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Opening graduation address

The academic procession in The Younger Hall. (Credit: Ede & Ravenscroft)

The following address was delivered at the opening Graduation ceremony yesterday (Tuesday 24 June) by Professor Jan Bebbington, School of Management.

My name is Jan Bebbington and I teach sustainable development at the University.  I have been asked to give this address because today our first cohort of sustainable development degree students are graduating.  I will return to the issue of sustainable development later on in this address but before then I wish to talk more generally.

I would like to briefly talk about the start of your time with us.

In particular, I recall one evening a few years ago when I attended the ‘parents’ evening’ held at the start of the academic year.  Students may be unaware of this event – it is for parents to come and talk to teaching staff, to ask any questions about option choices, the contents of the modules, how assessment is conducted and such like.  As you can imagine although it appears to be an information session is it actually more than this.

In particular I recall what the then Dean of Science (now with us on the stage as Vice-Principal of Teaching) said at that gathering.  He acknowledged and spoke about a parent’s natural anxiousness at leaving a daughter or son to fend more or less for themselves…to make their own decisions and mistakes… and for their family home to be less full than it once was.  He promised that the University would do its best to look after you all (within the bounds of what is possible given you come to us as adults).  Most importantly he promised that we would return you to your families changed and changed for the better.

While you are in many ways the same person who joined the University I hope that you have changed.  Of course you know a great deal more about your chosen subject and indeed other subject areas as well.  You will have more sophisticated skills in terms of preparing written work and making presentations.

Likewise, you will have learned to be tolerant of the opinions of others exactly at the time as your own opinions have become more deeply formed and held.  But most importantly I hope that the mixture of the formal and informal part of your experience at St Andrews will have changed how and what you think about the world and what role you see for yourself in that world.

This combination of changes brings to mind the work of Sir Patrick Geddes … a Scotsman of some fame who is often described as the father of town planning because of the work he did in the old town of Edinburgh transforming slums into more liveable places.

Geddes was also a professor of Biology at this University (although based in Dundee, when it was part of this institution).  Having noted that he was also a philosopher – here we have someone who was into inter-disciplinarity.  He sought to understand the world, not through one lens but though many and in particular to understand how aspects of the world, of problems and solutions are interconnected.

He also wrote extensively about education and ways of knowing, using the analogy of heads, hands and hearts.  When he spoke of heads he was thinking in terms of the development of reasoning, the acquisition of ideas and the manipulation of knowledge for specific ends.  Hands encompassed practical knowledge, gained by the use of ones physical self –  for example, in understanding food production it is appropriate to involve students in the growing food and eating the fruits of their labou.  This experience can reinforce their head knowledge.

Finally, he wrote about hearts…that is how knowing about the world should be accompanied by an emotional response.

For example, it is one thing to understand the mechanism of the earth quake that hit China a few weeks ago – it is another thing to feel compassion and concern for those members of our human family who were caught up in the devastation.

Geddes also coined the phrase (in 1915 or so) “think global, act local” which brings me back to sustainable development.

Sustainable development is a phrase used extensively in policy, business and media circles and is in essence a simple idea.  It refers to a form of human activity (with all the associated economic, cultural, spiritual and social aspects of that activity) that allows human needs to be met while at the same time not undermining the ecological capacity of the earth to sustain life.

Sustainable development does not dictate that ecosystems will not change or that we will do nothing as humans – but it does require that in transforming our natural environment we do not destroy its integrity.  A good way of thinking about it is that it is fine to eat fish – as long as you are not eating the underlying stock of that fish population that allows the species to breed and produce more fish in the future.

That is the head part of Geddes heads, hands and hearts trilogy.

The heart aspect of sustainable development relates to deep and abiding moral commitment to equity for all individuals alive today and that all future generations will have the opportunity to meet their needs as well.

This moral aspect of sustainable development makes it a difficult concept for some. There is no way to ‘prove’ that this sense of compassion (and indeed a sense of love) is ‘right’ – but the international community has placed this moral imperative at the heart of the agenda.

Of course this has implications for how we might act — the hands part of Geddes conceptualisation.

How you will all use your talents in crafting and creating a better world is yet to be seen.  As your teachers we will not necessarily see you do this – but I do hope that you will let us know how you are getting on with that task.  You should not be shy about being and staying in touch – part of the significance of this ceremony is that it formally affirms that you are part of our community now and for always.

I am sure your futures will be full of joy (and naturally laced with some pain).  A few of you will go on to achieve public acclaim and distinction – like those we have recognized today with honorary degrees.  Many of you will make your mark on the world without attracting such attention – but your mark will be significant nevertheless.  While your impact may be in your chosen profession I hope it will also be felt though service within your community.  I also hope that how you love and cherish those closest to you will leave a lasting legacy.

Indeed, we look forward to meeting many of those who have loved and cherished you before and during your time with us.  And to those the friends and families gathered here today – I would like to formally say thank you for entrusting your loved ones to this institution for part of their journey through life.

Finally I wish like to say kia ora (or be well in the language of my country) – I wish you all the very best whatever your future plans may be and wherever they take you.  Remember that you always have a home here and that you will be remembered with much fondness by your teachers.

ENDS

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