St Andrews 600

Last Tuesday (10 September 2013), Diamond Geezer gave a list of anniversaries which fall this year. One he missed was the 600th anniversary of the University of St Andrews. Over the last couple of days, I have been at the celebrations forming the climax to this anniversary.

As somebody said at a certain point, universities are surprisingly prevalent among the world’s long-lasting institutions. Without access to either military force or dogma, they manage to persist for centuries doing their job of encouraging learning, research, and critical thinking.

And in the course of 600 years, St Andrews has learned to do ceremonial very well.

Graduation Ceremony, St Andrews

The centrepiece of the celebrations was a four-hour honorary degree ceremony. There were seventeen graduands – they had planned for eighteen, but Peter Higgs was unwell and unable to come, so his degree has had to be postponed since honorary degrees are not awarded in absentia.

Two of the seventeen were mathematicians: Persi Diaconis and Tim Gowers. Persi came a couple of days in advance and gave a lovely talk to the Pure Mathematics seminar, which I will describe later. The others included several people you may have heard of: Hillary Clinton, Rowan Williams, Jane Goodall, Mary Beard, Tim Berners-Lee among them.

Some of the new doctors said a few words after receiving their degrees. One who did was Persi Diaconis. Since one thing he is known for is his work with Susan Holmes and Richard Montgomery on how fair a fair coin is (I discussed this here), he decided to quote one of Piet Hein’s “Grooks”:

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No – not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Rowan Williams began by saying that given the treatment of Archbishops in St Andrews in the past (he was referring to David Cardinal Beaton, murdered in his castle, and James Sharp, pulled from his coach and murdered by Convenanters, in the Reformation and Wars of Religion), he had initially wondered why he had been invited!

The prize must go to Jane Goodall. She and her laureator, Andrew Whiten, did a duet to say “hello” in chimpanzee language. A magical moment.

In the morning there had been a thanksgiving service to open the events. I sat next to David Sinclair, and had a very interesting conversaion with him. Among other things, he mentioned a lovely quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

This reminded me of a Zen saying which goes something like this (I don’t think I have it exactly right):

Before you begin to study, mountains are mountains and waters are waters, When you learn something, mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But when you reach wisdom, mountains are once again mountains and waters are waters.

Music in the service was provided by the St Salvator’s Chapel choir. As well as the St Andrews’ Suite for organ by James Macmillan, there was the world premiere of a hauntingly beautiful Anthem composed for this service by Paul Mealor.

At lunch I sat near Bishop David Chillingworth, whose blog Thinking Aloud is well worth a look.

The day ended with a very good dinner. The next day, for various reasons, I had to skip the morning events and the grand finale (a torch procession and fireworks display) in the evening.

After lunch, there was a debate on the future of universities, a topic on which I have my own views. It was not completely successful; only two hours were allowed; the four participants were each given fifteen minutes to outline a position, and all overran; and then they talked inconclusively amng themselves before the debate was opened to questions from the floor, so there was time only for a very few of these.

The four debaters, with a very brief and possibly inaccurate statement of their positions, were:

  • Derek Bok, lawyer and former President of Harvard, who spoke about the impact of new technologies on universities. He presented the disadvantages much more convincingly than the advantages, but proceeded to conclude that it was on balance a good thing. He said that technology may change the way universities teach (for example, encourage collaborative teaching) but are unlikely to do away with them entirely.
  • Nigel Harris, medic and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. He opined that universities, despite changes, will remain broadly the same; they are valued by students and employers. He quoted Nelson Mandela: “Education is the great driver of personal development.”
  • Peter Mandler, Cambridge historian. He described a historian’s job as myth-busting, and proceeded to quote figures to bust the myth of the “Crisis in the Humanities” (the title of a book by J. H. Plumb): although there are clouds on the horizon, humanities remain popular with students. He said, “The essential purpose of universities today is what it has always been: to strive for excellence in teaching and research.”
  • Louise Richardson, Principal of St Andrews, drew sustained applause with her appeal for autonomy for universities. She said, “The best way to save money in higher education is: Dismantle the regulatory apparatus, and check back in five years.” She outlined a vision of a “three bears” scheme of universities, which I found impractical so I won’t describe it.

For me, Peter Mandler was the best of the four. His attitude, like mine, is: it doesn’t matter too much, either for employment or for personal development, what you study, as long as you study it well and in depth. He saw the biggest threat to the humanities as being narrowly vocational “education”.

The next event was a concert in St Salvator’s Church, given by the St Salvator’s choir. They performed the Paul Mealor anthem, and the choirmaster played the James Macmillan organ suite; it was another chance to hear these lovely pieces, with much better acoustics. In addition, there was renaissance music from England and the Continent, and very nice arrangements of Scottish and Irish folksongs, with Stanford’s “Bluebird” as an encore. I have always written Stanford off as a slushy Victorian, but this piece is much better than that.

We went out into the quadrangle, where the cyclists were about to arrive; this was the end of a relay from Peñiscola to St Andrews, following the route of the Papal Bull in 1413 which authorised the foundation of the University. After this, there was a performance by a pipe band. At this point I had to go.

St Andrews pipers

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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