Delivered May 25. 2017.
On a lovely spring afternoon in 1979 I was standing in a parking lot at McMaster University where I had just finished an MA and was starting Ph.D. course work, chatting with one of my professors, the late Canadian philosopher George Grant. A young man rode by on his bicycle and stopped to say hello. He was the teenaged brother of a close friend of mine. After chatting for a few minutes he rode off and Dr. Grant turned to me and said “My how the young are beautiful! ”
When I look out at you today, the graduands of Kings College, I can’t help but think “My how the young are beautiful.” I hope that you know that about yourselves.
I am deeply honoured to have been asked to speak to you today. To be welcomed into the King’s community, a place where I have found a true intellectual home, has been very moving.
In my life I have had some very kind and caring teachers, but if you had asked me in 2005 before I became director of Halifax Humanities, how many truly great teachers I had had, I would have said only one: Dr. George Grant. Now after 11 years of being in the classroom with so many of your Kings and Dalhousie professors, as well as many more from St. Mary’s, NSCAD, MSVU, AST, and Acadia, I can say that I have many, many great teachers.
One of the authors most beloved to Dr. Grant was the French philosopher Simone Weil. I have read some of her work, but certainly not all and what I have read always evokes a strong reaction from me. In fact, Simone Weil is one of only 3 authors whose work has so upset me that I have thrown his or her book across a room. The others are Nietzsche, and I am sure that some of you will understand my reaction, and Stephen King whose excellent book On Writing brought me to the sad conclusion that I would never be a great fiction writer.
Dr. Grant used to quote to us, his students, a particular phrase from Simone Weil that I have been pondering for almost 40 years now: “The intellect illumined by love“. My reflections on this quotation are what I would like to share with you now. And much of what I have to say comes directly from my experience of studying with so many of the very fine teachers sitting here today, and in the company of over 100 Halifax Humanities students during the past 11 years.
For these past 11 years, I have had the privilege of bringing together the 3 components that make Halifax Humanities so remarkable: great books, generous teachers, and eager and willing students. The magic that happens when these three things come together is a delight to witness and has been an incredible joy to me for all these years.
I think that there are three components that constitute this magic and I am increasingly thinking that they are the qualities of “the intellect illumined by love“. These qualities are generosity, receptivity, and attention. In reality, these are but three aspects of the same thing – a kind of trinity of a mind that not only thinks, but thinks with love.
So I turn first to a passage that you read in FYP: Canto 15 of Dante’s Purgatory. In this passage Dante, the pilgrim, and his guide, the poet Virgil, are discussing a penitent on Mt. Purgatory whose besetting sin is envy. (And by the way knowing your own “besetting sin” is a very valuable thing in life!)
Virgil says to Dante:
It is because you focus on the prize
Of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellows for you sighs.
But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere,
Your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;
for the more there are there who say ‘ours’ – not ‘mine’—
by that much is each richer, and the brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine.
Whenever I read this passage I identify strongly with Dante the Pilgrim who replies to Virgil:
“I am left hungrier being thus fed
And my mind is more in doubt being thus answered,
than if I had not asked at all,” I said
“How can each one of many who divide
a single good have more of it, so shared,
than if a few had kept it?”
This idea of generosity, that we gain more by sharing than by keeping things to ourselves, has not always been an easy one for me to understand. But how this applies to education has unfolded to me over the years, never more so than in the context of Halifax Humanities.
When I first went to university I think that I saw education as a “thing” to possess. I wanted to be lifted out of my working class world and I think that at age 18 I deeply wanted to possess this “thing” that would gain me entrance into the elite club of well-educated Canadians. During my first 2 years of undergraduate life, I began to feel quite superior to my high school friends who had not gone on to university.
I suspect that my experience is not atypical of many young Humanities students. Fortunately, by the time I reached the final year of my BA in philosophy, the stuffing had been knocked out of me and I submitted to the truth that I had only begun to scratch the surface of all there was to learn.
But I don’t think that I fully understood Dante’s lines “How can each one of many who divide / a single good have more of it, so shared,/than if a few had kept it?” until I began working as director of Halifax Humanities and became a student of so many of the teachers you have come to know at Kings. Every person who teaches for Halifax Humanities has something of this beautiful spirit of generosity that Dante suggests. It would be easy to assume that our program runs on the educational model of “expert fills up empty vessels” and in fact our curriculum, modelled so closely on FYP, has been criticized for being elitist and irrelevant to the real life concerns of our students. However, nothing could be further from the truth. What our professors bring to class is a deep belief in the wisdom and insights present in each text, a desire to share those with others, and a very real desire to hear what our students bring to a shared exploration of the text from their complex and often difficult lives.
I often think that it is in fact the professors who are the vulnerable ones in our classroom. They bring to our students, like an offering, a text they love and have devoted years to studying, and run the risk that in our “non-credit” situation that they will hear that someone hated the work and saw no value in it. This happens every year with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which is not surprising given its wild juxtapositions of images, but also with other texts, especially some of the Medieval material.
Generosity, a real desire to share, is at the core of why teachers come to Halifax Humanities. Those who might want to “Lord it over” students are simply not welcome in our program. Our wise curriculum coordinators simply don’t invite such intellectuals into our space. It isn’t surprising then, that the Burnside Prison Project, which arose out of Halifax Humanities, has also recruited Kings and Dalhousie professors who have experienced in that difficult context, among those who are incarcerated, a real hunger for the beauty and wisdom of classic texts.
The second component of the magic of Halifax Humanities lies in the receptiveness of the students. And here I want to remind you of the story of Ino’s scarf in Book V of The Odyssey. Odysseus has left Calypso’s Island and Poseidon, ever angry with Odysseus, has managed to wreck his raft. Odysseus, alone on the wine-dark sea, has nothing left but a plank and a cloak that Calypso gave him and is suffering mightily. The sea nymph Ino takes pity on him and offers him her scarf which she says will ensure his safety until he reaches land. Of course, being Odysseus, he scoffs at such a trivial gift. “Surely it’s a trick of some god.” No he says, I will stick to my own strength and “this poor planking“.
But finally, one huge wave overwhelms him and he takes a chance on the scarf. It still takes him 2 days to reach Skheria, home of the Phaeacians, but the scarf does save him.
We live in a world where Humanities education is too often seen as too slight a thing to be worthwhile. It is “Ino’s scarf”, a trivial matter. And those of us who have devoted our lives to it are sometimes told that we should have found a better, sturdier vessel to carry us safely through life.
What always amazes me in Halifax Humanities is that the students who stick with the program are willing to put some trust in this slight offering. For realistically speaking, what do we offer to them, but a chance to read some musty old books with some seemingly out of touch professors who have devoted their lives to studying seemingly irrelevant texts?
I will never quite stop being surprised at how important this program is to our students. What those who stick with it find, is that in the experience of entering into the worlds of the texts they are reading, of losing themselves in another time, whether it’s the Homeric age, or the world of 14th century Florence, or 19th century England, they find something of themselves through that stepping away from their own immediate situation. This requires a remarkable level of openness and trust in me, the program, and the professors to not be playing “a trick of some god” as Odysseus says, on them. This level of openness and trust is all the remarkable because so many of our students have had difficult and intense life experiences that could easily have made them wary and untrusting. What a sacred thing this trust is!
The final aspect of the program that brings together the generosity of the professors and the open receptivity of the students is the willingness to be attentive. Paying attention is no easy matter whether it is to a text, a musical score, or another person. We live in the world of “distraction from distraction by distraction” as T.S.Eliot put it so beautifully in his poetic masterpiece The Four Quartets. We are filled with “fancies … empty of meaning, tumid apathy with no concentration, Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind, That blows before and after time” in this “twittering world“. (How prescient was T.S. Eliot to describe modern world of distraction with that particular phrase? Did he know what was coming?)
In her wonderful essay “The right use of school studies with a view to the love of God” Simone Weil says that whenever we make the effort to be truly attentive, whether to a problem in math, or a difficult translation, or even an annoying task, we are in fact cultivating the capacity that will make us more attentive to others in our lives and ultimately to the divine itself. I highly recommend this unusual and deeply thoughtful essay.
I want to tell you a story about attention that I hope may illuminate some of what Weil says.
As a child from an impoverished and emotionally chaotic family, I never had swimming lessons, or skating lessons, or played organized sports, or had a bike. Happily we did get piano lessons. Our mother was a very good pianist whose abilities had never been properly nurtured in her own difficult family. The only time I went to summer camp was to a badly run “charity camp” and the one week I spent there was a week of huge Lake Huron thunderstorms. The highlight that I remember was the night when the wind blew the outhouses over a cliff.
Needless to say, I never learned to canoe. In my 20’s I became friends with a group of young women, all of whom are still friends, who came from much more prosperous families. One summer, we went to one friend’s family cottage for a week where they were all shocked to realize that I could neither swim nor paddle a canoe, skills they simply took for granted. One friend Sheila, a person great good will combined with forceful personality and intense opinions, decided that I must learn to canoe. Therefore, one morning she took me out in the canoe and for a few hours she drilled me with stubborn determination in oar strokes. She was impatient with my clumsiness and kept yelling “Try harder, try harder“. At the end of the morning I was exhausted, defeated, and feeling my lack of privilege even more than usual. She had no idea that her good intentions had produced such an effect.
The next day, another of the friends, sensing my disappointment said, “When Sheila drives into town for groceries, I’ll take you out in the canoe.” Of course, I was reluctant to go, but I am so thankful I did. The first thing that Nancy, who is an excellent teacher but not usually inclined to “wax philosophical “, said to me was: “Don’t think of the water as your enemy. And do think of the oar as an extension of your own body. You don’t need to fight the water, but rather find yourself in rhythm with it.” So she gently encouraged me to be attentive to the shape of the oar, to feel how it entered the water, to move with my entire upper body so as not to exhaust my arms, and to enjoy the smooth rhythm of each stroke. Needless to say I learned quite a bit in the few hours I spent on the water with her.
In her essay Simone Weil says “Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort….Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering… has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be lead by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work.”
I think that to understand attention as Simone Weil does, is to learn something very important. If we “go at life” whether in work, or school, or personal relationships as if we were hunters on the pursuit of a “Thing” we want, we may miss what is there to learn. ( It is a running joke with my Yoga teacher that I often have the most determined and pained look on my face as I work hard at learning the poses. “Effort and Ease” in proper balance does not come readily for me!) I think that this is particularly true of Humanities education. A text will reveal its wisdom to us, not when we set out like miners to dig out its nuggets, or like biology students dissecting a dead thing, but rather when we read and reread with openness and attentiveness and patience.
And of course, Humanities texts may require years of patience. I have been reading and rereading T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets for 40 years, once wrote a lengthy paper on the work in grad school, and yet still feel that I have only begun to appreciate what that poem has to teach me. Just about any great Humanities work, and you have been so fortunate to have read so many, is worth such a lengthy and attentive relationship. In fact, I think that a classic text could be defined as any work worth rereading again and again.
Those whose teaching has graced the Halifax Humanities classroom have so much to give us precisely because they have been attentive to the texts they have studied. They bring that quality of attention into the classroom and extend it to our students, paying close attention to what the students have to say and being sufficiently open to allow the students’ reflections to expand their own understanding. And of course, it is the attentiveness to the text that so many of the students bring to class that enriches the understanding of all of us there. Time and time again, I have had students comment on how much they have gained from the insights of their fellow students.
To be in a classroom where people come from widely diverse backgrounds but where we are all engaged together in paying attention to the text at hand, where the cares and worries of the world are dropped at the door, has been a remarkable experience for me. I think that I have, for 11 years, been able to witness the truth of Simone Weil’s phrase “The intellect illumined by love“.
You graduands will go from Kings now, having been the beneficiaries of the generosity and attentiveness of your professors, and having (I hope) had your own capacity for receptivity and attention developed, taking with you this seemingly “slight” thing, your BA in Humanities. It is something the world may not readily value, but which, I assure you, is of real and deep value.
You may hear the jokes about how the first thing you say after getting a Humanities BA is “Do you want fries with that?” You might be told that being a barista is your only career option. Please don’t buy into any of that. Never doubt for a moment that the world needs your intelligence, your capacity for attention, your open-mindedness, and your love of learning. It may take some time to find just where in society you can best apply those abilities, but I think that if you are attentive to what is around you, and lead by a generous desire to do good in the world, and if you are open to what others have to teach you, you will find a path.