Opening graduation address – Professor Nick Rengger

Tuesday 22 June 2010

The opening Graduation Address was delivered by Professor Nick Rengger on the morning of Tuesday 22 June 2010.

Chancellor, Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the start of this ceremony, about an hour ago, we came in to the joint singing of the Gaudeamus. This is, of course, an old song, dating back, according to some, to the founding of the University of Bologna in the eleventh century and popular in Universities across Europe, and indeed elsewhere, ever since. It celebrates both the irreverence of student life and the joys of youth.

Gaudeamus igitur
Juvenes dum sumus.

Let us rejoice therefore
While we are young.

Graduation ceremonies such as this one, mark, of course, both the end of the academic year and the award of degrees. Some of those degrees, those given to our distinguished honorary graduates, recognise great contributions made to the various wider worlds outside St Andrews wherein they have made their reputations. But most of these degrees are awarded to those who have studied here and so mark the culmination of years of work and effort here in St Andrews. For those of you who have been students here, then, today marks the end of that journey. But like the Gaudeamus, a graduation ceremony does not simply mark that journey: it celebrates it.

But, also like the Gaudeamus, in celebrating the successful conclusion of those efforts we are also celebrating the years spent pursuing them and those who have helped along the way: parents, siblings, friends, even – dare I say it –  teachers.  I have often thought that the old saw that says that schooldays are the happiest days of your life should be amended to include university. Though it is now more years ago than I care to remember, I can still recall my own first day as an undergraduate at university. As one writer has put it, in words I cannot better:

“Almost overnight, a world of ungracious fact had melted into infinite possibility…what opened before us was not a road but a boundless sea; and it was enough to stretch ones sails to the wind”i

Amongst many other things, it is, I think, that sense of permanent possibility that we carry away with us which makes the years we spend at university so important.  The friends we find, the crises we surmount, the universe of activities we immerse ourselves in – even perhaps on occasion the course we take and the lectures we skip – sorry attend –  all of these help us to acquire something we learn to recognise, as time goes by,  as one of the things most worth having in life and most worth celebrating: A mind and some thoughts of your own.

But, of course, this has to happen somewhere; in a particular place, among particular people. And in this case, it happens here, in a small town on the East coast of Fife. Small in size, that is. For in no other sense is St Andrews small. Great and Terrible things have happened here. Men have been burnt at the stake for their beliefs, or been hung from the windows of their own cathedral to die; Parliaments have sat here, in crisis and in chaos (no change there then), and, even today, every five years, the town, is invaded by numberless hordes. Though, generally, the open Golf championship is considered a good thing, I am told.

The point of course is that every university is shaped by its particularity as well as by its generality, its commitment to the world of learning generally. All of us at this university are blessed by the wonderful environment, social, cultural, architectural, and natural that makes this such a special place. So, of course, we celebrate that as well. Then there is the weather – but you can’t have everything.

This ceremony, however, celebrates not just your achievements, and not just the environment of this university that helped to make them possible, but also the idea of the university itself. And that idea is especially worth celebrating today when the pressure on it is greater than it has been for many years. We are all familiar with the insistence on relevance, on the direct contribution universities might make to the wider world of which they are a part, the assumption that universities should ‘reflect’ that wider world, and should contribute to it, in a concrete, practical and measurable way. Universities are seen as engines of progressive social transformation, as contributors to the wealth and prosperity of a society, local regional national or global, as agents of social justice, as a place to train the next generation of engineers, doctors, lawyers (or whatever it might be) and so on.

It is not that any of these things are necessarily bad in themselves, of course, but in our concern for them we run the risk, I think, of forgetting what the idea of a university actually represents. As John Stuart Mill memorably said in his inaugural address as Rector of St Andrews in 1867: “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.” And making ‘capable and cultivated human beings’ means approaching the specific material with which universities characteristically deal – be it history, or Law, or medicine, or computer science or, indeed international relations – not instrumentally not as something to be pursued for the sake of something else – a ‘good’ career, social justice, world peace – but as a mode of exploring and understanding the world that is pursed for the understanding it can give of and for itself.

The university is the place where the multiplicity of self understandings that human beings have developed and imagined for themselves and their worlds are explored, refined, abandoned or made new in close but often oblique conversation with one another. And while learning goes on in many settings, and in many forms – human beings become what they learn to become –  only in universities is the whole stock of civilisation under consideration and reconsideration. That is what gives them their special character and that is why trying to make them something else is so problematic. ‘A University, like everything else ‘ Michael Oakeshott once wrote,’ has a place in the society to which it belongs, but that place is not the function of contributing to some other kind of activity in that society but of being itself and not another thing’.ii It is indeed in being itself, that the university can contribute to the things that we celebrate here today and thus to the wider community of which it is a part and so it is the university as itself that ceremonies like this one also celebrate.

I said at the outset that, for those of you who are receiving your degrees today,  this celebration marks the end of a journey. But of course, it also marks the beginning of many others. Other worlds of opportunity beckon you, and even in the rather squally seas that are likely to be ahead for the next few years, what you have learned here in St Andrews will stand you in good stead. As you journey, I very much hope, that you will come back, from time to time, and tell us of your adventures, add to that rich store of stories that, in some measure at least, have their beginnings in this small corner of Fife. You will always be welcome here. In the meantime, let me close, as I began, with a sentiment drawn from a verse of the Gaudeamus:

Vivant membra quaelibet
Semper sint in flore.

Long live all students!
May they always be in their prime!

Good luck.

i Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal learning (ed Tim Fuller). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001. p.149.

ii ibid. pp116-117.

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