Education in America has never looked back - and has remained a matter of the greatest possible interest to British observers.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is wonderful to come to Virginia and receive such an incredibly encouraging welcome. Thank you very much indeed.

It is 12 years, as the President has pointed out, since I last had the pleasure of visiting the College of William and Mary. In those days I was young and relatively inexperienced. Now I am middle-aged and relatively inexperienced, I find that I am an exact contemporary of the current Vice-President of the USA and just two years younger than the President. I somehow never thought such a thing could happen! On that occasion, 12 years ago, when I had the good fortune to receive an honorary fellowship, we were commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown - an event, for some reason, more celebrated in this country than in my own.

Today we meet on another anniversary - the 300th of the founding of this illustrious college. This time, I am glad to say, it is a universally happy occasion, which recalls the deep roots which link the history and the culture of our two nations.

The first Virginians who sought Crown support for a college in their Colony, through the good offices of their emissary, James Blair, saw very clearly the power and the value of education. They were also very much aware of how establishing such a college would help to enhance the respect of others for Virginia - more than 80 years old at the time, but still relatively young.

Fortunately, King William and Queen Mary also had their goals for education in Virginia - goals which were fused with the wishes of the Colonists in the charter which they granted on February 8th, 1693 - 300 years ago, almost to the day.

The support of William and Mary was not only spiritual and legal. They also set about making financial provision to ensure that the college was adequately established. An outright gift was made to the college of £1,983 14s and 10d - a little less than $3,000 at today's rate of exchange (clearly careful management of the Royal Purse is nothing new!). The King and Queen also decreed that the college should receive one penny for every pound of tobacco which left Virginia or Maryland and was landed at an English port. On top of that, they gave the college 20,000 acres of land, in return for two Latin verses to be provided every year, on November 5th. Real estate prices may not be as high as they were, but 20,000 acres in exchange for two verses a year, even of Latin, strikes me as a pretty good deal.

Education in America has never looked back - and has remained a matter of the greatest possible interest to British observers. I was recently reading a despatch dated 1906 from Sir Henry Durand, then British Ambassador to the United States, forwarded to my great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII. 'It is an interesting question whether this system of mixed schools and colleges has a good or bad effect on American boys and girls,' he wrote. 'With men, I do not think it produces any want of chivalrous feeling towards women; rather the contrary. The manners of American men may in some other respects compare unfavourably with the manners of Englishmen, but their manners in respect of women are in my opinion decidedly above the average in England.'

As I think Sir Henry would agree, the value of this great seat of learning here in Williamsburg - and of others like it - needs to be constantly reassessed, against the background of the society in which it operates. That society has changed dramatically, not just in the last 300 years that your college has existed here in Virginia, but particularly, it seems to me, in the last 60 or 70 years.

We are now approaching the end of a century in which the growth of knowledge has been unparalleled. The pace of scientific discovery quickens all the time and with it, growing even faster, comes a huge body of information. The contents of the entire Library of Congress can be contained in one small disk. It is possible to hold up one tiny piece of hardware and declare, as one popular British newspaper used to say on its front page, 'All human life is here'.

And yet we know that it isn't. We are uneasily aware that this vast accumulation of facts and technical know-how, which is, in itself, entirely welcome, has not given us more wisdom. There is something about the extreme technical ease of modern life, about the effortlessness and speed of modern communication, which seems to encourage shallowness and a lack of a sense of fulfilment. We become more knowledgeable; we are bombarded with news and information 24 hours a day; we certainly become more 'knowing'; but we do not seem to become any more civilised, or any wiser.

Why is it, for example, that we are so reluctant to accept the wholeness of man, that mind and body are part of the same creation; that human beings operating in a particular kind of environment tend to produce a particular response? Why do we allow short-termism so to dictate how we run our affairs that it prevents the longer-term strategic thinking and investment which we know is essential to safeguard our future? What is it that makes us so wary of interfering with the more extreme aspects of consumerism, and asking about its effects on human values, on the quality of life, on the minds and personalities of future generations? Why is it that while the means for achieving happiness have never been greater, the incidence of stress and depression also seems to be greater than ever before?

Let me emphasise that in asking these questions I am not trying to denigrate the very real benefits of science and technology. But I am sure most of you will have had experience of the limitations of some of society?s recent advances which I have tried to describe.

Each of us, no doubt, has his or her own ideas as to what lies at the root of the problem. I claim no special insight, but I can?t help wondering whether the answer may lie in our subservience to the imperative of scientific progress, which has led to a cynical disbelief in the relevance of the past to the present, and in the value of what is traditional and timeless. As a result, there seems to be a growing imbalance between the technological achievements of human kind, on the one hand, and our intuitive ability to handle them, to adapt them to our lives rather than vice-versa, on the other. And yet, paradoxically, there is increasing evidence emerging from those researching the origins of the universe and of human life that science and spirituality are infinitely more compatible than the scientific rationalists would have us believe: that, for example, Alexander Pope was right when he wrote just a few years after the founding of this college:

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,

Whose body nature is and God the soul.

A paradox indeed; but perhaps also a source of hope for the future.

One of the ways in which this current inadequacy manifests itself, I believe, is in the neglect of our language and our literature. There are many great linguistic traditions which have contributed and are contributing to the extraordinary cultural diversity of America. But the English language which the peoples of the United States and the United Kingdom have, for the most part, the good fortune to enjoy as their mother tongue is the most powerful instrument we possess for letting us, as Matthew Arnold put it, see life steadily and see it whole.

Employers these days often complain, rightly, that applicants for jobs have inadequate technical knowledge. Governments, businesses and schools are doing much to remedy this, in all our countries. But employers also find an even more widespread and fundamental problem. It is that people have not been taught how to use words properly. I do not merely mean the inability to spell or punctuate - though these obviously matter. I mean that there is a real problem in the poverty of many people?s ability to express themselves which causes not only practical difficulty, but often leads to an aridness of spirit and a deep sense of frustration. Winston Churchill was, I believe, one of the greatest and most effective practitioners of the English language. But he too had to learn his craft, and knew how important it was to do so: By being so long in the lowest form at school, I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys, he wrote in his memoirs. I got into my bones the essential structure of the normal English sentence - which is a noble thing.

If we can be accused of neglecting our incomparable language - and I think we can - we are equally in danger, it seems to me, of failing to give due importance to our incomparable literature. Our societies pride themselves on their tolerance. We are open to other cultures and highly critical of our own. That can be healthy. But in one important respect we are intolerant. We are not as open as we should be to our history and our heritage as they are expressed in our literature, or to the wisdom that literature contains. So we become shallow-rooted, bereft of a sense of direction. It is said that the past is another country. If so, we have become xenophobic.

This process has been encouraged by the distractions of convenience and consumerism, both enhanced by technological progress - sometimes for its own sake. It has been made worse by well-meaning, but misguided, attempts to counter what is seen as elitism in our schools. There are those who say that children from poorer backgrounds should not have the work of writers from past ages thrust upon them. It is not fair to them, we are told, to expect them to be interested in the work of the great authors of the past. Such writers, it is said, merely indoctrinate their readers in the habits of a hierarchical society, clothed in a language with which they are not familiar.

It is this approach which strikes me as real elitism. It amounts to telling these children that, because they live in ghettos or slums, because they come from varying ethnic backgrounds, because they are poor or parentless, they must be deprived of much of the greatness of human thought, and the beauty of human expression.

Fortunately there are many good teachers of English who now appreciate that this is a sad perversion of the genuinely egalitarian nature of literature. For literature is indeed ?the republic of letters?, a common inheritance, not the private property of the privileged. Entry to it is not conferred only by the ability to write. Literature is for everybody because it is about everybody. Access to it is, in my view, one of the fundamental human rights which it is the duty of a civilised society to safeguard.

What is so special about literature, some people may ask? I will try to provide my own, rather personal, answer. All great literature has a strong sense of place and time, a wonderful precision of detail and a cultural particularity. And yet, paradoxically, all great literature is also timeless. It may describe only a single moment, or a unique scene. Yet, as it does so, it speaks about all people, and all time and all places. Wordsworth derived his most sublime perceptions from the English Lakes. Mark Twain collected his humane wisdom on the shores of the Mississippi, Thomas Jefferson here in the College of William and Mary. Few places, or people, could be more different, or more rooted in the particular. Yet each speaks to all of us across space and across the centuries. Each was of his age, but each is also for all time - if we only have ears to hear.

The paradox of truly great literature is that the reader is both transported outside his own existence, and becomes more fully himself. He feels he has come home. In the words of TS Eliot, whose sensibility so subtly linked British and American culture, he arrives where he started and knows the place for the first time.

There is an old joke about Britain and America being two countries divided by a common language. But we laugh at it simply because of the amount we have in common. We are joint heirs to what I believe to be one of the richest languages the world has ever known, and which now dominates the world. In diplomacy and law, business and the arts, sport and academia, English rules. But it will not rule, and will have no right to do so, if we do not guard it and guide it, fight for the highest standards and see it as our shared responsibility to do so.

We in Britain long ago made you co-heirs of Chaucer and Milton, Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer whose collects - to adapt Macaulay - have soothed the grief of generations. This century you have richly repaid us. How wonderfully literature has flourished in the United States in the 20th century - a literary golden age which has given the world Faulkner, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Frost and Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. Together we have much to be proud of. Let us be proud of this great culture. Let us nurture it, and above all, let us open it up to as many people as possible.

That is a process with which this college has been closely involved for three centuries, and I am delighted to be able to announce today two further important steps along the path of excellence by students of the College of William and Mary. Firstly, I am very pleased indeed to reveal that the Tercentenary Scholarship - a special award provided by the British Government to mark the anniversary we are celebrating today - has been won by Bonnie Powell, who will be continuing her studies at the University of East Anglia. Second, I should like to join the other members of the William and Mary community in offering my warmest congratulations to Daniele Sepulveda, who has this year won a Marshall Scholarship and will also be going to East Anglia in the autumn.

In addition, I have brought with me as a gift from the British Government to mark this major milestone in the college?s history, a volume of prints of more than 200 portrait engravings of King William and Queen Mary specially produced by the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, which was mercifully not burned down in that awful fire last year.

Ladies and gentlemen, in closing I should like to return for a moment to the power of modern technology, to that extraordinary fact that the Library of Congress can be contained in something smaller than the palm of a hand. What a marvellous illustration that is of the progress made possible by man?s unconquerable mind. We ought, it seems to me, to see such scientific and technological advances not only in utilitarian and mechanistic terms, but with a sense of awe and wonder. For such ingenuity, if used, or not used, wisely with regard to the long-term future of this world, holds the key to the solution of the pressing problems we now face.

But it is also very important, I think, that as we travel ever further down the path of ?progress?, we continue to nourish our roots. We need to preserve our sense of awe and wonder, not only for the achievements of science in our own day, but also for the heritage that has been handed down to us - for our natural environment, of the architectural glories left us by past generations, for the beauty of our language, for the inspiration of our history and the insights offered to us by great literature.

Truly educated people - and that is what a university like this has tried to produce for the past 300 years - must concern themselves with all these things. Science and technology can make this a better world to live in on a physical plane. But if we are to be worthy of it we have also to cultivate the ability, in the words of England?s greatest spiritual artist, William Blake:

'To see a world in a grain of sand and

A heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.' ?