Graduation address: Professor Jason Konig

Thursday 22 June 2017

Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen. 

First: congratulations. This is a special day. You should be proud of what you have achieved. Most of you will have sat in this same hall nearly four years ago now for your opening ceremony – although without your families then, at least that goes for those of you who are graduating with undergraduate degrees today. It is amazing how fast that time goes. You have come to the end of those four years now. What has changed? It is hard to sum that up. You are older, certainly; wiser, maybe; above all I hope more confident in your ability to enter into dialogue with the world around you. 

When you sit in that opening ceremony as a first year, or in your first lectures, it is very hard to know what to expect. It is very easy to feel daunted: I certainly remember that feeling. It is easy to feel that you are surrounded by people with abilities and experience that you do not have yourself: other students, perhaps above all the people who are teaching you. And of course there are traditional ways of thinking about education that present it as a top-down process, a process of absorbing knowledge from teachers in a relatively passive way. 

One of my favourite descriptions of the job of a lecturer comes from Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. Eleven-year-old William is talking about his career choices to his friends: ‘I think’, said William, ‘that when I grow up I’m prob’ly goin’ to turn into one of those people that talk…You’re gotter be on a platform in a big room an’ then folks come an’ sit in rows an’ pay money to listen to you talk. They don’t interrupt or argue or anythin’ like that…They always have a policeman there to chuck people out that start arguin’ before the leckcherer’s finished, I bet it would be more fun being a leckcherer than a robber or a chimney-sweep…Lots more fun. Rows an’ rows of ’em all havin’ to listen to you for hours an’ gettin’ chucked out if they started arguin’…I bet I could chuck people that started arguin’ out an’ go on talkin’ at the same time. I bet I won’t have a policeman at all in my leckchers. I’ll talk an’ chuck ’em out. Yes. That’s what I’m goin’ to be. I’m goin’ to be a leckcherer…’ (William and the Little Girl, 1930).

Most of you will be pursuing your future careers outside a university context, but there may be some of you who do plan to make the same career choice as William, if you are going on to postgraduate study or if you have already graduated with a PhD today. If so, I’m sorry to have to reveal to you that it is not quite like that anymore – not in St Andrews anyway.

Richmal Crompton was actually a classicist, like many of you here. She graduated from Royal Holloway just over 100 years ago, in October 1914. She was energetically involved in the suffragist movement during her undergraduate years. She is actually one of the most distinguished female Classics graduates of the early twentieth century: I think many people don’t realise that because Richmal sounds like a man’s name.

She seems to have enjoyed her lectures at Royal Holloway, as far as we can tell from her letters: she talks about ‘lectures that opened doors, revealing golden vistas beyond them’. But despite that her William books are packed with descriptions of pompous lecturers – usually middle-aged male professors – being brought down to earth by William and his friends. I would like to think that that is because she had learned from her studies of the ancient world that that is not how education should be. There is a long ancient tradition, from Socrates onwards, of thinking about education as a process of dialogue. That is a vision that can still be powerful for us today. 

And I hope you will have come to realise more and more during you time here that university life is, among other things, about dialogue. We're lucky to be able to live and study in a place where that is still true. Your lecturers have learned from you, as well as the other way round; the same goes for your friends and your fellow students. What matters is not just the knowledge you accumulate, but the way you respond to it and use it. 

Most importantly for today, that process of being in dialogue with the world around you does not end here: this is only the beginning. You will spend the decades ahead of you listening to alternative views, assessing them, responding to them, acting on them, often in ways that make a difference to the lives of the people around you. In that sense I hope that your St Andrews education – the process of dialogue you have begun here – is something that will continue throughout the whole of your lives. 

Congratulations again. Enjoy your day.

Professor Jason Konig
School of Classics