Alumni Voices: Looking Back at a St Andrean Education

I first went up to St Andrews more than 20 years ago, in the autumn of 1996. I’d been through the wringer a little bit; two years previously, I had gone up to Oxford to study classics at the age of 16, had crashed out spectacularly then spent a gap year largely watching This Morning with Richard and Judy, before getting back on the saddle.

Why St Andrews? Well, Scotland was the obvious choice; my family are Scots, so I applied to all the ancients (except Aberdeen – I’m not mad) and I had a great childhood friend who’d attended and loved St Andrews. Glasgow was a strong contender, my father’s alma mater; Edinburgh declined to respond to my application. But I knew St Andrews a little it too, having visited, and the small-town mentality and closeness of it appealed to me, more so than the big-city bustle of Glasgow.

Photo: Historic Environment Scotland

All of this, you must remember, was pre-Prince William. (He arrived when I was already a postgraduate, and I hoped I might luck into tutoring him – but the powers-that-be had other plans for our future sovereign.) St Andrews was respectable, and very venerable, but mid-table in academic terms. Of course, we had the marvellous Sir Kenneth Dover as Chancellor, probably the finest Greek scholar the UK has ever produced but also known nearly universally as “Dirty Ken” due to some choice recollections in his autobiography. Student numbers were about 6,000, give or take, and there was a comforting sense of community.

Why do I tell you all of this, I hear you cry? I was at St Andrews for eight years (don’t ask about the PhD), and commuted once a week to teach for a ninth year. So I know the old town well. And I noticed a change. I’ve continued to notice it when I, all too infrequently, get the chance to revisit. When I was a bejant, people generally fell into one of two groups: the first, a small one, were locals, Fifers who went to St Andrews because it was the local university (and, bluntly, better than Dundee). The second, larger, group consisted of people who were bright but not quite good enough for Oxford or Cambridge, but who wanted the lustre and the traditions of an old (very old) university. (Q: How many St Andrews students does it take to change a lightbulb? A: CHANGE??!) I had proven myself firmly in the second camp by my defenestration, and that was fine by me. It was a comfortable cohort into which I could settle.

Tradition is comfort, of course, for very many people. A dear friend of mine from university days once quipped that in St Andrews, anything which happened twice was a tradition, and the phrase came to be part of student lore. I enjoyed formal hall dinners, and chapel on a Sunday morning when I could be bothered (I’m Jewish but I’d bought my gown and liked wearing it), and, most of all, my beloved Debating Society, which I sought three times to lead and was each time defeated. The old buildings were a delight, and still are, and I loved tutorials in St John’s House on South Street or in Swallowgate on Butts Wynd; I loved the stories of a townsman killing a fellow burgher by accident when practising his archery; and Lower Parliament Hall may only have housed the Scottish Parliament very briefly, when Edinburgh was plague-ridden, but still it had antiquity. I should have spent more time in the divinity library, even if I wasn’t studying divinity, but I still cherish my memories of St Mary’s and wandering past Queen Mary’s Hawthorn.

I don’t know what it’s like now, but in my day lectures were not compulsory. No records were taken, no roll call. Tutorials were, of course, required, but for the most part you were left to your own devices. I probably went to three-quarters of the lectures offered, and had some brilliant lecturers: David Allan was first-class on Scottish history, Richard Savile knew more about the development of banking than was healthy, frankly, Hugh Kennedy on the Crusades was a tour de force and my eventual supervisor, Andrew Pettegree, was quiet and understated but presented the Protestant Reformation with cold, clear analysis that was impossible to fault.

Photo: Visit Scotland

But here’s my point. The academic work was what you were there for, of course, and it was intellectually enriching. It was not, however, the be-all and end-all. You had leisure time. Some of this was taken up with academic-related pursuits: the good tutors and lecturers made you want to read and discover more. Some was not. There was – I hope there still is – a thriving student society scene, from the Debating Society to the James Bond Society, from the Anime Society to Blind Mirth. There was SO much to do. And, my God, we did.

I took a fairly conventional course; I was an active debater, and I stood for several positions in the Students’ Association, to the extent that the fledgling student newspaper, The Saint (does it still exist?), described me as an “old-school hack”. As it happens, I was only successful once in a campus-wide election. I ran unopposed, and beat RON by two to one. But a win is a win, hey?

Photo: Pixabay

My worry, which has grown since I left and is reinforced every time I revisit, is that students aren’t as active these days. I know all the arguments which will be thrown up. Academic performance is more important than ever now. The University has moved up the league tables and is now world-class (in which I take vicarious pride). Students are paying for their education and want their money’s worth. All of this I understand.

What concerns me is that generations – and, Jesus, it is now generations since I went up – are attending a learning factory. That is necessary, but not sufficient. I’ve long believed that if you leave university the same person you arrived, then you’ve wasted your time. Those lucky and able enough to go through higher education should of course be transformed by the experience, not just become better informed. When I arrived in north-east Fife in September 1996, I was a shy, introverted 18-year-old with severely battered intellectual confidence. When I left in 2004, I had made my best friends in the world, knew my way around dinner-party conversation and could hold a room of 200 people in the palm of my hand. That’s no accident. That’s what my university education did for me.

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