Curiosity and Caricatures
Chancellor, President McAleese, Colleagues, parents and graduates,
First and foremost, warmest congratulations to those of you who are graduating today. I would also like to congratulate your family and friends. I would like to ask each of you graduates to pause for a moment and imagine what this moment might be like for your parents. You are understandably preoccupied with saying goodbye, leaving the bubble, getting to the garden party before the champagne runs out, but please take a moment to draw them into your celebrations and into the life you are leaving here. This is a very big day for them too. I’m sure they are very proud of you, but also probably just as anxious about this turning point in your lives.
Do you remember, years back, the image you had of St Andrews before you came here? The caricature, even? A few weeks after I arrived in Scotland, not long before you arrived in St Andrews, a member of the Scottish government described the university to me as “a bunch of posh English Tories on some ice cold rocks.” Well, they got the rocks right.
Yes, there are posh English Tories at St Andrews and they are St Andrews; and there are socialist Scottish nationalists, and they are St Andrews, and there are American Democrats and Republicans, Germans of left and Right, Indians from Brahmins and Shudras, Chinese from mainland and island, Nigerians from North and South, and even the occasional Irishman and woman. And we are all St Andrews University. And each one of us knows that the caricature is wrong. It takes a small piece of a complex picture and renders a simple, memorable, and mistaken portrait, posh English Tories.
I don’t want you, ever, to forget that caricature, and I don’t want you, ever, to forget just how wrong it is. Whenever you hear a person, a place, an institution or a political perspective described in oversimplified terms, remember that caricature, look further, ask questions and seek out the messy truth behind the simple falsehood.
Parents, you probably thought when you left your children here four years ago that they would emerge trained for a high paying profession, not least so that they could begin to reimburse you for the black hole in your life savings occasioned by paying for a university education and all the ancillary necessities that go along with it. (No doubt you’ve been repeatedly told just how expensive it is to live in St Andrews.) It’s too late, I’m afraid to get your fees or accommodation costs back but I should confess that this is not what we have been about.
Now my colleagues and I very much hope that at least some of you will be very successful financially and that those of you who are will be very generous to your university. But actually, education is more about who you want to be, than about what you want to do.
John Stuart Mill, speaking to students and teachers at St Andrews 146 years ago recognized this and said that: “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” So parents, you cannot complain that you were not warned.
The truth is, we have sought over the past four years to rob you of your certitude and to replace it with a boundless curiosity. So, when a newspaper, or a politician or a colleague try to sell you a simple, Manichean view of the world, don’t buy it.
Some of you may know that before coming to St Andrews I spent many years researching the motives of terrorists. The one characteristic I found that terrorists of all ideologies invariably share is a highly oversimplified worldview, a view that sees everything in black and white terms of good and evil. I would love to think that that perspective is limited to terrorists, but sadly it is not. But that perspective is antithetical to the education we have worked to give you these past four years.
When confronted recently by the newspapers with a poll reporting that only 40% of Christians were convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury could resolve the problems within the Church of England, Justin Welby replied that he hoped it meant the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question. His point, of course, was that one individual, one perspective, cannot solve a complex set of problems, and we shouldn’t expect them to.
Many of you are headed for the city, the law, graduate school, hospitals and the professions while many of you remain unsure. There is no shame and much benefit in uncertainty, at least as long as Mom and Dad are prepared to bankroll “a hundred visions and revisions…and… a hundred indecisions.” The odds, of course, are against any one person in this room going out and developing a means of apparition – or even a port-key – or world peace, or a cure for disease, but the odds that all of us and our children will have a better life, are so much greater if each of you figure out a small way to make your small part of the world a better place.
Many of you are understandably sad at leaving The Bubble that is St Andrews, but as you leave try to think about what it means, and take it with you: the time to invest in relationships, working hard and playing hard, delight in a diverse environment, caring for those around you, a strong sense of community.
Do good, be curious, and remember the caricature.
May the Bubble go with you.