Graduation Speech, May 2018

This is a transcript of the "occasional address" I gave to the students graduating from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 at 2 pm. The graduates were primarily from my own School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, and the cohort included six new History PhD and two MA recipients, along with many Honours students. So it was a particular pleasure to be able to speak in front of so many students I had taught over the past few years, and so many of the postgraduate students who I had met and worked with as Postgraduate Coordinator in the Department. I tried to focus here on the value and "relevance" of an Arts Degree, and the importance of making one's own history count.


Writing Yourself into History

I would first like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, upon whose ancestral lands the University of Sydney is built, and who remind us that these grounds have been a place of deep learning for tens of thousands of years.

In this context, it is deeply humbling, as well as an honour and a privilege, to be able to speak today in front of our Deputy Chancellor, my wonderful colleagues, distinguished guests, and of course our new graduates and their families and friends.

I’m an historian of early America. I think I’m supposed to talk today about history – make some important and erudite analogies to present politics, tell fun stories about George Washington and take cheap shots at Donald Trump, entertain while educating….

But today I really only want to talk about the one history that matters – the history of you, our new graduates, and the history that you are yet to make.

So, let me first offer my own warm congratulations on your (now) historic achievements – to our nine new Phds, our eleven new Masters and Graduate Certificate students, our five new University medallists, and some 132 Honours, Bachelor and Diploma students. Wow. This is a truly stellar group. And those are all mighty achievements.

But now what? What’s next? Some of your friends and family might still be asking why on earth did you do an Arts degree? Why didn’t you do something useful. Or as the politicians often say, why didn’t you do something more vocational, or at least relevant?

We’re not very good at making our relevance clear. Many of our graduates we know, often fill in surveys saying their degree wasn’t very relevant to what they are doing now – even in the dizzying array of jobs and careers they now find themselves in. 

Let me offer a few suggestions. 

As we just acknowledged, these grounds have been an important site of learning for tens of thousands of years. And it all started with a dreaming. 

For many of you, too, the journey that brought you here today also started with a dreaming of a different sort. You dared to dream of following your interests, enthusiasms and passion for subjects in high school that startled you, made you think, and made you think differently about the world. 

You then dared to dream of doing a degree that maybe wouldn’t make for a straight line from school to uni and to that job as a lawyer or engineer, or doctor, or nurse - no matter how hard your parents, family and friends kept pushing you in those directions. Well done and many congratulations for resisting…

As you now take your first steps beyond these walls, perhaps daunted by the prospect of what’s next, remember this dreaming - the enthusiasm, the passion, the uncertainty, and the thinking that brought you here – and that will sustain you as you take that first post-uni job and wonder where it will take you. With a bit of luck, your history will continue to be as complicated and as rich as it has been so far.

Likewise, when you feel overwhelmed by the newness of that first major task you’re given - whether it be analysing revenue against expenditures, or developing a new marketing strategy, recall those strange new concepts you tackled - then mastered -  in your first year gender and cultural studies, philosophy, or archaeology units.

As you find and sift through a mountain of information to shed light on new problems, think back to your upper level units in these subjects – and, most frighteningly - your history units - and recall the research skills you developed, and how you had to think critically about the sources you found, weigh up the evidence, and come to some difficult decisions about their relative merits, and the possible arguments you could make. 

Many of our students undervalue just how deeply they have learned to dive for new information and perspectives – you now know how to make new discoveries as much as think critically about them.

And as you make that first presentation to your colleagues, clients, or boss, think back to the work you put in to that essay of which you are most proud, that presentation in front of your fellow students, or the brilliant podcast or website you made, or the public talk you gave in my own unit, History Beyond the Classroom. I’ve seen some truly terrific and remarkable work that has ultimately pushed and challenged me to do better. 

But most of all, as you engage with your new workplace and the new worlds you’ll find beyond the University, think about the value of your Arts degree in expecting the unexpected and the uncertain; in pushing you to raise questions about what you do find, to ask questions that have not been asked, and to see those worlds from different perspectives - from others’ perspectives.

And don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions so reminiscent of your essay topics: why are women not better represented among the management staff at my new workplace? Why is there no diversity in this advertisement campaign? Is this fake news, or not? How can we make this a better workplace for all? How can we make this a better company, for others around the world? And as you ask those questions, and use your new skills to search for answers, just remember to continue to dare to dream of better solutions.

In other words, use your own history to make history. For as heretical as it might sound, I think the real value of history is not in conjuring the stories we revere, mythologise, and sometimes lament, but rather history - along with many of the other arts subjects you’ve taken -  is merely a tool: it teaches us a particular way of thinking – of thinking critically, raising questions, and shifting paradigms - about the problems we have confronted, and continue to confront, about the value and importance of the perspectives of others, in the past and the present, and a way of thinking that will help us think through and out of our current predicaments – big and small.

In this day and age, never has it been more important to have such tools available, and to have more, not fewer, critical-thinking Arts majors.

The value of your hard-earned arts degree, then, is that it liberates us from the tyranny of relevance – of fitting in, of doing or saying what is expected - and instead teaches us to embrace uncertainty and instead to dream big - to redefine, redraw, and rethink, critically and innovatively, and gives us the tools and confidence to communicate and also agitate for a vision that will push us all toward a brighter future. 

Now, that’s a big responsibility, of course. But I’ve worked with and alongside many of you here today, and I know the kinds of myriad and often very difficult challenges you have already faced – and overcome - in making your way to University, and completing these degrees. I also know how brilliant, creative, and thoughtful you can be. I’ve seen just how many of you have thought deeply about social justice issues, politics, and equality. And how many of you have worked so hard on top of your studies to achieve a more compassionate world – whether that be helping out on our social inclusion program, in your own community, or even helping your parents look after younger siblings or aging relatives. You’ve shown how much you care, and you’ve made a difference in the lives of others.

So, you’ve already written the first part of the history of you, and in the process, you have continually inspired me and educated all of us here on the podium, and in the audience. For that, I offer a very heartfelt thanks to you, and again my congratulations.

Now, the world awaits volume two. Make your own history, and make it count, in small ways and big, and future versions of me – who will thankfully look much more like you - will happily help write it. Thank you.