Graduation address

Monday 30 November 2015


Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The first thing I would like to do today is to thank the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, for leading St Andrews into an era of unparalleled success. I have never met a better head of a university; we will sorely miss her, but also wish her well for the future: Oxford is very, very lucky to have her.

The second thing that I need to emphasise is how well all of you, our new St Andrews graduates, have done. Let me illustrate what I mean. I was walking on The Scores not so long ago and I overheard a man talking to his relatives as he was showing them around St Andrews. I am not sure if he was a local man or not, but this is what he said to them:

‘Do you see those students over there in the red gowns? Do you see them? They are from the University of St Andrews. When they graduate from here they are made for life. Can you imagine never having to worry about anything, ever, because you’ve got a degree from the University of St Andrews?’

This is, of course, the view from the outside. But one thing I can guarantee you is that he was wrong on at least one count. A degree from here does not mean you will enjoy a life without worry, or that you can just relax and look forward to one big success after another. At the same time, the outside view is an important perspective because it underlines how special you are seen to be, that you are perceived to have done something that merits external recognition, and that graduating with a degree from St Andrews will definitely shape your life.

By trade I am an intellectual historian. This does not mean that I am more of an intellectual than normal historians, but that I deal in ideas and in the history of ideas. It is notable that the man who showed his friends or relatives around St Andrews felt that the key idea associated with a university degree was success in life, and that success was equated with a life free from commonplace apprehension. I think that a degree from St Andrews gives you something much more valuable. A degree has always been an indication of learning. But more than this, what you have hopefully gained from studying at this place is the capacity to think for yourself and to have an independent mind, capable of defining the public good, and capable of adhering to an idea of what is best for everyone, in your life and in your work. In other words, you have become a ‘citizen’.

In the ancient world a citizen was almost always a man, someone who was the head of a family, who owned the land and organised the ploughing of the fields, who fought for his community where necessary, and who made the laws together with his peers in popular assemblies. The ancient citizen needed leisure to do all of this, and that is why the role of women was to look after the children and why slaves were called upon to undertake arduous labours within the community. It was accepted everywhere that the ideal of the citizen could only flourish in small cities, where people were forced to get to know one another, had to share lives, and from where it was difficult to escape. The central claim was that only men who participated in the activities of making laws, cultivating the land and fighting for the state, would know what the public good was, and how to establish a community which helped everyone within it.

Thankfully we have abandoned the idea of natural slaves and of gender inequalities. But it remains the case that small communities like St Andrews, where people see each other all of the time, where they have to get on with one another, and where people from any place on Earth are welcome, are the best in which to foster an extended sense of citizenship as the practice of the public good.

One of the great statements of this philosophy was made at St Andrews by John Stuart Mill, on 1 February 1867, when he was Rector of the University. Mill said that teaching at a university should be penetrated by a sense of duty.

Mill stated, and I quote, that universities: ‘Should present all knowledge as chiefly a means to worthiness of life, given for the double purpose of making each of us practically useful to his fellow-creatures, and of elevating the character of the species itself; exalting and dignifying our nature. There is nothing which spreads more contagiously from teacher to pupil than elevation of sentiment: often and often have students caught from the living influence of a professor a contempt for mean and selfish objects, and a noble ambition to leave the world better than they found it, which they have carried with them throughout life… A university exists for the purpose of laying open to each succeeding generation… the accumulated treasure of the thoughts of mankind.’

I trust that this has been your experience whenever you have engaged with your tutors.

St Andrews used to be different. The main idea associated with students who graduated from this institution was once an absolute morality, guaranteed by the lack of opportunities to enjoy luxuries or to indulge in wickedness, carnality, debauchery or licentiousness.

I would like to finish by quoting a passage from James Grierson’s St Andrews as it was and as it is of 1838 to show you what you missed: ‘The system of classical, mathematical, and philosophical instruction carried on [here] is not surpassed by any university in Europe… Owing to the smallness of the number of students that frequent the University, every individual is known to the professors, both with respect to [their] moral and literary habits… [and owing to] the absence of all manufacturing establishments, the youth [here]…are better protected against the formation of idle and vicious habits than in any other part of the island.

‘Perhaps in no other locality in Scotland, are the facilities of a complete and comprehensive course of education so great as they are in St Andrews. Large houses, self-contained, may be rented from £30 to £50 per [year], whilst rooms for the accommodation of single students may be had as low as £3 per [semester]. Provisions of all kinds are excellent and cheap in St Andrews – particularly the very best fish, on which two individuals may dine at times for a single penny. But after all these advantages… every Saturday, [landlords] have an opportunity of stating, to the college meeting, any impropriety of conduct which their boarders or lodgers may have exhibited – this, taken in conjunction with a strict Sunday discipline, is the best guarantee against those vices and injurious habits which, in larger cities and midst a more numerous attendance of students, are but too apt to obtain.

‘No student attending the classes in St Andrews can stay out beyond a reasonable time at night, or indulge in any open and known vice without coming under college censure, and being apprised that, if [their] conduct is not corrected, [their] parents or tutors will be informed, and that even expulsion may take place.’

Congratulations to all you graduates again. You have avoided expulsion, however low your moral conduct. Go out and be citizens.

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