Graduation address given by Mark McDonnell

Mark McDonnell gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 8 May 2009. Mr McDonnell is Chairman of the External Advisory Committee, Department of Government and International Relations.

The photo of speaker Mr McDonnnell is copyright Memento Photography.

Mark McDonnell

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor, Professor Hearn, Professor Garton, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen:

Welcome to the middle ages!

I refer not simply to this centuries old tradition, this rite of passage, we observe today; This ceremony with all due solemnity and sense of occasion

Nor by invoking the middle ages do I mean merely to allude to Blackett’s magnificent, neo-gothic invention – this hallowed hall where we meet ‘though all the form, rituals and trappings of the ceremony is so to be reminded.

No – more than this I welcome you, young, freshly minted graduates, to your personal fate – your middle age!

For as you leave here today, the greater part of your youthful years shall vanish too, and you step out into a new stage of life. A stage where career, money, mortgages, personal relationships, starting families, paying bills lies before you.

That exquisite instrument of medieval torture - the rack - may no longer be in vogue, but, be assured, as you approach your middle ages, you will be stretched. I’m sure many of you feel you have already been stretched - intellectually and in other ways - I certainly hope so. But what have you learnt? If each of you reflects - here and now - on the most valuable thing that you have learnt in your time here - what would it be?

I hope that you have found the years you’ve spent at the University of Sydney to have been worthwhile - challenging, productive and rewarding. The Faculty of Arts is distinguished for being less vocationally focused than many other Faculties. Narrow technical training for a specific role is not the main purpose of an Arts degree. Arts students can appreciate the pursuit of learning to be valuable in improving the condition of life in many varied and sometimes quite subtle ways, beyond its use in a job. It is a qualitative indicator of human progress that we are not completely consumed by the mundane pursuits of everyday life and appreciate the wider disposition of culture and society. The extent to which Arts flourishes is I think one of the chief markers of a civilized society.

Now it is customary in these rites of passage to exalt you all to realise your destinies, as future leaders of the realm - or at least in your chosen business or profession or in some worthwhile community venture. I’m sure many of you will have well formed views on this subject, already; some of you, no doubt, are fired with great ambition to lead and will do so. So given this weighty responsibility to go forth from here and, if not to multiply, then surely, in some way or other, to excel, it is apt to reflect briefly on what it is to lead.

To my mind, the finest qualities of leadership are arguably expressed most eloquently, most succinctly, in the writings of Aristotle who considered that leadership combined 4 great virtues. From time to time I make a point of relating this to people I know and asking them what they think those 4 virtues would be.

There is a remarkable consistency in the results of this loose and unscientific survey I’ve been conducting - really more of an ambush than anything else - for some years. Nearly always, regardless of whom I ask, 3 of the 4 Aristotelean virtues are identified. Those 3 are wisdom, courage and foresight. Of course, these precise words aren’t always used, but fairly close synonyms are often given for these 3 rare and important qualities: wisdom, courage and foresight.

What is most interesting is the difficulty many people have in expressing the 4th quality - and it is integrity. Wisdom, courage, foresight and integrity. Great leadership is remarkably rare!

Speaking of leadership in terms of qualities and values - that is to say, in ethical terms - leads me to offer a few comments on a related, but wider subject: the primacy of ideas. As the clever marketers for the new Deutsche Bank building in Hunter St emblazoned their hordings, during its construction a few years ago, “an invasion of armies can be resisted but not an idea who’s time has come”. The quote is from Victor Hugo; it is remarkably perceptive and in many ways underscores the value, the whole point, of undertaking an Arts degree. You have spent your years here at this good University, dealing with ideas. Trying to understand them, to test them, to compare them - for some of you at least, to internalise them, by which I mean to try them out as part of the fabric of your life - to accept them or to reject them, often with your own subtle amendments. All I ask of you today is to let that continue. Above all else, I think we need to remember, that unless we remain open to new ideas, knowledge will cease to matter, it will become moribund - the essence of the human project will be at an end, a dead end. So, stay alive to new ideas. Read widely and above all, be honest, show integrity in the cultivated use of your well honed critical abilities in considering the limitations of your own world view.

Even in the most mundane fields of human activity, ideas are vital. As an equity market analyst, for example, I find constantly there is an inter-play of ideas and the outworkings of society, the interaction of industry and government policy, the success of business and its reliance on such intangible qualities as trust, confidence and expectations; these are all closely linked. Alternate investment theses are frequently no more and no less than the contest of ideas.

A brief anecdote will illustrate the point. Many of you will have heard of George Soros - an uncommonly successful investor, inventive and courageous, a man who’s reputation was forged in taking on the Bank of England, over the value of the British pound, and prevailing in that encounter, to emerge even more extraordinarily wealthy as a result, a billionaire, several times over. He is today a major philanthropist and sponsor of democratic reform in parts of the globe where that idea does not have deep roots.

Soros’ book Open Society, Reforming Global Capitalism makes for interesting reading. But first, very briefly, I need to give you the context. In the 2nd half of the 20th century, a new field of intellectual endeavour flourished in Universities, first in the United States and then throughout the world, especially the English speaking world, so that today many of the people working in finance and investment, whether in New York, or London or Sydney, have studied these relatively recent ideas, developed by the likes of Markowitz, Eugene Fama, Modigliani, Miller, Sharpe and others. What is interesting about Soros, in his book on reforming global capitalism, is that he makes no mention of them at all - not simply by failing to use their names, but in large measure turning his back on the whole school of modern portfolio theory - applied finance and its theoreticians. Instead, he explains how his entire approach to investing was deeply informed by his readings in the philosophy of science - a parallel development if you like, in the sense that it also arose as a major area of inquiry in the 2nd half of the 20th century, but with a completely different group of intellectuals to the fore - people such as Thomas Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos and of course, the scholar who influenced Soros most, Professor Sir Karl Popper.

Indeed, on reading the book closely, it is clear that Soros adapted Popper’s falsifactionist theory of science to his own investment process and of course he did so, quite brilliantly. Few people he encountered in the world of finance understood what he was doing or more particularly, how his thought process was so completely different from their own. Indeed, in large measure, Soros was studying them - but with an outsider’s objectivity, and freed from the singularity and conformity of a dominating world view.

It never ceases to surprise me how strong the impulse is for people to seek to have a general theory of everything in their approach to life; how so often, all their ideas seem to come from the one place, the one body of thought, some over-arching ideology. So, when speaking of the primacy of ideas, I do want to stress ideas - plural; and encourage you to resist the great seduction: the comforting notion that there is one unifying theory of everything, the great metaphysical singularity that somehow explains everything. To me, such all embracing ideologies over-simplify reality and impose a mental straight-jacket on intellectual development.

In short, the only real advice I wish to give today is this: think for yourself, read widely, appreciate the immense diversity and depth of intellectual pursuits, and continue to learn. Despite your accomplishments, which we all applaud here today, there is much more for you still to discover, than you already know.

Your years at Sydney University - for most of you at least - are now over. Some of you will continue with post-graduate studies - I wish you well in that most worthy pursuit. Others shall return to their homeland - beyond these shores - congratulations on your success today. I wish you a safe return and great happiness in your reunions with family and friends. For all our scholars, young and not so young, graduating today, many with your family and friends here in a wonderful show of support, well done and congratulations for the degrees and honours you have earned.

Graduates, you have a wonderful start and great opportunities ahead. Your qualifications from Australia’s finest and oldest University are a superb foundation for your future. I wish you all every success and a long and fruitful life beyond these years. I encourage you to maintain your links with this place, with its people, its worthy traditions and noble pursuits. Life is short, and unpredictable, but it is a great gift - live it wisely and live it well….after all, in a very little while, you too will be middle aged. Carpe diem, my young friends, carpe diem.