Delivered May 19, 2016
Fellow graduates, families, supporters, honoured guests, President Cooper and Vice President Academic Dr. Carolyn Watters, Chancellor Lynch, welcome everyone.
For a few summers I worked at the CN Tower. At right about this time of year, I would gaze out towards an open green field to the north. For several days in a row, the grass would fill with tiny black specks which just as quickly would disappear again. Presumably they were people. Yet from over 1000 feet high and 3 kilometers away, I could not tell what these figures in black were doing. Could it be a sporting event? A piece of performance art? A series of funeral processions? As it turns out, the field was the University of Toronto’s main quad, where their convocations took place. I hope uttering the name of another institution on this day isn’t the academic equivalent to saying Macbeth in the theater.
As we graduate from the University of King’s College, we shall soon know what it means to see our experience from a distance. We shall look back on the last several years from a new perspective. But do we really need to be outside it to understand what’s happened here; surely we know what has been going on. We have paid attention, have been alert to our surroundings, and soaked it all in. No doubt, we know what we will remember not only about today but also about all our time at King’s. But can we be so sure?
Sometimes we are so much in the thick of things that we don’t see them for what they really are. This first struck me as a child. I remember that when my grandmother visited my childhood home, she would speak Hungarian to my mother and my mother would respond in English. It never seemed odd. My grandmother could speak English and my mother could speak Hungarian but I just assumed each had chosen to use the language she was most comfortable with. As it turns out, my assumption was wrong. One day I asked my mother what she and Grandma were talking about. My mother was confused by my question, as the conversation was obvious. When I reminded her that I didn’t understand Hungarian, she was surprised to learn that my grandmother was speaking to her in in it, not English. Somehow she was unaware of what was happening right in front of her. Until, that is, I pointed this out from my perspective.
Today the frame is not the language of our parents but the peculiar habits of this institution. We have been like Pentheus was to the revelry of Dionysus and the Bacchantes, in some kind of hypnotic state. Now awakening from our spell, King’s finally presents itself for what it was, and not for what it appeared to be while we were in its thrall. We look at our hands today and ask, what have we done!? Did we accidentally just kill any chance at a stable job? I know many of my parents acquaintances ask this all the time about me, and I will hazard a guess that you have heard the same question from many people in your own extended circle: they say “But, what will he do with a liberal arts education—and the intellectual holiday he has taken over the past four years? Will he ever get a stable job?” We students hear these complaints, but are we ultimately in the end just too blind to notice their frightful meaning? Unawareness, by its very definition, can catch you off-guard. What might this place contain that’s right before us, and yet that we could not have seen or heard from the inside? Of course, there are more obvious, perhaps comical, examples of this. Just look at all that construction on the A&A’s façade. When told that our university’s financial problem was structural, I think someone failed to see that they weren’t supposed to take it literally. Or how, more sincerely I admit, once the North Pole Bay residence and our cherished bar the Wardroom are renovated this summer, many of us will slowly but surely forget what they once looked like—just as one forgets what their iTunes layout used to be after an update has been downloaded. It may seem paradoxical to try to remember what is still right before us, to quickly cram to hold on to this place before our departure and its renovations, but let’s see what we can do.
The best course of action would be to remember a few details as vividly as possible. Jacques Derrida, when asked by a reporter in his study if he had “read all the books in here,” tersely replied “No, only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully.” A selective memory has its benefits. Things get more complicated when we seek to remember the things that shaped our experience and that, as such, naturally go unnoticed. When they’re no longer so close that they escape our reflection, what might our memories of this place unfold?
Admittedly, the task I have before me is impossible. I’m not far enough away to see it as a frame, to pick up on its strange language or accent so to speak. To graduate is to make possible a kind of outside reflection on our experience.
Another way to remember things comes from the Baroque era—something called the memory theater. The goal is to present thoughts and recollections like props and actors, as if they were events playing out on a stage. To the parents, I should helpfully note that this has its modern counterpart in the so-called mind palace worn proudly by Sherlock Holmes. And to help out my fellow students, I add that you might know this theory better by its classical predecessor: the “method of loci” (or “places”) found in Cicero and Quintilian. The purpose of this “memory theater” is to create memorable relations, and King’s is the stage we seek to memorize. Its architecture, however, isn’t making the task very easy. The Chapel flooded and was repainted two years ago. Our black box theater, The Pit, underwent a massive renovation. And the Wardroom is now doing the same. Without the objects we know to guide us from one to the other, memories get more difficult to relate to another and so to hold on to at all. Holistically this seems like an issue for those of us who’d rather the Wardroom remain in its current decrepit stickiness, or feel they cannot hold on to it without these hopefully eternal features. But really, these renovations should be embraced—it certainly is time. And just ask yourself: do you truly think any amount of paint can hide what that bar has been through? Like a palimpsest, there will always be some trace of what is being written over. Even if the act of destruction, reconstruction, and renovation were to have an effect on memory, I’ve been told we young undergraduates are immune to the effects it potentially has on remembrance.
A couple of weeks ago I ran into Dr. Eli Diamond, himself a King’s graduate and current professor most of us have had the pleasure to encounter in the Foundation Year Programme. He was walking home, pen and pad of paper in hand, planning a presentation he would be giving in French. I knew how he felt; after all, at that time I was planning my valedictory address—written in King’s-speak, a language close to English but in many respects as foreign as French (or Hungarian). When I ran into Dr. Diamond he began to reflect on how unique the undergraduate experience is. Quite simply because of how young we are, at this time we are at our most malleable. At this age we are porous enough for memories just to seep in through osmosis. We might not yet need the help of a selective memory à la Derrida or Baroque memory theater. The sheer openness to being affected exists at our age. Dr. Diamond said that when he was at King’s he made friends he still considers to be his best friends. He playfully added that he actually hasn’t spoken to many of them in a while, but that nevertheless they exist and will always remain in that part of him reserved for best friends. To graduate means that the openness through which friendships and beliefs seeped into us at King’s starts to close. This part of us has now lived its life. We have been, like some deem all liberal arts institutions and its students, filled to the brim, used up. The not-so-subtle point they speak is that now we might as well die out. There are those who say the liberal arts are dead. If this is true, well then we at King’s have had the remarkable experience of spotting a ghost. Ghosts have the unique ability to haunt; sometimes their voices can be heard louder than those of the living. As we live our lives, the figures we encountered at King’s will continue to speak to us. We leave this place now, but I have no doubt that all its voices and hauntings will continue to shape and guide us. Thank you.