Graduation address given by Professor Catherine Waldby

Professor Catherine Waldby gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 8 June 2012 in the Great Hall. Professor Waldby is a Professorial Future Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy.

The photo of Professor Waldby is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Catherine Waldby

Graduation address

I would like to offer my congratulations to all of you who graduate today and leave the University to begin your professional lives. Some of you may already have jobs or travel plans, some may be wondering what you will do with your new degrees, where your hard won education will take you. Certainly you may feel some anxiety about your future career path and the social contribution you will make in the current climate of economic uncertainty.

How will you apply the new knowledge you have acquired in this unstable climate? While some would say that a vocational education is the best path in difficult economic times, I would say exactly the opposite. Times of profound social change and instability favour those with a broad and flexible understanding. They call for people who are able to see across a number of different fields, see the interrelationships between disparate events and above all think critically about their own understanding, revise it and move forward with new ideas and approaches.

We can see the value of such a broad education if we look back to the last great crisis in the global economy – the great depression of the 1930s. I want to talk about the person who played the most decisive role in rethinking the international economy at that time. I am referring to John Maynard Keynes – the brilliant economist who devised the policies that helped bring Britain, Europe and the USA out of the Depression and which underpinned the great post-war boom between the 1940s and 1970s. He was so important that his name is used to describe the entire period – you will see references to the Keynesian welfare state or the Keynesian era.

Keynes was a brilliant technical economist, but more importantly for us today, he was also the beneficiary of a broad, interdisciplinary education and social milieu. Throughout his life he was involved in exchanges between academic, artistic, business and government spheres. From a middle class Victorian family with a tradition of lively debate and intellectual inquiry, he studies mathematics, economics, psychology and philosophy as part of the Cambridge Tripos.

In his professional life, he moved back and forth from the civil service, to lecturing at Cambridge to high-level advisory appointments in the British Treasury and on various business board and government commissions. He published prolifically - books, journal and newspaper articles, not only on economics but also aesthetics and probability theory. His most famous book, The General Theory of Employment, interest and Money (1936) was to become the basis for national macroeconomic regulation and post-war reconstruction with Bretton-Woods institutions - the IMF and the World Bank.

I recently read The General Theory for some of my own research - what struck me was not only its precision but also its beautiful style and wittiness, and the depth of erudition that underpins it. And this erudition comes not only from knowledge of economics but also from a famously broad intellectual milieu.

He was a very active member of the Bloomsbury group, a famous group of London intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s which included E. M. Forrester, Virginia Wolfe, Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey. Between them they pioneered literary modernism, post-impressionist art, psychoanalysis, Feminism, early gay rights. Keynes collected contemporary art, including Picasso, Cezanne and Braque, and was the lover of Duncan Grant the post-impressionist artist and then later married to Lydia Lopokova, who danced with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the most adventurous ballet company at that time. Keynes was thus the practitioner of a broad form of intellectual inquiry that above all was able to steadily transcend the limits of established approaches and field of professional knowledge.

While he was trained in classical economics, he was able to steadily critique his own understanding, and see the limits of classical approaches. He could draw on widely divergent spheres of experience, exposure to different influences and be part of the invention of new social norms and ways of seeing.

These are the abilities that a broad interdisciplinary education can provide, and these are the qualities vital to rethinking the institutions of economy and society. They allow us to reframe problems in the process of solving them.

I hope that you take this education with you into the world and find new and important ways to apply it.

Thank you