Graduation address given by William Peter Coleman

William Peter Coleman gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 9.00am on 6 June 2008. Mr Coleman is a writer, editor, reviewer, critic and former politician, and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

Graduation address

Chancellor, Provost, Fellows of the Senate, ladies and gentlemen:

This occasion is for me a great honour and a great pleasure. The University has played a large role in my life. I cannot, to this day, drive past it and glimpse its towers, without recalling that summer morning 62 years ago when I first came here to enrol – an ignorant, spotty boy standing in awe and surprise before, as it seemed to me, this great temple of learning, at once medieval and modern.

The University has changed a great deal since then. So, I might add, have I! Yet it is the same institution. Let me say a word about my experience. I doubt yours, today’s graduates, has been altogether different. We – the undergraduates of the late 1940’s in what we called Lent Term – were presented with, broadly, three role models: the scholar in pursuit of truth, sometimes labelled a swot; the seeker or pilgrim desperately searching for a creed to live by, for the meaning of life; and the free spirit, liberally enjoying the careless pleasures of youth in a sort of extended Gap Year. Most of us had a touch of all three.

This has always been the way of universities since the Middle Ages – as is attested by the many ancient pieces of wisdom pressed on the sometimes baffled student in the inscriptions on the walls of this University’s buildings, usually in Latin or Greek. The late Professor Kevin Lee collected them in his splendid little anthology, The Writing on the Wall. Some of them advise daring; some, caution; some, patience. Some extol love of country. Some look to a cosmopolitan civilisation without borders. Some praise moral simplicity in the face of the world’s evil; others advise a certain cunning. (“Be ye wise as serpents”.)

I doubt the student paid, or pays, much heed to these precepts. Some 70 years ago, delivering his inaugural address from this very platform, Enoch Powell, later a famous British Parliamentarian but then a young professor of Latin and Greek, likened a university to a hospital for incurables. He meant that by the time the young man or woman comes up here, his character is already formed and no amount of advice, in whatever language, will make a lazy student industrious or a dishonest one honest. The best a university can do is to civilise him a little.

Perhaps the writings on the walls try to contribute to that. The scholar (or swot) will find encouragement: perseverantia et industria, ‘perseverance and hard work’. The godly will also find support: timor Domini principium sapientiae, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. The freethinker can quote an opposing maxim: veritas sine timore, ‘Have no fear of anybody or anything’, in the pursuit of truth. The free spirit or bohemian may not find quite that degree of encouragement on the walls. Perhaps che sara sara (on the MacLaurin Hall) will serve, especially if you sing it.

Sixty years ago these ways of looking at life were well established. Are they not still? The scholar mastering a discipline is the same. So is the free spirit revelling in wild parties. So is the searcher for creed or faith. The political ideologist has changed but only in his preoccupations. In my undergraduate years the great ideological arguments were about Hitler and Stalin, National Socialism and communism. They are now almost forgotten or beginning to be forgotten. But the ideological struggles continue in different forms – for example, over terrorism.

One clear theme in this story is how often many of us – not all but many – have changed our minds with the years. Some scholars abandoned their studies to take up burning causes. Some free spirits mutated into upright censors of the age. Some true believers lost their faith. Some freethinkers heard Buddha or found Christ. A few turned to strange superstitions. What lessons, if any, does this whirligig of time have for us?

Looking for an answer to that question, I keep returning to the story of the Prodigal Son. He was barely out of university when he decided that he must live a life of freedom, inquiry and criticism. Renouncing his family, he took his share of the estate and moved to a distant, inner-city district. He became famous for his dinners and parties where the guests were the great wits and critics of the day. Some were reformers who laughed at received ideas. Some were conservatives (or neo-conservatives) who laughed at the follies of the reformers. They argued about everything from global warming to nuclear winter, from the education revolution to contemporary photography. Loud and astounding were their debates. No doctrine escaped ridicule. The Prodigal spared no expense.

Until the day came when he woke up to find himself destitute. He had spent his patrimony and worked through his ideas. Drought had laid waste the land, nihilism had emptied his mind. Old companions dodged him in the street. Obliged to find work as labourer or sculleryman, he lived off the husks of those he had once mocked. He became a wanderer on the face of the earth, a sort of vagrant.

In the end, the story goes, ashamed and demoralised, his wanderings brought him within sight of home. He would not approach it closely, expecting only contempt and censure. But his father saw him in the distance and ran to welcome him. He fell on his neck and kissed him. He ordered the fatted calf to be killed for a great feast to celebrate the return of his son who was dead but is now alive. They had a great party.

But the parable is unfinished. What happened next to the Prodigal? According to extra-biblical sources, he did not abandon his critique of society and morality. He could not. It was a gift from God. Some say he remembered the writing on the wall: scientia inflat charitas aedificat. Professor Lee translates charitas as love: ‘Knowledge puffs us up but love builds us up’. Others take charitas to mean more precisely the love of God, or simply God: ‘God builds us up’. In any case the Prodigal threw himself once more into his critique – but this time aware of the limitations of his reason and the truths of the heart.

This is one reading. I recall a poem I published back in my days as editor of The Bulletin. It is by my friend, the poet James McAuley, a graduate of this University and a Prodigal Son if ever there was one. A line in it gave me my title for a book I wrote years ago, Memoirs of a Slow Learner. This is one stanza:

Some like me are slow to learn.

[That’s where I took Slow Learner from.]

Some like me are slow to learn.
What’s plain can be mysterious still.
Feelings alter, fade, return,
But love stands constant in the will.

It depends on what you mean by love. But this may be the answer to my question about the lessons of the whirligig of time. It is not power or fame that survives the whirligig. It is love – the love of man and woman, the love of inquiry and truth, the love of God. Love stands constant in the will.

I must not end on too preachy a note. Let me come back to the writing on the wall. There is a less confronting but similar precept on the Anderson Stuart Building across the road. It speaks to and for us all, swots, pilgrims, free spirits:

loyal a mort, prends-moi tel que je suis. Loyal till death, take me such as I am.

The French, you’ll agree, are good with words.

I congratulate you all and wish you great success in your careers and happiness in your lives.