Graduation ceremony speeches are particular things. There are the corporate welcomes, with a flavour of the successes of the university, perhaps a heartfelt vote of thanks from a student and in some ceremonies a citation for an honorary degree. Over these the university has some control and perhaps these aren’t that original in form. More ‘fun’ is a response from the honoured guest; they bring their own particular style to this.
Often these are insightful, powerful speeches. Often providing good advice for the graduates, calls to action or wistful memorials. Sadly, few endure. One has, however, the response from John Masefield to his award of DLitt at the ceremony which installed the Earl of Harewood as chancellor of the University of Sheffield. You may have heard parts of it in graduation speeches or read it in the Chairman’s foreword in the Dearing Report.
There are few earthly things more splendid than a university. In these days of broken frontiers and collapsing values, when every future looks somewhat grim and the dams are down and the floods are making misery, when every ancient foothold has become something of a quagmire, wherever a university stands, it stands and shines; wherever it exists, the free minds of men, urged on to full and fair enquiry, may still bring wisdom into human affairs.
There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university. It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning, and will exact standards in these things.
They give to the young in their impressionable years, the bond of a lofty purpose shared, of a great corporate life whose links will not be loosed until they die.
They give young people that close companionship for which youth longs, and that chance of the endless discussion of the themes which are endless, without which youth would seem a waste of time.
There are few things more enduring than a university. Religions may split into sect or heresy; dynasties may perish or be supplanted, but for century after century the university will continue, and the stream of life will pass through it, and the thinker and the seeker will be bound together in the undying cause of bringing thought into the world. To be a member of these great societies must ever be a glad distinction.
John Masefield, Poet Laureate, at the installation of the 6th Earl of Harewood as Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, 25th June 1946.
Those collapsed values were all too evident in 1946, but it is Masefield’s optimism for the purpose of the university that shines through, and speaks to us now. Our future might look somewhat grim too, but we should remember that universities will endure.