Graduation address: Professor Louise Richardson

Friday 26 June 2015

Professor Louise Richardson

Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, Graduates

First and foremost I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to those of you who are graduating today. It is a terrific achievement and one well worth celebrating. And, as I know only too well, St Andrews students are very good at celebrating. I have been reinforcing the window panes of University House all week in anticipation of the graduation ball on Saturday night.

One of the few downsides of graduation is that you have to endure older people asking you what you are doing next, and giving you advice. Generally this advice consists of telling you what we have learned and to do things we didn’t do, and expecting you to address all the problems we have failed to solve. I can’t help myself from doing the same.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that until you have children of your own you cannot possibly understand the depth of your parents love for you. Once you have your own children your parents’ behaviour – that you now often find embarrassing or annoying – will all make sense. You may even find yourselves behaving in similarly strange ways. My point is, don’t wait until then to tell them that you love them too.

This is a very big day for you, but it is also a big day for your families. Try to share it with them. As you grapple with the mix of emotions that attend this moment; delight in graduation, and sadness at leaving your friends and the life in the bubble you have lived these past four years; think of those who have helped make it all possible, by washing your clothes, sending you yet another check, listening as you railed against teachers who didn’t understand you, landlords who didn’t appreciate you, and boyfriends or girlfriends who ditched you. Thank them and draw them into your celebrations.

I received an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen last week. My son, who has just completed his third year there, on learning that I was to be awarded an honorary degree, said: “I cannot believe that you are going to get an Aberdeen degree before I do.” He is too nice to have said what I’m sure he was thinking: “That’s not fair. I’ve had to work for my degree.” He is right of course, and life, we all know, is not fair. As we sit here, there are people, just like us, who are cowering in ruined buildings in Syrian cities hoping the next bomb won’t drop on them. There are people, with feelings and emotions just like ours, hungry and frightened, crammed into bockety boats, hoping that they will make it to safety in Europe. While we are here, all dressed up, happily celebrating your graduation from one of the world’s great universities. Life is not fair.

The other question people seem unable to stop themselves asking graduates is: What will you do next? Many of you will be relieved to be able to say that you have a job in business, or the professions, or a place in graduate school. Others may not know. Uncertainty is fine. (I say this as an academic not as a parent, I know only too well that uncertainty can be expensive for parents.) Indeed one of the purposes of education is to rob you of your certitude, to cause you to question, to wonder, to adapt. The fact is that you entering the working world at a time when the pace of change is breath-taking. Many of you will hold in your life-times jobs that we cannot even imagine today. It is altogether more important that you take time to think about Who you want to be and not just What you want to be. In the words of Fernando Pessoa “To be great, be whole. . .  Put all you are into the least of your acts.”

One of the many advantages you have had is to live and study on the edge, on the edge of the great North Sea, on the periphery of Britain, on what is called the Celtic fringe. One does not have to be in the mainstream to have a good and meaningful life. The perspective from the edge, the perspective of the outsider has driven great creativity, great literature, and great insight. It is true that to be a doctor you need a medical degree, to be a lawyer you need a law degree, but to be a contributing member of society you need the values imparted by a university like this, critical thinking, constant questioning, ethical acting,  responsible citizenship, and above all, empathy. In the face of an ever accelerating pace of change, we need some constants with which to navigate.

In the past year we have seen the transformation of the political life of Scotland. In the past two weeks we’ve seen the destruction of a distinguished scientific career in a matter of hours. With a 24 hour news cycle and instantaneous global communications through Twitter and other social media, we need to cultivate the qualities of reflection. Contrast today’s instant news with the situation 200 years ago. Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. It took 4 days for news to reach London.  In 1865 it took 12 days for word of Lincoln’s assassination to reach London. Today we would have instantaneous twitter feeds from the battlefield, and selfies from Ford’s theatre.

We need to resist the urge to rush to judgement. We need to remember the words of the great writer and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer, who died this year. She said: “The facts are always less than what really happened.” She also told us that: “Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.” Please try to remember that, try to retain some distance, remember the perspective of the periphery as you feel pressured to adopt popular positions and join in with the crowd. Or, as Robert Frost famously put it: “I took the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.”

I know you are anxious to embark on the serious business of celebrating your graduation to get to the Garden Party, so I won’t detain you much longer. Today is a day for celebration and for optimism. I’ve often said that I think universities are the last bastion of the optimist, and graduation day is the apex of that sense of optimism, as we watch you smart, educated, young people, full of promise and potential, charge out onto the world, and we up here hope you do a better job with it than we have done. It won’t all be plain sailing. It never is. Robin Williams the great comedian who also died this year said in the wonderful film Good Will Hunting. “You will have bad times, but they will always wake you up to the stuff you weren’t paying attention to.” You have every reason to be optimistic.

You cannot control the world that you have inherited but you can control the attitude you bring to it. Albert Camus who understood the perspective of the outsider better than anyone once said: “Maman used to say that you can always find something to be happy about. In my cell, when the sky turned red and a new day slipped into my cell, I found out she was right.”

So go out there, find things to be happy about, be comfortable outside the mainstream, delight in your good fortune, remember those with less, and don’t worry about the greater fortune of others, thank your parents, empathize with strangers, question received wisdom, make time for reflection, concentrate on who you are not what you do, work to leave the world a better place than you found it. Remember St Andrews and all that you have learned here and enjoy celebrating your great achievement in graduating from what one of our better known graduates has described as “Far and away the best university in the world.”

Thank You.

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