Graduation address: Professor Ali Watson

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Vice-Chancellor, colleagues, parents, friends and new graduates of the University of St Andrews in particular. It is my pleasure to be speaking to you on a day that marks the ending of one chapter of your lives, and the beginning of another. There are always many thanks to give on a day like this: to your families – whether by blood or love – who have supported you throughout your time here, and to the friends who sit with you today and with whom you have shared so much. I also want to give my thanks, on behalf of my colleagues and myself, to you because whether you know it or not, your commitment to challenging and to expanding your knowledge during your time as scholars here at St Andrews – a commitment that we are recognizing today – leaves a mark, a contribution to education and to community that will continue to echo within the fabric of this institution long after you have left this hall today and taken your first steps away from St Andrews and towards an alumni network that stretches across the globe.

In a town marked by the ruins of castle and cathedral, we of all people should know that structures come and go. But it is truly the students and the teachers, past and present, which make our institution, and the community that surrounds it – a community that is now part of you, in the same way that you are part of us.

It was on this day in 1723 that another alumnus of this university, Adam Ferguson, was born. Ferguson would go on to be a prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and is now seen as the ‘father of sociology’, but writing in the eighteenth century his work highlighted the importance of community to the happiness of the individual, deeming commercial society as too focused on the latter at the expense of the former. In his renowned Essay on the History of Civil Society, he states:

“[A person] is, by nature, the member of a community; and when considered in this capacity, the individual appears to be no longer made for [one]self. [They] must forego [their] happiness and [their] freedom, where these interfere with the good of society. [They are] only part of a whole...That is the most happy state…[when] hearts are engaged to a community.”

I just want to be clear that I am not alluding to the idea that you make individual sacrifices for our community specifically – just to remember that you are forever part of the St Andrews community – a community of individuals brought together to expand humankind’s knowledge through critical and collective thought, through reason and logic, through understanding and patience. So what does happiness for such a community mean? Do we thrive as a body of tolerant and open-minded individuals? Do we concern ourselves with equality and equity for all? Do we desire to open our gates for the masses as opposed to the few?

For many of you sitting here today – students, and now degree holders, in International Relations – I imagine your time here has been both enlightening and challenging. I know too that as a representative of the St Andrews community you graduate at a time when the world needs the knowledge and skills that you have learned during your time here more than ever before. For so many of us, as scholars of international relations, it is counterintuitive to think that the history of mankind and its interactions on this planet are too complicated to understand; that our differences as peoples who must coexist on this planet are too deep to overcome; that the problems facing us are too large to solve. Our discipline sees the politics of today’s world as not exceptional, but simply human. After all, it is not for us in international relations, or in academia for that matter, to feel bewildered or paralysed or hopeless in an atmosphere of fear or intolerance. But for you, as scholars of international relations, you have been taught to navigate a maze of knowledge that is shaping the politics of our world. From the human rights consequences caused by climate change, to the rise of xenophobia and prejudice, to deepening inequalities that mean opportunities are not open to everyone, the skills that you have learned during your time here – both inside and outside the classroom – are the skills we so desperately need.

Returning to Adam Ferguson, if we as the St Andrews community prioritise the public good as our foremost concern, as a collection of individuals privileged to have the time and space to hone our knowledge and skills, what then is our road to happiness? This is a question you must answer for yourselves, with each other in mind. For now, it is only for me to say that we have loved mentoring you through this part of your life and we look forward very much to seeing what answers you come up with.

Professor Ali Watson
School of International Relations