Dear Warwick graduand,
I’m glad that the sun has been shining for your graduation this week. That’ll sure look nice in those photos. I hope you’ve had a good time and not too much trouble keeping your family happy.
Just as an ‘oldy mouldy’ who’s seen a few Warwick graduations – fourteen, to be precise – come and go, I wonder if you might allow me, for an instant, to burst into all this Bubble hubbub, to burst your bubble.
I would like to invite you to identify who, or what, receives the honour from your graduation ceremony. There are two time-honoured ways of recognising what humanity values – the diary (time) and the wallet (money).
Let us think – you have spent the last three, maybe four, years of your life learning the ways of the world on this campus, examining some of the foundational theories of your academic discipline, and hopefully making some lifelong friends and not getting too drunk or high along the way. This has been, without a doubt, a formative period in your life. And you are emerging from it – you, with all your gifts and genius and weirdness and just distinctive individual interesting humanness – to a ceremony that allows you to walk across a stage for 30 seconds. Wearing basically the same outer costume as everyone else in your department (compulsory or else you cannot walk across the stage), identified only as ‘a degree holder in your subject’, and distinguished only from the other people walking on before and after you by the hierarchy of your degree classifications on your certificates. Hmm.
Let us think – someone has paid tens of thousands of pounds for your university education. Someone, somewhere, has worked really hard to generate enough of a surplus over and above the costs of survival, that you could be here. You yourself maybe, like many of my friends, have had to work part-time to keep yourself here. It has also cost your parents quite a bit to be present today (and astronomically more, if they’ve travelled from abroad) – look at that nice frock mum is wearing. And now that they are here, guess what? It costs yet more for you to be part of the 30-second walk across the stage in the right costume. Those flowers and balloons are not free. If your department is having a celebratory event, it also comes with a price tag. Hmm.
I am not saying that you should not have fun. I am not saying that you should not smile in those sun-drenched photos and be happy and have a great day. What I am saying is, understand that the flows of time and money on your graduation day are not really being directed by the University towards your honour – not very much, anyway.
What I am saying is, the universities across this country, indeed the world, convert the natural curiosity of young adults and the love that their parents have for them into large flows of time and money that shore up the university system. I am not saying that it is the universities’ fault either; that just seems to be the system, and indeed as far as Warwick goes, it’s a brilliant university to have spent three years at. Also, I know, I know, you have the day to get on with, and you’re not going to change the system today. But perhaps we should ask – as we pause to take off those high heels and apply plasters in between camera flashes – what exactly is it that we are shoring up? What are we celebrating and honouring? And perhaps more importantly, what should we really be celebrating and honouring instead?
Here are some suggestions.
1. You made it – many people don’t. Celebrate that somehow, partly through your own effort but very largely not, today the sun is shining and you are on a campus savouring this particular moment in your life. What a gift. Why should you be so lucky?
Please do NOT celebrate the fact that you, by your supreme human effort, have successfully climbed to the top of a very slippery pile, which usually involves desensitisation to your own values, and are looking smugly downward at all the other bodies that you have stepped on. Gross.
2. Your ‘framily’ – these are your friends and family who really, really do care about you. That flatmate who held your hair back when you were throwing up over the toilet. Your long-suffering parents who kept phoning you even when you weren’t really interested. Please, celebrate that you have them. Celebrate them.
If you are hoping that your 30-second moment of glory on the stage will produce this magic rush of approval and affirmation, and wishing that your awkward teenage brother and decrepit grandmother weren’t here, then have I got news for you. You are probably not going to finish your life rich and famous, but you can finish your life with lorryloads of framily. Public approval and affirmation will not make you feel deeply loved. Framily, although it is slow-burn and sometimes induces feelings of going crazy, will.
3. Uni Veritas – universities were originally started as a place for scholars to find the ‘one Truth’, the ‘Uni Veritas’, and to learn to live by it. Now, I happen to think that the original ‘one Truth’ that these places were set up for people to find is completely valid, because Jesus is the only thing (Person) that has ever made my world cohere. But this is not really about that, not directly anyway. The point is, celebrate the discoveries that you have made over the last three or four years as to how you want to live your life. Celebrate that you have certain values, which move you to live for things that are bigger than yourself. Celebrate your choices made consistent with those values, especially when you were tempted to sell out. Celebrate those times when you chose courage and fought fear. Celebrate your in this manner becoming more fully alive and human.
In other words, today, please don’t celebrate the university system, and please don’t celebrate yourself instead of that system. Celebrate your good fortune (‘God’, if you like), your community, and your ability to sell out your life for something much bigger than yourself.
Grace and peace, and sunshiney photos xx