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John Masterson: 'To the nth degree I don't feel proud, I just feel lucky...'


Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin

I read last week with some horror that the degree ceremony at Trinity College Dublin should be changed because it is humiliating. Apparently degrees are handed out according to how well the graduates did in their final exam and this is bad for the mental health of those at the bottom. The suggestion is to change it to an alphabetical system which is great for the Andersons and tough on the Williamses who have already been last in far too many queues in this increasingly alphabetised world. This would magically help those at the bottom of the class forget they came last.

Now what happens if someone in the middle of the list was the star captain of the cricket team who had just lost his sister in a car crash, the top of the class is a great sprinter and had made Olympic qualification time and has an alcoholic father, and the person at the bottom was blessed with magical looks, personality and timing, has already appeared in one film and had an interesting career beckoning?

People are a bit more complicated than how they do in exams, run in races, drive cars, climb mountains, tell lies, make friends, tell jokes, perform in bed, etc, etc, etc.

The medal winners in the Olympics will never be chosen alphabetically. And it is probably sensible not to go to bed with someone who is very boring but hasn't had any for a while and is feeling depressed. Degrees matter, but so do perseverance, luck, personality, kindness and ruthlessness and all of the many characteristics that make up the rich tapestry of each and every one of us. Anyone who even felt humiliated by their name being read out tenth rather than third would never make it to university. It would be wasted on them.

People who get a degree from Trinity College should regard it as a stage in life and a piece of paper that shows something of what they can achieve. How they got there will vary. They may be very smart, have worked very hard, had well-off parents who gave them the best of everything, or, and sadly much rarer, had financially strapped parents who valued education and gave up a lot to give their offspring a good start in life.

I got my degree from TCD last century and my parents were very pleased. It probably mattered more to them than it did to me. My father was smart but was deprived of a third level education by his father who did not value such things. I hope I have not inherited those genes. That he could have afforded to educate my father with more ease than my father who provided for me still rankles.

Time at university is not all about where you come in the class and the people who have been lucky enough to be there know that. I suspect most couldn't care less about the order they are called out in. What they all know is that they have been extraordinarily lucky to spend four years surrounded by people who think, who are interested in and not afraid of ideas and work, who hone their skills in sustaining an argument, who believe it is important to expand knowledge. They were lucky also because they were born at the right time and in the right place and with enough money to get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I got a degree from TCD because when I was 10, my primary school teacher in Kilkenny, Tom Groves, gave me extra classes every Saturday so I could get a scholarship to a Dublin school. He also gave extra lessons to anyone who was falling behind. We didn't even know what dyslexia or anything like it was, but he didn't need a label to give his pupils every chance. He changed my life. As did my parents who deprived themselves for my benefit.

I do not remember where I came in my TCD class. I am fairly sure I did not feel proud, or humiliated. I did, and still do, feel I was very lucky because I most certainly did not do it on my own.


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