2004 Press Releases

15 Sep 2004
Conferring Ceremonies at University College Cork - 15 September 2004

Conferring ceremonies continued today (15 September 2004) at University College Cork with over 500 undergraduate students conferred from the Faculty of Arts.

The Conferring addresses were given by Keith Sidwell, Professor of Latin and Greek, Head of Classics Department, UCC (see below) and Professor Enda McDonagh, Chair of UCC's Governing Body.

Text of address by Professor Keith Sidwell:

Quam moribus tam doctrina: on being suitable to graduate

President, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen and new graduates: when I was asked by the President to give this conferring address, I was of course deeply honoured ? but I also sensed quite palpably the difficulty of the job. Not for the first time, I felt that I had perhaps wasted my life and that all sorts of other paths besides the professoriate might have helped me better to cope with this weighty task: politician, stand-up comedian, successful businessman, sporting hero (say, just for an instance, a member of the successful Cork Senior All-Ireland hurling team), rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. And then the Muse (the goddess who attends all students of the ancient world) gave me a wondrous moment of inspiration. She bade me (Muses always talk in old fashioned language) speak whereof I know and discuss briefly the terms on which you are allowed to pass through these ivy-infested portals with - as Tom Lehrer would have it - their "ivy-covered professors", into the outside world or even to make a quick about turn when confronted by reality checkpoint and head back through them for another dose of the same. And why should I be qualified, you ask? Well, as you?ll be aware already, it is still our custom to award your degree in Latin ? the language of Caesar, Augustus, Claudius and a host of other Roman imperialists who liked nothing better than to walk into other people?s countries and force them to conjugate amo, amas, amat and decline mensa (including the vocative "o table" which Churchill found so absurd), and also the language, so we are reliably informed by last week?s Irish Times, in which as late as the 1950s what might be politely termed "clerical errors" were communicated to the Vatican by the Irish episcopate (couched, as one classical scholar put it, "in the decent obscurity of a learned tongue"). I am, among others things, a professor of Latin. On this subject, then, you can consider me the horse?s mouth. So bear with me while I whinny for a few moments.

The Dean?s assurance to the President of your suitability to graduate has a very familial ring: you are presented as "these my sons and daughters" ? very suitable imagery when you think of the way the University is generally known as the "Alma Mater" "Dear Mother" and of the general title under which you will henceforth be know, that is alumni "nurslings", or "foster-children". The Dean then asserts knowledge of your aptness and suitability to be admitted into your particular degree and affirms this by his or her troth to the President and the whole Academy. So far, so straightforward. But what are the terms of your suitability? That?s where my title comes in. The Dean asserts that you are "expert and suitable tam moribus quam doctrina" i.e. "as much in mores as in doctrina". Now doctrina is the easy part: the English word "doctrine" is derived from it and it?s not too difficult to see what the Dean is telling the President. "President, these sons and daughters of mine have passed all their exams and are knowledgeable enough (literally "expert and suitable in learning") to be awarded the degree in such-and-such." Now comes the tricky part: the Dean also assures the President that you are just as expert and just as suitable to graduate in mores". This word has an English derivative too, "morals", and the Latin word mores is still occasionally used to mean "habits" or  "ways of behaving". So the second thing the Dean is telling the President is that you are all decent, law-abiding people ? in fact upright enough to be allowed to graduate. Now here come my questions: first why does the University need to be assured of your morality as well as your knowledge and second how does the Dean know that you are moral enough to be awarded a degree from UCC?

The first question might be susceptible to an historical answer. From the Renaissance onwards, there was a commonplace equation between study and living a moral life. The reason you bothered with books was because they teach you how to live. In particular, it was thought, the great Greek and Roman writers had enormously important lessons to impart about the pitfalls of the human condition, and attention paid to their works could send you forth into the battle with fortune and your own frailties well-armoured for the task of being a decent person. From them you could learn, for example, that ? in the moral sphere ?what you should be aiming at was mediocrity, which the poet Horace went so far as to call "golden". It meant that you should in behavioural terms always aim for the middle course, rather than the extremes, which could get you into serious bother. But of course, not many people ? even in the Arts Faculty - really believe that books can teach you how to live any more and anyway, in many of our degree subjects there isn?t likely to be a great deal of emphasis upon Cicero?s On the Nature of the Gods or Aristotle?s Politics. And in any case, it?s a slightly dangerous doctrine: if Hitler?s Mein Kampf and Ovid?s Art of Love are variously on the curriculum, if it?s true, then we risk releasing into the world a fit of fascists or a load of lotharios ? or still worse, a bunch of fascist lotharios.

My second question is answered also then. The Dean doesn?t know, though surely he or she will fervently hope ? and certainly correctly ?that you are all morally upright enough to graduate. But this line of thought caused me briefly to ponder what sort of test might make Deans absolutely certain of not being called to account if ? God forfend ? one of our graduates were to slip off the straight and narrow. Ah! What if the Deans devised a multiple-choice questionnaire?  That would resolve all the issues right away. All that would be required would be the sort of thing they ask in the "Rose of Tralee" contest, but oriented towards the moral sphere. Q: "What do you most wish for?" Is it (a) a win on the Lotto (b) a date with Brad Pitt/Madonna (c) "world peace and adherence to the Kyoto accord".

Unfortunately, there?s a flaw here, which only occurred to me after reading Alexander McCall Smith?s Morality for Beautiful Girls, the third volume in the No. 1 Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Mr. Pulani has a problem, which he brings to Mma Makutsi, the second-in-command at the detective agency. He has been running the "Miss Glamorous Botswana" competition for fifteen years, but it has recently run into trouble: p. 157-9 "Some very bad things have happened?good one there?"
So the Deans would still, even after this test, have to look into each graduand?s heart-back to the drawing-board then. Where the Muse whispered once more into my ear. I quickly ran to my Latin dictionary again. And yes, she was right. All my speculation had been for nothing. You see, I suddenly realised that the Dean wasn?t assuring the President of the morals of the graduates: there was, as I had divined, absolutely no need for that ? it would be an insult even to suspect for a moment that anyone who had been through all those years of education, and had had the support of a loving family and kind and caring friends, would need their ethical standards probed before being allowed to graduate. No, the word mores, you see, can also mean "character". And there?s one thing of which the President, the Dean and all of us on the platform don?t need to have any other evidence about than the academic results, and that?s this: if you have completed a university level course, with its lectures, seminars, hours of study in the library or the laboratory, reams of essays, deadlines and examinations ? to say nothing of the extra burden of outside work many of you have to do to pay your way and keep body and soul together - then you most certainly are "expert and suitable as much in character as in learning" to be admitted to your UCC degree. So I congratulate you all today, graduates of UCC, as much as upon your learning, upon your mores - your tenacity, your determination, your application, your grit ? in short the character that has brought you through to this auspicious day.



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