Graduation address: Professor Brad MacKay

Lauren Sykes
Tuesday 13 June 2023

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, honoured guests, everyone, it is my privilege to address our new graduates on such a momentous occasion.

I want to begin with a hearty congratulations to you all. You are an exceptional, and possibly one of the most exceptional, groups of graduates to cross this stage. You are not only celebrating the successful completion of your degrees from a university regarded as the best in the UK, but you are also doing so having overcome the full force of a global pandemic. Your achievements are no less than extraordinary.

And while they are rightfully your achievements, they are also shared by the families and friends who supported you through what has been one of the most challenging times for us all in living memory. So, let us give them a huge round of applause!

This graduation day is a day of celebration, and also, invariably, of reflection. As we gather here to celebrate the culmination of your academic achievements, we should also acknowledge that the world you enter today is marked by an array of grand challenges.

The recent global pandemic and its after-effects remind us all of that. As does the horrific war on democracy playing out brutally in Ukraine. But we also face economic, environmental, and social crises that require bold thinking and innovative solutions. These challenges demand more than just expertise and knowledge; they require the ability to think critically, the courage to confront the unknown, and the resilience to navigate uncharted territories.

Resolving such challenges, therefore, demands not only our intellects to solve them – which your graduation here today demonstrates you have in spades – but also our capacity for what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’.

A celebrated poet of the Romantic era, Keats coined the term ‘negative capability’ to encapsulate the ability to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty, and the uncomfortable absence of definitive answers. It is the willingness to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty, to dwell in the realm of unanswered questions, and to allow our minds to explore beyond the confines of traditional boundaries that constitutes a negative capability.

Keats’ peculiar notion of negative capability may very well be the key that unlocks our potential to tackle these grand challenges. It allows us to embrace complexity and to seek out alternative perspectives, thus liberating us from preconceived dogma and rigid thought – all too characteristic in the world we live in today.

By harnessing negative capability, we transcend the limitations of our comfort zones, enabling us to challenge the status quo, to explore unconventional ideas, and to envision new possibilities for a better, fairer, more sustainable, and prosperous world.

In an era characterised by interconnectedness, which Covid-19 so profoundly demonstrated, and relentless change, by embracing uncertainty we are enabled to bridge cultural divides with empathy and understanding, to find common cause amidst differing and at times opposing views, to take advantage of unexpected opportunities to make a real difference, and to navigate the complexities of a globalised and increasingly tribalised world.

A cultivated negative capability empowers us to confront the pressing challenges of our time with creativity and imagination. It allows us to question assumptions, redefine problems, accommodate paradoxes, and propose innovative solutions.

With your St Andrews’ degrees, I would even go so far as to say that they come with the responsibility to challenge established norms, structures and systems perpetuating environmental degradation, inequality, and injustice. We must have the courage to imagine and create a more inclusive, sustainable, and just world.

But negative capability reminds us of something else too. It reminds us that we need to find humour in life’s absurdities as well. Mistaking the East Sands for Majorca and stripping down to, well, almost nothing on May first to brave the North Sea; celebrating the culmination of all our academic labours with foam fights in St Salvador’s Quad; or, partaking in Scotland’s answer to health superfoods – the deep-fried Mars bar – all come to mind.

Indeed, your time in St Andrews has prepared you well for embracing ambiguity because it is a bit like embracing the Scottish weather – you can never quite predict it, but so long as you are dressed for all four seasons in a day, neither does it stop you from having a lot of fun in it. As Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns reminded us the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men often go awry.

But living with ambiguity, as when said plans go awry, does not mean we are directionless or lost. It means we have to have the courage to be comfortable with the unknown, to embrace uncertainty, and rather than fixating on the destination, to also find joy in the journey. Life rarely gives us exams with clear options. It more often has a tendency to unfold like a complex essay question where there is a dizzying array of possibilities, but where we also have the agency to be our own authors.

Life is full of unanswered questions and unpredictable surprises and, actually, that is where the opportunities to make real change lie.

So, as you bid farewell to this ancient and august institution that has challenged your intellects and nurtured your minds, let us remember that your time at St Andrews, both online and in-person, was more than just labs, lectures, Teams meetings, seminars, exams, and late-night sessions at the library. It was also about overcoming adversity, discovering passions and who we are, forging friendships from all over the world, and learning to thrive in the face of ambiguity.

Negative capability professes that you do not have to have everything figured out right now. In fact, some of the most delicious opportunities in life come from the unexpected. So do not be afraid to take a few risks, try new things, and to push the boundaries of what is possible. Embrace the unknown, relish the absurd, and find joy in the uncertain.

Once again, congratulations to you all. You may not have all the answers, but you absolutely have what it takes to navigate what the philosopher and psychologist William James called the ‘blooming, buzzing, confusion’ that is so often our world.

Thank you, and may your futures be filled with fulfilment, happiness, laughter, and even a touch of delightful confusion! And as the wonderful Scottish farewell goes, ‘haste ye back’.

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