Earlier this month, for only the third time in my life, I attended a graduation ceremony. The cliches were duly obeyed: a nice piece of Victorian gothic had been disinterred from the dustsheets; a ramshackle crocodile of teaching staff in mediaeval superhero costumes processed in to the strains of a German student drinking song; there was a little speechifying; and everyone sat back and provided careful doses of applause as graduands scuttled across the platform to have their hands shaken and a velvet cushion bonked gently against their heads. Daft as it all was, though, even my well-tuned cynicism found it hard to slip into gear. I may have had my doubts about some of the degrees being awarded, and my certainties about some of the recipients, but it didn’t feel as if this mattered. What mattered was that, with a certain unconscious silliness and a certain perfectly knowing silliness, a continuity was being claimed with the scruffy but magnificent tradition that is the Western university. And this continuity seemed proper: whether vaultingly or by the skins of their teeth, these students had earned — so it seemed, for an hour or two at least — the right to be acknowledged by that tradition.
The speech on behalf of the graduands was given by the day’s honorary graduate, a genuinely eminent scientist who has some practice in such matters, and it was firmly in keeping with the tone I’ve tried to describe. He spoke about the intellectual tradition; he praised the value of disinterested curiosity; he advised the new graduates to question authority and to revel in knowledge. The Clyde remained unignited, but it was fine incidental music for the occasion.
Then, at the end, the Vice-Principal rose for his oration. He talked about the enhancement of the student experience. He used the three key phrases from the Strategic Plan, one of them four times. He told us the price tag of the university’s most recently completed building. He told us, in detail, about two newly established industrial research centres; and, having brought himself to a managerial climax, he spent several minutes triumphantly listing all the major research grants won by the university in the last six months or so, with financial details for each. Graduates and their parents stared blankly at him from the audience; on the platform behind him, under academic gowns, spines curdled. It was staggeringly crass. Finally, having smeared shit across the gates of the Republic of Letters, he sat down, only to bob up again a moment later and tell us that due to rain the procession to the reception venue had been cancelled.
What is the value system — what is the imaginative universe — of somebody who thinks that such a speech is suitable for such an occasion? There wasn’t even the rattling of a begging bowl, which at least would have been comprehensible (if no less crass). My best guess is simply that he wanted to boast about the institution, to give the graduates a sense of the majesty of their achievement, and the only terms in which he knew how to boast were those of money. The idea that if universities need to be measured at all, the scales by which to measure them are not financial would presumably have struck him as absurd.
To steal a line from Father Brown — in another story about the vanity of Mammon — what’s wrong with these people isn’t that they can’t see the solution to the decay of academia; it is that they can’t see the problem. Perhaps what’s wrong with the likes of me is that we can see the problem all right, but not having the good Father’s acumen we can’t see the solution. I don’t think I shall be attending another graduation for a while.