Graduation address given by the Provost, Sir Charles Nicholson

The Provost, Sir Charles Nicholson, gave the following address at the Commemoration ceremony held in the building previously known as Sydney College (now Sydney Grammar School) on 18 February 1856, where the first students graduated.

The seven undergraduates, having attended Lectures and otherwise complied with the Regulations of the University during the prescribed period of three years and having satisfactorily passed the required examination, were admitted as Bachelors of Arts: William C Windeyer / Marshall Burdekin / William C Curtis / Robert M D Fitzgerald / Edward Lee / David Scott Mitchell / Robert Speir Willis.


Whether the custom that has hitherto been adopted of offering a short address at each of those stated periods when the University is called upon in the exercise of her function to perform some of her more public and important acts, is one that will be sanctioned or followed hereafter, it is impossible to say. The practice seems to us, however, to require no justification, but to be demanded by the circumstances and conditions in which we are placed. An institution, the object of so much solicitude to the State, which has enjoyed so large a share of popular favour, and upon the successful working of which the most important consequences as affecting the moral and intellectual welfare of the colony must follow, is, we conceive, bound to make in fullest exposition on all suitable occasions, of its action and progress; and to seek in the sympathy and aid of the public mind, for that interest and cooperation and approval, without which it is impossible that it should permanently flourish. The institutions of the parent state, whose aim and objects we strive to imitate, have grown up with the nation, they form a part of its history, have been identified with, and given special tendencies to the national mind and character and have thus acquired for themselves a foundation and support alike permanent and impregnable. With us the casa is different. Unable to build upon the memories of the past, with no lineage of great names, without the prestige of local associations, that vis admonitioris in locis, which Cicero describes in such, glowing language, as characteristic of the groves of the academy, and which every one must have felt, who has trodden the great sanctuaries of learning in our native land ; we, in this distant and newly constituted society, can only seek for sympathy and countenance in our aims, in a full perception of the requirements of the age, and the aspirations of the future. To seek for full maturity of action, and the immediate accomplishment of the ends contemplated in its foundation, in such an institution as this would be unreasonable. Time is an essential element in the growth of nearly everything that is great in design or permanent in character, and we must not look for an exception to that law in our own case. It is in the very nature of the institution with which we are identified, that it should create the materials for its future sustentation and growth. And that it will do so we can have little doubt, whether regard be had to its special organisation, its history up to the present moment, or the circumstances wherewith it is surrounded. We are already beginning to witness the development of that part of our academic system, connected with the establishment of colleges of residence within the University, one of the most important, though not indispensable elements, in the scheme of academic instruction, which after much thought, and some, though I believe not serious or angry conflict of opinion, has acquired a definite and legal shape in the recent enactments of the Legislature, providing for the foundation of affiliated colleges. I cannot forbear giving expression to some feeling of exultation, when I advert to the fact that the system which we have aimed at, and in some degree succeeded in establishing, is almost wholly identical with that which has been adopted in the two great Universities of England, in accordance with the report of the commissions appointed to enquire into their state, and the legal sanction which has been given to their recommendations. The principal features of that improved plan, if I understand them aright, are, a more enlarged and comprehensive sphere of action, so that all classes and denominations are enabled to receive the teaching and aspiration to the honors of the great national seminaries. Concurrently with this expanded action is the no less important aim of giving greater prominence to university and professorial teaching, the practical exercise of which had been almost superseded by the corporate action of colleges, and the instruction of private tutors. We believe that a constitution such as that which has been engrafted upon the ancient universities at home, and which has communicated to them a character and an action of which our own institution is a humble but faithful copy, presents the true if not the only perfect ideal of a great academic institution, suited to the social and intellectual habits of the society we live in, so characterised by varied forms of religious belief, and so impatient of all control in everything relating to spiritual freedom. In raising the university to its high and legitimate functions, which are of necessity restricted to more secular teaching, we do not ignore the necessity of that other all-important element of sound training, the religious and moral supervision of the pupil. When this cannot be provided for by parents and guardians, it will be effectively secured through the agency of incorporated colleges. In the comprehensive and varied provision thus made for the educational wants of the country, we confess we are at a loss to see any grounds for scruple or dissatisfaction on the part of any class or body of men. For we have in it a system, from a full participation in all the benefits of which none are excluded, which recognises the force of religious and moral obligations, and lends all the aid it can to their enforcement, whilst it no less scrupulously recognises and abstains from interfering with the lights of conscience, and the supremacy of religious convictions. We apprehend that those principles require but time for their general recognition and acceptance, and that the step which has already been taken by the members of the Church of England in the establishment of St. Paul's College, will be speedily imitated and followed by each of the other great religious denominations of the colony. " .

It has been deemed expedient to revise, and in a slight degree to modify and enlarge, the by-laws for regulating the studies and discipline of the University. The time appeared to the Senate to have arrived, when it became necessary to provide for the granting of degrees in the several faculties of law and medicine, in accordance with the powers vested in them by the Act of Incorporation. As the studies required for a degree in Arts are of universal requirement, not only with respect to general academic training, but as preliminary to the course of study prescribed for degrees in the other faculties, - the organisation of all the machinery necessary for giving a complete course of instruction in all those departments of science and literature requisite for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, are deemed by the Senate as of paramount importance ; and professorships and lectureships in this faculty were, from the commencement, fully constituted. The period, however, is probably not very remote when the University may exercise her functions as a teaching body in the other faculties, particularly that of medicine, for the successful cultivation of which this city in particular presents peculiar and special facilities. The Senate will from time to time, as the occasion arises, be prepared to establish professorial chairs in the several branches of medical science until all the machinery and appliances of a complete school are created. They will pursue a similar course with reference to the studies involved in a legal education. In the meantime a board of examiners will be appointed, upon whose report, and in accordance with the express conditions laid down in relation to previous studies, candidates will be allowed to offer themselves for examination and to proceed to the prospective degrees of B.C.L., D.O.I.., B.M., D.M.

Although the aggregate number of undergraduates in full connexion with the University is not large, it is, perhaps quite as great as could, under the circumstanceĀ« of the colony, be reckoned upon. Whilst there has been a small but progressive addition to the body of students, it is gratifying to add that the qualification of those who have of late presented themselves as candidates for matriculation has exhibited a marked improvement. We believe we are chargeable with no unmerited assumption when we ascribe this improvement in the intellectual tone and requirements of those seeking admission within our walls to the stimulus afforded to higher educational efforts in the various schools and amongst the various teachers of the Colony, by the establishment of the University. That this influence will still be further felt we may fairly anticipate, as one of the results of the foundation of the Grammar School, in the munificent provision for which the Colony may well feel a subject of proud gratulations. Whilst much has already been done, much still remains to be achieved in the same direction; and we trust the period is not far distant when, under the influence of an enlightened and far-seeing spirit of legislation, educational appliances will be called into existence adapted to the social requirements of every class in the community; that primary schools, grammar schools (not limited to Sydney), and the University, should form a great and organised system, through the separate and conjoined action of which the advantages of education might be dispensed to all, according to a measure, and to a degree suited to the social wants and the capacity of every member of our commonwealth. Under the operation of such system, the broader outlines of which can only be adverted to on an occasion like the present, one resting on the primary schools as its bas, with intermediate Gymnasia in each large township, and the University as its apex, we conceive that results of inestimable value as affecting the destinies of this our affected land may spring up. For under its influences merit, even in the humblest walk of life, might have the fairest chance of being elicited and made useful to its owner and to society at large. With some moderate aid, provided in the shape of endowment, the hopeful scholar in the primary school might have his capacity tested for higher training in the grammar school, and the result of a successful probation in this latter might entitle him to admission to the University. How great might not such a system become with the consequences of pregnant importance to our social advancement, our political welfare. For it is not in the incidents that belong to a simply material and fiscal development that the true measure of the greatness of any society is to be estimated or to be hoped for. It is in the higher and more permanent influences which belong to and result from religious, and moral, and intellectual cultivation, that the true glory and happiness of any community must finally depend. It was in relation to this eternal and immutable law, of the dominance of mental over mere material greatness, that conquered Greece was enabled to lead her victors captive – to bring all nations prostrate before the underlying splendour of her genius, and to exact from one whom we may regard as the most illustrious amongst her conquerors, in his homage to her great men, the grateful admission that to her was owing all that the world possessed of learning, civilisation, art, elegance, and government.

I may, perhaps, be permitted to quote the words of the immortal writer relative to this subject, because the sentiments he expresses with reference to the obligations of the ancient world to Grecian art and literature, are scarcely less significant as applicable to our own times. And in the course of study prescribed to those subjected to our teaching, we have, notwithstanding some tendencies leading to an opposite direction, given due prominence to those branches of instruction connected with classical acquirement. For with a full appreciation of the importance of mathematical and physical sciences, and with every disposition to give them all the prominence which they are entitled to in our consideration, we are persuaded that a competent acquaintance with the classical languages of antiquity, affords in its acquirement one of the best of all mental disciplines of youth, and that its literature constitutes in every period of life the highest of all uninspired sources to which every cultivated mind can recour, for legions of wisdom or for pure intellectual enjoyment. …

We have this day been called upon to invest our first alumni with academic honours. The event is to myself, and I doubt not it will to others be, regarded as one of no ordinary interest. It is suggestive of many deep and earnest thoughts having regards to ourselves and to those day go forth no longer as disciples – the subject of academic rule, - but recognised as henceforth the independent, though I trust, faithful, sons of an institution which presents them now to the world as the first fruits of its training. Such a circumstance might impress them with a sense of greater responsibility – as objects of more especial prominence and attention, and as likely to bring in their future career, honour or dishonour on the institution with which they have been so conspicuously connected. With the earnest hope that whilst considerations of this character may have their due weight with those of my hearers to whom they are more particularly addressed, I would venture to urge upon them arguments from deeper and more sacred sources of duty . I have already adverted to the fact of the difference in the position of the graduated from that of the undergraduate student in his emancipation from a state of pupilage, and with the acquisition of more independent action, - the incurring of enlarged and more responsible duties in the world. For let it not be understood that any aspect or altered condition in life can bring with it exemption from labour, or that if it could do so, that it would add to our real happiness. It is the consequence of every real enlargement of the moral and intellectual nature of man that it should acquire increased activity in proportion as the objects and sphere of its action become multiplied and extended. And in no reproachful spirit would I observe that, if the youth of our colony is chargeable with any peculiarity in which they contrast unfavourably with that of England, it is in the absence of that spirit of emulation – that willingness to submit to sustained effort, without which, in these days, at all events, little that is useful or permanent can be effected. This tendency to listless indifference is, no doubt, attributable to circumstances of a temporary and local character than to any inherent tendency in the individual – to the absence of those incentives to exertion which are so abundantly provided for the English student – to whom, as the reward for his scholarship, all the avenues of high social and political distinctions are opened. Similar incentives will in time be created and have, indeed, to some extent already sprung up amongst us; and we may, it is to be hoped, ere long, see the highest places in the Senate, at the bar and in the learned professions, occupied by men who may have afforded an earnest of their fitness to fill such stations by the capacity, industry and good conduct, previously manifested within these walls. It is one of the privileges of the times in which we live, and especially of the society of which we are members, that conscious merit may never despair of achieving its proper reward.

… is an apothegm as applicable to those of our own age as when addressed to the son of Hippolochus; although in recognising the truth and invariability of such an injunction it is well that we should be ever on our guard, that a spirit of generous emulation is not converted into one of selfish ambition; that success and even acknowledged merit in our several pursuits should not beget in us a spirit of self-sufficiency and contempt for others; that diffidence and modesty, qualities which ought especially to characterise the young, are becoming attributes of all ages and stations of life. Lastly I would enjoin upon my hearers the supremacy of those religious and moral obligations, upon a due recognition and observance of which their happiness can alone be founded. If in our collective capacity it has been found indispensable that we should refrain from prescribing formularies of religious belief, and that the determination of them should be regarded as the special province of the parents and guardians of those who are within our special precincts, we do not the less emphatically record our conviction as to the transcendent importance of the religious element in all education. In urging upon you my young friends considerations of duty connected simply with your position of students in the University, in exhorting you to cultivate those habits and graces which especially become your years – such as application to your studies, respect for your teachers and those in authority above you; the avoiding of all vicious and degrading habits and associations; the observance of truth, candour and modesty in all your actions; I would still further wish to impress upon you the necessity of a scrupulous regard for those duties which belong to you as responsible beings, and that you should seek for that guidance and direction without which true happiness cannot be found here or expected hereafter. It is in the divine oracles, the guide, the hope, the consolation of life,

“aurea dicta
aurea, perpetus remper dignissima vita,”

that the true moral guide of humanity is to be found. Would that the words to which I have this day given feeble utterance, the last occasion on which perhaps an opportunity may be accorded me of addressing those now assembled - might find a responsive echo not only in the hearts of my younger hearers now present, but in those of the youth of the colony, who may look forward proudly to the University as the arena in which they aim at acquiring future distinction - the portal by which they are to enter public life. How earnestly - nay, affectionately - would I now exhort all such to approve themselves prepared for the course on which they are about to enter. Here, in this spot, where knowledge unfolds to the eyes of all her ample page - where genius, and merit, and industry constitute the sole claims to that glory and distinction which they are sure to achieve, how noble are the incentives, how boundless the aspirations presented to us. Let as prove ourselves worthy of these ; and let it be the earnest endeavour of nĀ« all, that in the teaching of our students, and in the conduct of those who may go forth from these walls, abundant evidence may be afforded that the University of Sydney is not only founded in a spirit adapted to that of the age in which we live, but is capable of producing men fitted for the duties of the highest citizenship, and presenting in their lives and opinions the influence of the highest moral aims.