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2017 Encaenia
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Neil Robertson’s President’s Dinner Speech

Neil Robertson's President's Dinner Speech

Where shall a man find sweetness to surpass
his own home and his parents? In far lands
he shall not, though he find a house of gold.
Odyssey Book IX

President Lahey, honoured guests and—especially—our graduands and their parents, family members and supporters:

I am honoured to be able to say a few words to you tonight—especially to the graduands, as you take up your beginning, your “encaenia.” I am Director of the Foundation Year Programme, and tonight I will speak as such. Many of you have gone through FYP, but I hope that I can speak also to those in Journalism or Arts or Science who have not had the Foundation Year experience. In some way, FYP touches almost all aspects of King’s because it expresses a pedagogical vision at work everywhere in what Angus Johnston loved to call “this little college.”

There.  I have done it; I have spoken of what is a source of grief on this day of celebration – Angus Johnston. At the final lecture in the Foundation Year Programme this year – just a few weeks ago – I had to tell the class that Angus Johnston, a retired professor and former Vice-President, who had lectured to that class only a short time before, had died unexpectedly. Tonight I want to speak, not of Angus the person, but rather of his vision, of the life that is in some measure alive in you, graduands of King’s. This pedagogical vision is present in FYP, in the upper-year programmes and—while I cannot speak with authority here—something of it, or close to it, is also in King’s Journalism.

That vision is also there in Halifax Humanities, which we are celebrating this year in the person of Mary Lu Redden. For those of you who do not know, Halifax Humanities is an outreach program to those who face barriers in receiving a humanities education; it is based around the Foundation Year Programme and was started in 2005 by the Reverend Gary Thorne, together with Angus Johnston and others.

So, if you are graduating tomorrow—taking a gradus, a step—it is perhaps into the same vision—and I hope that my words tonight will allow you to see something of what may have been at work in you these last few years at King’s.

Angus lectured in the Foundation Year last February, beautifully and movingly, on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. As part of that lecture, he presented us with an image from the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman compares our age to a hurricane: a whirling, disturbing, disrupting hurricane of globalization and cultural transformation and uncertainty. We are all facing this, we are all in this hurricane.

Friedman suggests two basic responses. One we could call the liberal or progressive response—that we should in some way try to go with, or ride, the hurricane, even seek to master it, if only temporarily. The other response would be to build walls of protection against the hurricane—and this would be the conservative or reactionary response.

There is truth and strength in both these responses. But, building on Friedman’s image, Angus suggested that there is a third way to relate to the hurricane, the storm of our time: to try to find a way to the “eye,” to find a place of quiet or calm reflection from which we can see the whole thing. That would be to find the centre of the circle. Angus argued that this was the essential work of the Foundation Year Programme – and I think it is also what is at work in what the School of Journalism means by “balanced story telling.” Finding our way to the centre of the circle—the eye of the storm—means finding a place where we are both in the midst of the storm and yet at the same time out of the storm—and thus able to contemplate the storm.

The centre and the circle.

In a collection of essays celebrating Halifax Humanities’ tenth anniversary, Each Book A Drum, Angus quotes one of his own teachers, Robert Crouse: “Teaching is not showing students what sun they should orbit, but rather what sun they are orbiting.” Teaching is not about what we should be, but about seeing what we actually are. This is not because there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a “should.” But the “should” is for you—for each person—to discover, from that still centre, the eye of the hurricane. There are so many shoulds in our world, both practical and moral: shoulds of success and shoulds of justice. But these “shoulds” are the hurricane itself, or perhaps the walls we build to stand against the hurricane. What we are striving to do at King’s is to find a third way, a standpoint not outside of, but at the heart of, these “shoulds.”

The centre and the circle.

This was especially an image Angus used to talk about Homer’s Odyssey, a work many of you read at the very start of FYP. Right from the beginning—“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story”—there is singing at the centre of this poem, a goddess, a Muse around whom the whole thing circles. The song, you will remember, is about Odysseus, “the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy.” Odysseus wandered the earth for ten years trying to return to his home. He wandered out in the circle of life: but home, at the centre, was wise Penelope keeping that centre timeless and true, even as Odysseus circled around and around. If we see the Odyssey as offering us a pedagogical vision, I want to suggest that it is in this image of “singing.”

One of the things that characterizes both the Foundation Year Programme and Halifax Humanities is that they both have pretty much a fixed curriculum. And that curriculum is established not by the students, nor—I would argue—really by the faculty either. Curriculum is rather the effort of both students and teachers to let the Muse sing, and to hear her song.

Now, curriculum can all seem like so much rote learning or perhaps a kind of brainwashing. But I want to suggest that the freedom, the transformation of students in a curriculum, is that they are coming to hear a song, and a song not foreign to them. So the first task is a kind of listening to a song – a listening that discloses the suns around which we are orbiting, that lets us glimpse the eye of the whirlwind.

The Odyssey also shows us a second moment of singing. Just before returning to his home on Ithaca, Odysseus spends time with the Phaiakians, the wondrously civilized and urbane children of Poseidon, to whom Odysseus in his suffering and sorrows stands in such contrast. At dinner a harper sings, and Odysseus, who has not revealed his identity, asks the harper to recount the war at Troy, the war and anguish he himself knew. Odysseus weeps quietly as the harper sings. His host, the king of the Phaiakians, says to Odysseus

The song which should bring a kind of joy, for Odysseus—who knew the suffering, the circle around the events of the song—brings grief.

But there is more: what Odysseus’ weeping reveals is that this stranger himself bears a tale, which he is then asked to recount. So Odysseus sings his own song, his travels and travails since Troy.

And this is the second moment of learning: beyond hearing the song of the curriculum (if I can put it that way), we are called to sing our own song. Or, better, within that curriculum we are to sing our own song. It seems to me that within FYP this is what happens in a tutorial or in an essay, or perhaps it is what an upper-year class is about. For a journalist, this may be an editorial or an internship or a work of investigative reporting. We must first hear the song, and then we must ourselves sing within that song.

But there is a third moment—and it seems to me that here we are approaching what graduation is all about. Odysseus returns finally to Ithaca, his home which was preserved by and through Penelope in her weaving and unweaving, ravaged by the predations of the suitors who have taken advantage of her vulnerability. Warned by Athena, Odysseus realizes that he cannot come to his home directly. So he must take on a disguise. He must appear as the most outcast, suffering being—a beggar. In his return, he is recognized only by his faithful dog, Argus.

But in the end, Odysseus reveals himself with a kind of poetic perfection. Penelope has said she will wed any who can string Odysseus’ massive bow and shoot through a line of axe handles. The suitors display their moral corruption in their physical incapacity to meet the challenge: they cannot even string the bow. But then Odysseus comes forward:

But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.
In the hushed hall it smote the suitors
and all their faces changed.

Here the song and the singing have become one. Odysseus enters the whirlwind, but he has within him the centre, the still eye of the storm.

It seems to me this is what graduation is. This is where you are each given your bow and asked to string it.

So let your bow sing, let the circle and the centre come together in your lives. It is both your deepest duty, what you have been formed for and, I hope, your deepest joy.

Sing only this for me, sing me this well,
and I shall say at once before the world
the grace of heaven has given us a song.