St Andrews and Courage
It is one hundred years this May since J M Barrie delivered ‘Courage’ at his installation as Rector. Steven Thompson (PhD 1976) looks back 50 years to describe the impact that this address had on him while he was studying for his PhD at St Andrews.
On 3 May 2022 it is one hundred years since Scottish novelist and playwright James M Barrie (best known as the creator of Peter Pan) delivered Courage – his inspiring Rectorial address at the University of St Andrews. It was reading this address – published afterwards as a book – that made me realise how much courage the University of St Andrews had given me at a crucial time of my life.
When my wife, our eleven-month-old daughter and I arrived in St Andrews 50 years ago, I quickly developed positive and productive relationships with my supervisor, other staff and students of the Faculty of Divinity in St Mary’s College. I was already aware of my supervisor Professor Matthew Black because of my interest in his book An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts.
Partway through my course however, my funding took a hit: the US government, which guaranteed student loans, suddenly decided to cease that guarantee for students at universities outside the US! It looked as if my time at St Andrews was about to end. I informed the student bursar that I could not meet the new term’s fee, due in full at the beginning of term. To my great surprise and gratitude, the bursar arranged for me to pay by instalments! Then – furthermore – the Faculty of Divinity offered me a position as a part-time tutorial assistant in New Testament Greek!
Thanks to these two arrangements my family and I were able to keep afloat financially for the remainder of our time at St Andrews. Both were practical expressions of empathy. I experienced many others while I was at St Mary’s College.
It was about this time that I encountered Barrie’s Rectorial address – Courage. I recall browsing in a second-hand bookshop near the Royal and Ancient Golf Club one day while my wife was at the nearby St Andrews Woollen Mill shop admiring tartan plaids. I opened the slim volume. Barrie’s introduction pulled me immediately into his theme, as I’m sure it did his audience half a century earlier:
“You must excuse me if I talk a good deal about courage to you today. There is nothing else much worth speaking about to undergraduates or graduates or white-haired men and women. It is the lovely virtue – the rib of Himself that God sent down to His children.”
When Barrie addressed St Andrews students in 1922 the world was recovering from World War I. He referred several times to that catastrophic event and challenged his listeners to anticipate such events in the future. Barrie’s challenge is uncannily relevant today. Here it is in his words:
“Learn as a beginning how world-shaking situations arise and how they may be countered.”
Standing there reading these words, I realised that when my finances had collapsed, the University’s empathy and subsequent financial support had given me the courage to carry on with my studies when it seemed that all was lost.
It also struck me that the University encouraged and expected us to tackle the many challenging questions and issues we came across in the course of our postgraduate studies and theses with courage, skill and determination.
Barrie’s conclusion is also apt for today:
“In bidding you good-bye, my last word must be of the lovely virtue. Courage, my children, and ‘greet the unseen with a cheer’.”
Thank you, Barrie, and thank you St Andrews for helping me to do just that!