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Closing graduation address - Dr Sara Lodge

Friday 25 June 2010

The closing Graduation Address was delivered by Dr Sara Lodge (School of English) on the afternoon of Friday 25 June 2010.


Chancellor, Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen

This is a happy moment in the University year, where we celebrate the achievements of people we admire. Our honorary graduates: people whom we’ve invited across the world for the enormous pleasure of shaking them by the hand and saying how much we respect and enjoy their work; and the new, mostly young, graduates among us who have just completed their degrees here after four years of study.  I congratulate you, from the heart, on graduating from this university. Your degree recognises your intellectual excellence and capacity for mastering particular subjects, wrestling with their complexities and conundrums. But it also recognises your sheer staying-power, your willingness to dedicate a significant portion of your lives to living in a scholarly community, figuring out its rules, negotiating strategies for managing everything from tutors’ incomprehensible handwriting to noisy neighbours. These are the hidden tests of university life, and they are as crucial, in their way, as the academic challenges. The people who know you best will have seen you change a great deal while you were here. And that brings me, of course, to the other heroes of the hour whom we rightly celebrate today: the parents, the families, the friends who have supported you in reaching this goal, triumphing over those hurdles, and standing here in a colourful blaze of glory.

To live in community is itself no small achievement. One of the things I want to stress to you today is that you do not leave the community of St Andrews when you leave St Andrews. You are now part of this university, part of its long and illustrious history, part of its social fabric; today you join a long procession of graduates of the University of St Andrews that includes the Scottish Renaissance poets William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas; John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian church in Scotland; John Napier, the inventor of logarithms; Edward Jenner, the pioneer of smallpox vaccine and, in more recent times, the feisty feminist novelist Fay Weldon; Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond; the triple gold-medal-winning Olympic cyclist Chris Hoy.  Who knows what this year’s graduates may do or may become?  I hope that you feel, as I do when I look at you, that your promise is infinite: that the capacity of your lives and your ideas to change the world for the better are as boundless as the elements of air and water, whose interactions make living in a coastal town like St Andrews so fascinatingly unpredictable.  I hope that many of you will come back to St Andrews, will take your former tutors seriously when we say – for we mean it – that you are always welcome here. Many graduates choose to remain in touch with each other and with the University through St Andrews clubs, which hold social events in cities around the world. Some graduates, after establishing their own careers, generously share their professional expertise with St Andrews undergraduates who are thinking of entering the same line of work or study. I hope that you will continue that tradition of friendship between different generations of St Andrews graduates, down the years.

There are a few images that everyone who lives for a time in St Andrews carries around with them. One, I think, is the end of the ruined Cathedral, lit up by a winter sunset like a pair of holy goalposts. One is St Salvator’s quadrangle, with a golden frame of daffodils in Spring. But the last is the West Sands, that extraordinary runway of sand, which stretches for almost two miles out towards the Eden estuary. It is one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland. And although it doesn’t belong to the University, no student leaves St Andrews without having spent time there. It is a place for reflection, for walking and thinking; but also a place for running and kite-flying, barbecues, and the May dip: when at dawn on 1 May, hundreds of students jump into the freezing North Sea – a kind of exfoliation for body and mind. There is something intrinsically nostalgic about the West Sands. Half of the magic is that you walk away from St Andrews for the pleasure of looking back at it.  It is as if this university town comes with its own telescope, its own instrument for gaining perspective on itself.

I wanted to conjure up the image of the beach because, in a sense, it brings together the rich diversity of subjects in which graduates are receiving degrees at today’s ceremony: among them Film Studies, Geography, Geoscience, Music, Philosophy, Social Anthropology and Sustainable Development.  As most of you will know, some of the most famous films set in Scotland involve a beach: ‘Chariots of Fire’, with its inspiring opening sequence in which the Olympic runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams are shown running along the West Sands; ‘Whisky Galore’, set on the mythical Scottish island of Todday; and Bill Forsyth’s 1983 movie, ‘Local Hero’. In ‘Local Hero’ an oil company has decided to build a refinery in an obscure Scottish coastal village. The inhabitants are delighted and dream of wealth – all except Ben, an old man who lives in a shack on the beach and stymies the project because he won’t give up his tiny plot for money.  It’s a lovely film, very warm and funny, but it has a serious undertow, which is about how we value things. In a sense a beach is a pile of detritus: the pulverized remains of old rock, dead sea creatures, abandoned human wares. In another sense, a beach is one of the richest places one can imagine: it is a perpetually self-renewing treasure trove, a natural commons, a free space in which imagination can soar, people can meet on equal terms and can be their truest selves. The beach in ‘Local Hero’ brings the protagonist up against the question of what he really wants and values.

Beaches in general raise questions of human development, land use, and sustainability, as those graduating today in Geography, Geoscience, and Sustainable Development will be well aware.  They are fragile ecosystems, susceptible to erosion, and in particular to the pressure of climate change, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and, as we have seen tragically in recent weeks, to the man-made catastrophe of oil spills. They are our vanishing points; they remind us that we live constantly on the edge: that human society, despite its seemingly overwhelming power and fixed conviction of progress, is vulnerable, transient, obliged to adapt in every generation to new circumstances and old debts. Beaches, properly considered, can make us think of everything: of science, of art, of philosophy, and of our future as a species.

In a way, then, the University has more in common with the West Sands than one might think. For universities, too, are there to make us think about everything, not merely as separable subjects, divided into modules and papers, but as interconnected aspects of the rich intellectual ecology, the cultural commons, which is human knowledge, creativity, and imagination.  That is, ultimately, what makes universities a force for good in the world. And it something that we shouldn’t forget in these difficult days when universities have been subsumed under the heading of Business in the government’s division of administrative departments. Universities do train people in specific skills, some of which enable them to gain jobs: but we are not factories, turning raw materials into employable tools. Universities do undertake research, some of which may lead to the development of new commercial products and enterprises: but we are not giant laboratories, there to generate profit for industry. Universities have a higher and broader and deeper and subtler social purpose, in my view, which can never be adequately described and contained by purely financial balance sheets. We exist as a space where people think and learn and share information and ideas; where people can explore and participate in a field of human endeavour that is as long and varied as the history of the world; where they can grow and change and experience pleasure in learning and understanding themselves and others better.  I hope that the University of St Andrews has been that space for you.

We face significant challenges at this moment in history: both national and global. You are part of the solution to them. As new graduates of the University of St Andrews you have concrete skills and knowledge, but you also have vision, and creativity, friends that you have made here and less tangible connections that you have developed, perhaps with a book or a film, a piece of music or an idea first mooted by a figure long dead, that will be equally important in the years ahead. I wish you every success in your future lives. But more than this I wish you happiness: the wisdom to know what you truly need and value, and the courage to pursue it.

Good luck, congratulations, and enjoy the rest of your day.