Skip to main content

2009 graduation ceremony address – James Ross

News story

Thank you Professor Hacket, and also for your generous words earlier this evening.

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Faculty, proud parents, relatives and friends, and, above all, you, the graduands.

What a privilege to share this wonderful occasion with you; my warm appreciation to Curtin University of Technology and those responsible. Having grown up on farms, worked in mines, dealt with engineers of all persuasions, and still an active scientist, I feel right at home here tonight. I also feel very relaxed, because the anecdotal evidence from these occasions is that very few graduands remember a single word from their occasional address.

You graduands are about to join your dynamic evolving professional worlds and its immense privileges. However it also brings responsibilities and my overarching aim tonight is to highlight some of them, but first, let us connect a little.

I am informed that there are about 520 of you, representing at least 11 countries, and it is heartwarmingly evident that many proud parents and family are also here. Although my parents are long gone, I am thankful to have my family and friends here tonight.

My profile may sound like a fortunate and privileged life, but it was not always so. Five older step siblings and a stepfather had all left school by 14, and my remarkable Irish mother was forced to leave at 12, yet she was the one who truly valued education. In monetary terms we were relatively poor and despite my working and saving to go to University from age 12 onwards, I could not pay my way, so I am forever grateful for the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme that operated then.

Fortunately, my extracurricular activities at university, many of them nocturnal, did not prevent a good job with an iconic and enlightened Australian minerals company, Western Mining. There I commenced a transformational journey, with considerable encouragement and support from some outstanding mentors and friends, including some in this audience. I may have had the qualities of determination, persistence and self-belief in my back pack, but in my journey to this podium tonight, I cannot overstate the importance to young graduates of enlightened employers, inspiring mentors and friends, and the love and support of family. I sincerely wish the same for you.

Regardless of your journey to this ceremony, and the fact that for some it will include family hardship, you are now one of the privileged minority of the 6.7 billion people in our world with a university degree. You stand on the threshold of unparalleled opportunities, and challenges, even if temporarily overshadowed by the Global Financial Crisis and its accompanying alarmist media commentary. For example, most of you will live and work within the greater Asian region, i.e. the arc from China to India, including Australia and NZ, which accounts for almost half the world’s population, one third of the world’s GDP and, most of its future growth potential.

These unparalleled opportunities follow from your recent membership of a university community devoted to knowledge and its application. A knowledge system that disseminates, extends, integrates and preserves. And it is encouraging to see so many of you entering careers based on the key areas of science, technology, engineering and math from within this system. Educationalists group these four areas under the acronym, STEM, which is appropriate because they support much of the full flowering of a civilized and open society. However, such a society also requires creativity and my first theme tonight is the relationship between creativity and education.

Shining examples of major advances in creativity are scattered across history, such as the development of a steam engine, the screw pump and several areas of mathematics by Archimedes in Greece 2300 years ago. But, he did not create on an entirely blank slate. Science was pursued in his society and undoubtedly education underpinned his creative advances. Even back then, the Greek scientists achieved new developments and applications within a knowledge system, just like a modern university.

Consider also the robust flowering of science, arts, philosophy and literature in Europe in the 16th -19th centuries, and the contributions of Newton, Boyle, Bacon, Descartes and others. Their groundbreaking advances owe much to events in the Spanish city of Toledo from 8th to 13th century, a time when Europe was largely unaware of, or had forgotten, the many legacies of the very early Greek and Indian scholars, and the subsequent advances by scholars in Egypt, India, China and the Muslim world. Fortunately, from the 8th century onwards, Muslim scholars in cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria and Cordoba, had assembled, and preserved this priceless collective knowledge in Arabic texts, and made it available for dissemination, application and extension throughout the Muslim world.

When the Muslim Moors ruled Toledo, from 8th to 11th centuries, they supported scholarship and a policy of “La Convivencia”, that delightful Spanish term that describes co-existence and intermingling. Although the Moors sometimes ruled with force, they also allowed Christian and Jewish scholars to work with Muslims in the universities of the day. Convivencia continued after the Christians conquered Toledo in 1085, and Muslim, Jew and Christian scholars worked together to translate Arabic texts into Latin for Christian Europe. That act of preservation and dissemination of this knowledge, coupled with the creativity of later scholars to extend and apply it, has shaped much of our modern world.

As an aside, the ethnic diversity of this university suggests that many of you have experienced the coexistence and intermingling of Convivencia during your studies. If you leave Curtin better able to understand other cultures and belief systems, it may be one of your most enduring legacies, because no one system has an absolute lock on the truth. Use such understanding well.

To complete this arc of history I bring you back to this institution, creatively initiated in 1962 as the unique, applied, educational institute of technology which opened in 1967 with 2000 students. Its leaders have worked hard, and successfully, to increase its research profile, in recognition that a research presence underpins the standards of undergraduate education, and feeds the creativity that flows through the arteries of what is now a successful university of about 42,000 students. I am proud to have made a contribution in my role as Chair of the John De Laeter Centre over the last 10 years.

Creativity may be underpinned by education, but it is not the sole preserve of either universities or research enterprises. In my experience, professionals committed to their continuing education, either formal or informal, are much more likely to make creative contributions and advances, regardless of their workplace. Through continuing education, and creative input, you can contribute to the knowledge system in your profession, and repay the privilege of membership.

Now I wish to change gear and address my second theme, evolution, because today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, probably the most significant natural scientist in history. It is 150 years since he published “The Origin of the Species” and ushered in a scientific revolution which laid the foundations for modern biology, ecology, palaeoanthropology and sexology, and left few disciplines untouched.

Darwin was only 22, similar to many of you, when he signed on for a 5 year voyage as the Captain’s naturalist companion on HMS Beagle. Yet like Archimedes, his page was also not entirely blank. He had been exposed to a wide range of evolutionary beliefs, including through geology during his MA at Cambridge, and he probably knew what he was looking for. His meticulous observations and extraordinary collection of thousands of geological and biological specimens were a stunning achievement, but what sets Darwin apart, is the power of his creativity and imagination. First he demonstrated that evolution occurred, and then he developed a theory of adaptation and natural selection that was so comprehensive and so powerful, that it remains the core of our current understanding. And his work and writing was essentially done at home.

One outcome of direct relevance to us is the evolution of modern humans, a subject of active research interest for me. Evolutionary genetics, together with archaeology and palaeoclimate studies, indicate that a small band of modern humans left Africa about 70-80,000 years to populate the rest of the world. Beneath our ethnic diversity, so well represented here tonight, is an essentially identical genome. In other words, it is our various adaptations to a wide range of environments, diets and cultures, and the resulting differences in our appearance, that mask our many hard wired similarities; similarities so evident in the universal joy of children at play and the fact that all cultures share a sense of humour. Contrast this conclusion with the belief in Darwin’s time that Africans were a different, and inferior, species.

Our genetic evolution is much, much slower than the fast and increasing pace of cultural evolution, which is driven by education, population, and our exceptional adaptability. Today, human progress is dominated by cultural evolution. Whilst it has brought exceptional benefits during the last 11,000 years, our impacts on atmosphere, water resources and ecology, signal that unconstrained cultural evolution and population growth, and their associated excesses of consumption, threaten our quality of life. Clearly the cultures of the developed world must now adapt and evolve along different paths and simultaneously provide for the aspirations of the many without our standard of living. The world needs much more education and creativity to meet these challenges and you can contribute. In fact, you must!

As your career and life evolve, remember how the strands of education and creativity are interwoven to improve our world. Keep that thread in your life through continuing education and being creative, and help stitch it into the lives of others. It will bring you much satisfaction.

Finally, in the spirit of Convivencia , I urge you to go forth as Ambassadors, not just as an education product, but as a creative extension, of this University. Harness your education and creativity to the cause of your country, your profession, and to the many positive cultural changes that our evolving world needs.

Thank you for this privilege, and my very best wishes to you all.