Your Excellency, President Cooper and faculty members, fellow graduates, parents and friends,
A few weeks ago, while walking along a trail somewhere outside of Halifax, I paused to collect a plant that had caught my eye. It was dark green with broad, oval leaves and shallow roots that clung to the soil as I pulled it up. I carried it home in my palm like an injured bird, and planted it later that night in a jar already populated with moss and grasses I had assembled over the course of many months. This was my summer experiment: a bizarre collection of organisms with plenty of light, but not a whole lot of room to breathe. I thought at first that they might suffocate in their new environment, but instead they seemed to thrive.
When I first arrived at King’s, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was a castaway on some strange island of inbred cats – cats whose preferred style of dress was plaid. The Blundstones, the wool socks, the beer, the indoor toques – they all seemed like part of an ironic diorama of student life. Monday nights at the wardroom were especially daunting. I remember one such evening when I became ensnared in conversation with a man whose commitment to grammar was as patchy as his facial hair. He was explaining to me why the unabomber was the most underrated intellectual of the twentieth century. It occurred to me then that King’s may be the one place on earth where flirting takes the form of a two-hour intellectual striptease in which your greatest asset is your command of nihilism. At times like this, going to school here feels like abandoning oneself to the absurd.
Lately, though, I’ve been trying to understand what my life will look like once the glass shatters, and the protective layer that’s been insulating me for so long against the outside world disappears. King’s is where I grew into myself, became comfortable with a way of understanding and relating to the world, but ultimately it is just a place: five buildings and a church turned in on themselves.
The feeling that I existed inside a glass dome – kept alive only by Daniel Brandes as he showered us with droplets of wisdom (just enough to keep us hopeful) – was never far from my thoughts as I walked the fifty steps from residence to lecture hall. Could it be that this is not a university at all, but some embittered Dal student’s science experiment – a breeding ground for bacteria? As a ‘student’ at any university – and at King’s in particular – there’s a tendency, I think, to forget that you have an existence beyond what that narrow term implies. We’re not so much real people as people in training, still acquiring the skills and sense of self required for living life to the full. In many ways, this sense of being closed off from the outside world is mirrored in our education; it’s sometimes hard to see how labouring over the history of alchemy or dissecting Hegel’s Phenomenology bears any relevance to the lives and burdens of the rest of humanity. Malala Yousafzai, whose incredible bravery I am deeply honoured to join in celebrating today, is a reminder of just how urgent the need for social engagement can be. Thinking about her accomplishments, I can’t help but feel a little guilty. What, in the end, is it all for? How can I justify these years of academic indulgence if it doesn’t amount to actually doing anything to better the world, as she has done?
The further I progressed in my studies, feeling with every passing year that maybe, finally, I sort-of-kind-of knew what I was doing, the more I came to expect that my ideas would be greeted with a combination of muted respect and complete bafflement. I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of having to explain my degree to family friends or relatives at a dinner party. You give the customary spiel, a few carefully selected phrases designed to ward off further inquiry – but something goes wrong. There’s a pause. Yours eyes meet. You can see they’re not satisfied, they want something more and you wonder: will I go all the way this time? It’s almost as though the more we learn, the better we are at shutting down a conversation.
Of course, I wouldn’t be here if I really believed that. Part of what distinguishes King’s is that we’re taught to consider things not in isolation, but as they relate to different thinkers, experiences, periods, and disciplines. However contained our day-to-day existence might be, the ideas we are engaging with are not. I don’t mean to make some claim as to the universality of knowledge, but only to suggest that what we learn here matters because it teaches us to look more carefully at both ourselves and our surroundings. And with this questioning comes the suspicion, however hubristic, that we’re not just studying history, philosophy, journalism, or literature, but actively participating in it – joining in a conversation that’s still unresolved. As Borges put it, “A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”
Soon King’s will stop being a place that we go everyday, and become a time that we tell ourselves stories about. Our university experience will be revealed for what it is: a, a bubble, a time warp, a terrarium. A far more purposeful assortment of plants than the mason jar that’s been collecting mold inside my locker for the past four months. The students, the faculty, the setting are all part of an ecology of learning that has nurtured, supported and sustained us, and without which we worry we will shrivel up and drop our leaves. But this ecology of King’s grows with us; we cannot leave it behind because we make it what it is. And as we extend our branches, confronting the larger issues of social justice and the environment that confront the world in which we live, we will be all the stronger for the time we have spent together.
When I was little, I used to entreat my mum to tell me that there were still animals that had yet to be discovered. I was seriously concerned that, in my future career as a zoologist, I would have nothing to contribute to the world’s store of knowledge. It wasn’t just that I wanted to have some species of crayfish named after me (which I do), but that a universe in which everything was already known seemed to me utterly boring. I still hold strong to the hope of discovering a new species, an accomplishment for which I believe my single credit in biology has more than adequately prepared me. After all, if I’ve learned anything from King’s, it’s that there is more weirdness in the world than I could have ever imagined.