Graduation Address: Dr Rory Cox, School of History

Graduation Office
Thursday 13 June 2024

Thursday 13 June 2024 – afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, colleagues, and graduates.

I am a historian. I tend to see the world as a series of scattered yet interwoven stories. A jigsaw of strangely shaped pieces of biography and narrative: some famous and easy to find, others hidden or forgotten, waiting to be discovered. Piecing the jigsaw back together and telling its story is my job and my passion.

Each of you is the star of your own particular story, and you are clearly doing an outstanding job, because today you are graduating from one of the greatest universities in the world. Many congratulations to you! Give yourself a pat on the back and, amid today’s celebrations, take a moment to really think about your achievement, and to relish it.

But historians are not just interested in the showy stuff, the big-ticket events. Inspired by Karl Marx, a Frenchman named Fernand Braudel once compared events to “crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs”. The real force of history, argued Braudel, is the unseen currents below the surface.

Of course, I have no wish to compare any of you to foam! Although, given the enthusiastic traditions of Raisin Monday, I am sure I have seen several of you covered in the stuff. And let’s pass over the May Day dip…

My point is that historians are not just interested in what happens at the surface, we are interested in what drives it all. Cause and Effect. We are interested in the power behind the throne, as it were. We are interested not just in the story, but in the authors of the story.

And you see, while each of you is no doubt the star of your own story, thus far you have only really been co-authors. In many ways, much of the writing credits – the power behind the throne – go to those sitting behind you, and above you, and watching online. Your parents. Your loved ones. Your supporters and friends. And you should be grateful to them, because they have worked hard to write you a beautiful story.

In many ways that changes today. Today, as you leave this hall as graduates of the University of St Andrews, and begin to blaze your trail through the world, you become the lead author of your own story. Author and star: a heavy burden, but also uniquely liberating and thrilling! While the support of your loved ones will of course remain, it is now for you to drive the story forward, to determine how your character develops. Location, motivation, supporting cast. Put simply, it is up to you to fashion your own history. In doing so, you might want to keep in mind our University’s motto: Ever to Excel. It is a good motto, so continue to embrace it. But there may be things you do not excel at, and that is okay. No one can excel at everything, and sometimes we value most those things which we find a struggle, precisely because they do not come easy to us.

Looking at you today, I see hundreds of fascinating stories waiting to be written, waiting to be told. Like all stories, there will be tribulations, perhaps even tragedies. These trials will lend richness to the plot, but that will not make them easier to bear. However, just as certainly, the lows will be outweighed by the highs: the triumphs and successes, the simple everyday satisfactions that we too often take for granted.

And who knows… maybe thirty years from now, a character that you have created will be up here, walking across this very stage, wearing gowns like the one you wear today, while you sit up there, proudly watching them become their own author? I very much hope so.

But regardless of where your story takes you, as a graduate of this venerable institution, you will always be welcome back here, in St Andrews. For you are now part of this university’s history, just as it is part of yours.

Congratulations once again, and I wish you the very best of luck for the adventure ahead! Thank you.

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