Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate, distinguished guests, members of staff, graduates and their guests.
I am honoured and grateful to be standing here tonight as a graduate of the University of Western Australia. Those of us graduating tonight have much to celebrate and much for which to be thankful.
For each one of us, it is perhaps a time to reflect on how things have changed. I started here a timid first year Arts/Law student, straight from high school, not knowing anyone in my classes. I knew nothing about law, I didn’t understand what many of my teachers were saying, and I encountered unusual things: for the first time I saw BMWs with P-Plates on them.
I leave having had my world opened up. I had wonderful teachers here who challenged me, forced me to question and criticise, to aspire to be intellectually rigorous. Teachers who taught me not to be content with easy answers or slogans, who showed me that no one has a monopoly on truth. I leave having had a lot of fun. I leave having made lifelong friends. Friends with whom I shared houses, played in bands, travelled, worked, and developed caffeine addictions. I’m sure each one of us leaves richer for having been here.
Now tonight we are graduating. We are finishing here, and starting somewhere else. Much is unknown, and therefore exciting. Lives have a wonderful tendency to take unexpected turns. It was easy for our world to narrow while at University, to obsess about exams and marks, and to fret about getting jobs at the end. Now we can broaden our focus, take risks, be bold, and use our imaginations.
Our education at UWA gives us plenty of options, plenty of opportunities. University nurtures individual achievement. But it would fail if that were all it fostered. UWA was founded as a ‘civic university’. Its purpose is to serve the community. The way I see it, the ultimate goal of both education and law is to serve society. At its best, the rule of law aims for the peaceful resolution of disputes, for equality before the powerful, for justice. At its best, education aims toward the shedding of prejudice, the cultivation of reason; it enables people regardless of their origins or background to improve their minds and their chances for a good life. In the midst of all our options, all our opportunities, it becomes important to consider what is worth doing.
The professions of education and law are, as we all know, often treated very differently by society. Some articled clerks sitting here tonight will already be earning more in a year than my parents earned after 40 years as public school teachers. As we stand on the eve of some of us commanding very different graduate salaries, it is perhaps a moment to reflect that financial reward does not necessarily reflect the true value of things.
Neither, I hope, should financial reward become our sole motivation. As a law graduate I feel I need to cite some respectable precedent for this proposition. I heard the Honourable Wayne Martin, Chief Justice of Western Australia, address a friend’s admissions ceremony recently. He said, ‘being a lawyer is not just another way of earning a living. It’s a profession, not a business. Being a member of the legal profession involves obligations to clients, the court, and the community’. Of course, not all of us will go on to become lawyers or teachers. But as graduates of this University it is worth considering what our obligations may be.
The motto of this university is Seek Wisdom. ‘Not’ as UWA History Professor Richard Bosworth points out, ‘seek profit or a job or a career or cleverness or a lifestyle’. Why seek wisdom? Because that’s how humanity is improved. What does wisdom mean? I’m not yet sure, but I can’t help thinking it has something to do with using the heart and the head. Thinking about the interests of the many, and not the few. Trying to love justice and truth.
University was, for many of us, a time to think about the challenges facing our world: environmental decay, climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. The best antidote to depression and despondency, though, is action. Our education here has given us the skills and the opportunities to be part of the solutions. Of course it is difficult to remember, let alone always follow, these high ideals. But I do honestly think that everyone graduating here tonight has much to offer the world. Everyone brings their own perspectives and gifts. Thoreau’s good advice still rings true: ‘find your own genius, and follow it closely’.
Education, in Freire’s words, can foster either conformity or freedom. University will have failed us, and we will have failed university, if we leave only knowing how things are done in our chosen fields. Rather, we should leave this place wondering how things can be done better. The goals of law and education are surely not that only some children should receive a quality education, that only some people should have access to justice. It seems to me that one of the gifts of University education is to free us to question, to criticise, to wonder what happens to the disadvantaged, and to strive to make the world better. Let’s use this gift. Let’s not be the class of 2010, billing in 6 minute intervals while Rome burns.
I would like to end once again with gratitude. On behalf of all graduates I thank our teachers, those who are here and those who are absent, who have helped us reach this point. I owe a particular personal thanks to my mother Robin, and to all my teachers and mentors here at UWA.
We take the gifts of our education with us. Open minds, tremendous opportunity. We should leave here perpetual students: curious, humble, courageous. We should leave here seeking wisdom. I look forward to seeing where that quest takes us all.
Jess Panegyres graduated in Law/Arts at The University of Western Australia in 2010. In 2009 she was named as one of Australia's three Rhodes Scholars at Large.