsy as a mediaeval manuscript.  It was large and lozenge-shaped, with a coloured but translucent shell revealing the inner components of the computer.  Let that be a metaphor for your education.  A capacity for elegance, for simplicity, for clarity, based upon the complexities and power of your inner thought.

So there is my vision for what you will have acquired from your studies of the Humanities.  To be aware of language, its glorious possibilities and its insidious tricks.  To be able to research, with thoroughness and with rigour.  To analyse and to argue, with scepticism but also with creativity.  But let’s set that all aside.  Really my vision is that you will go away from here and catch mention of something on the radio, see something on television, or be told something in a coffee shop or pub, and have the instantaneous reaction ‘that’s fascinating!  I want to know all about it, I want to understand it in every aspect.’  And if that reaction lives in you, so does the potential ever to excel.

Professor John Hudson
School of History

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