Ladies, gentlemen, and fellow graduates of the University of King’s College,
The duck-billed platypus (or just ‘platypus’ to its friends) is a very strange animal. Endemic to Australia, its ostensibly mammalian characteristics are in contrast to certain reptilian features, most notably its oviparity – in layman’s terms, that it lays eggs. The males, for reasons unknown to science, possess two venomous spurs on their hind legs. According to the Aborigines, the first platypuses were born after a young female duck mated with a lonely and persuasive water rat. When Europeans first discovered them, it was assumed that someone had rather cunningly and with great skill taken apart a beaver and a duck, and then reassembled them into a new, ridiculous animal – surely nothing so strange could exist.
Some of you may be wondering what a platypus has to do with graduation. Those people may leave.
To the rest of you, I’ll let you in on a little secret – the platypus, though a liminal moment in the speciation of mammals and also totally awesome, is a metaphor. It, like the Foundation Year, King’s College, and its students, belong in the rarefied company of things that shouldn’t be, but are, charmingly oblivious to our own impossibility. We are members of that category of things Hunter S. Thompson once described as “too weird to live, and too rare to die”. I’m not exactly sure what Dr. Hankey and the others, a collective lonely and persuasive water rat, were thinking when they brought our particular platypus into the world, but I’m deeply grateful that they did.
It is worth asking, however, and I am sure that everyone in this room has either asked or been asked, what our education is worth. Is a degree from King’s a blessing, or some kind of foul gypsy curse that relegates you to a life of permanent unemployment? I recently used my powers of research, just one of many skills I accrued over the course of my degree, to find out how to break a gypsy curse. According to wikianswers,
You must gut a newly born lamb, under the full moon, and capture its entrails in a bowl made of oak. Then, these must be spread under the bedsheets of the cursed person for a month. In order to ward off any spirits that wish to re-enter the body, the effected person must block all possible points of entry to the body with either the feathers of a duck, or the fur of a wolf.
This made a lot of sense. But I have also been trained to consult multiple sources. According to another website whose font wasn’t in comic sans, not only do gypsy curses not exist, but the very term gypsy is offensive! So, if the gypsies aren’t responsible, what are we to make of this situation? Why did a group of highly intelligent people who are fond of listing their ‘critical thinking’ skills on resumes persist in a degree whose best immediate job prospects involve medical testing, or becoming nude sushi tables for engineering graduates?
The answer, as with all inscrutable things, is complicated, and I can only speak to my own experience.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a fire truck. I quickly dismissed this ridiculous dream after my parents told me human children couldn’t grow up to be trucks of any kind, and I decided that I would become a doctor, instead. A doctor who was also a dinosaur. Doctor Dino.
Now, I may have compromised on my dreams of medicine – that’s just part of becoming an adult – but I’ve never really stopped wanting to be a dinosaur. And you know what? There is no part of this degree that says I can’t!
They say that a B.A. isn’t worth anything – personally, I think that’s something to celebrate. It’s true that constructing an argument isn’t the same as building a ship; all we have are words to weld with, and unless the government radically changes its priorities, no-one is going to give us a 25-billion dollar contract to build them a fleet of rhetoric. In fact, most institutions reflexively resent the presence of educated, autonomous people who don’t have very much to do. I’m sure that many of you, if you’re not already working, are anxiously searching for it. It’s strange to observe this bizarre transformation, because for as long as I can remember, most of us haven’t been looking for work but actively fleeing from it. As well we should be – our task, our gift, is thinking and reflecting, which is nearly impossible if you’re working too hard.
The idea of ‘coasting’ often possesses a negative connotation; it implies a lack of effort, a deep and abiding idleness. But why should one not coast? Coasting is graceful, coasting is blissful, and people who try too hard become sweaty and unattractive. And why should one not be idle? It is, after all, not the absence of effort but something entirely different. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Idleness does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class”. The modern axiom that a degree in the liberal arts does not provide an obvious foundation for today’s careers is absolutely true, but it is a consolation, not a curse; who are more likely to change things than those who do not have an investment in the way things currently are? In a world that can no longer exist in its current formulation, its best chance for future is not a collection of rapacious business majors struggling to learn Mandarin, but people who think, reflect, and dream, whose palettes possess colours we have yet to see.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t cry – so I won’t – but I would be remiss if I did not mention how much I loved each and every one of you. Well, not you, though I’m sure you’re very nice, and your devotion to each of your sixteen cats is truly inspiring. But there are a few faces missing today, and since you were all stupid enough to give me a podium, I would like to point out the absence of one of them – Bethany Hindmarsh, whom I’m sure if she was still here would be standing in my place. She’s a microcosm of what makes this place so wonderful: the wit, the intelligence, the devotion to community, and, it must be said, the occasional penchant for sloppy drunkenness.
It feels strange to be saying goodbye to a place and to people whom I have not yet left. It feels, in fact, impossible – how can I separate myself when so much of who and what I am resides here? I feel like Janus, the Roman God of the doorway – one face looks backward, and the other forward. Soon we will step through that door. And it’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.