Jeffrey Simpson's Convocation Address

Honorary degree recipients, on occasions such as this, are expected to offer a few brief words of wisdom to the graduates. This is a tall order for a journalist. Journalists can offer words all right, but brevity and wisdom are in very short supply with them.

I am a newspaper columnist, among other things, and it is said about such people that we are given space to fill without necessarily having anything useful to put in that space. So be forewarned!

I think, however, that I might be able to improve slightly on the remarks of the honorary degree recipient the day I graduated from Queen’s University I shudder to think how many years ago. The honouree that day was a man by the name of Lorne Greene. Some of you who have a few more years than others might remember Lorne Greene as the Voice of Doom, a celebrated CBC radio announcer during World War Two. Greene later went to Hollywood and became the star of Bonanza playing Pa Cartwright in that long-running series that, for those of you with insomnia, can sometimes be seen in the wee small hours of the morning. Lorne Greene began his remarks to us with what he considered wise and pertinent advice. We listened very eagerly, given his star power – more eagerly I am sure than you are listening to me today – and he said: My best advice to you is to get a good bed because you are going to spend a third of your life in it. Greene had obviously missed his calling in offer such silly advice: he should have been a newspaper columnist.

This is a day for you, not for me. You are the ones who are being honoured. You should take pride in your accomplishments. So should all the members of your families and your friends whose support has been critical, even if you sometimes, like all of us, have tended to take that support for granted. Only a minority of Canadians receives university degrees. You should therefore consider yourselves very fortunate. So the question now becomes: How are you going to use that good fortune and what you have learned?

The most obvious lesson is that learning never stops. The paths of knowledge start from many places but the wise among you will understand that knowledge itself knows no finite resting place. You will obviously go forward in your chosen fields of endeavour better off for having been here. But whatever your chosen field, and wherever it will lead you, I urge you never to try to stop learning. And I urge you also to remember that you will always be citizens.

It is sometimes easy to forget what we owe each other as citizens. Remember that the public has made a very significant investment in your education, just as it did in mine. We might think that we accomplished everything on our own, but we had the support of the whole community through their taxes, which is as it should be, because the whole community benefits from a well- educated population. So engaged citizens understand what they owe society, not just what society owes them. Citizenship is a bundle of rights AND responsibilities. The two are inextricably linked, although in this age of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the emphasis in public discourse is heavily tilted towards rights as opposed to responsibilities.

Much has been written in recent years about the decline of civic engagement. Citizens seem less inclined to join public institutions; they certainly trust public institutions less. They are participating politically less; voter turnout has been declining. I think these are unhealthy trends. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are fine and necessary. But the air we breathe and the roads we travel and the health-care we need and the towns and cities in which most of us live and the safety of the food that we eat and the education we receive at places like this – these and many other aspects of our lives are conditioned by a mixture of private efforts and public choices. We can all try to look after our private lives, but we need sensible public choices too. If we disengage from those public choices by not participating as citizens in a wider society, then we shall have no one to blame but ourselves for the public choices that we do not like.

Some years ago, I wrote a book about the state of Canadian democracy. It gained a certain amount of immediate attention and then joined the growing list of my instant rare books. It’s not true what they say in universities, by the way, that you have to public or perish. My book-writing career illustrates that it is quite possible to do both. I did not argue in that book that political activity is the only means by which citizens could display their engagement. On the contrary, our society is greatly enhanced and made more pluralistic, and therefore freer, by having many public institutions which command engagement, such as universities. But I do believe that no institution, public or private, shapes our society more than our governments, and that if we care about our society – and as young and educated people I hope that you will – then we must care about government. Voter turnout is among the lowest in the world; turnout among young people is especially low. The level of cynicism towards people in public life is high and rising. I am a journalist. So I know that a healthy skepticism towards elected officials is a necessary condition for an alert citizenry, but cynicism is a corrosive condition.

I have been around political men and women all my adult life. I find them no more or less worthy than any other cross-section of people. To denigrate them systematically is to denigrate ourselves. I do not suggest that we venerate them, nor do I believe that we should tear them to pieces. We in the media, I freely confess, bear responsibility for this state of affairs, since the media these days is so preoccupied with stories about human interest than they have less time for those that focus on the public interest. There are knaves among political men and women, and there is the odd scoundrel. There are second- and third-rate minds, as there are everywhere. Some are lazy; others have succumbed to the enticements of power and cannot live without them. Some are narrow ideologues who resist trying to see matters from another point of view. They are far from perfect – because they come from among us. Circles of the eternally virtuous are only found in heaven.

We do ourselves a disservice by rather gleefully tearing politicians to bits, not so much because it discourages them but because it discourages us. When a cynical attitude becomes pervasive, it heightens the sense that civic engagement isn’t worth the effort, at least towards political institutions, because that kind of engagement might make people laugh at us, prove to be a waste of time, might ultimately prove futile.  That kind of attitude deforms the nature of politics, and therefore demeans us. We risk, with that attitude, living in a society where decisions are made for us, not by us, and we will have no one to blame for this state of affairs but ourselves.

You the graduates leave here today, degrees in hand, with much to celebrate. You have before you what I hope will be successful and fulfilling lives, however you define success. You will cherish memories of your time here. This day I hope you will remember as one of accomplishment and pride, shared by your family and your friends. But please remember, too, that you are among society’s most privileged citizens. Your education has been supported by the entire society, and that society will now be counting upon your commitment and engagement as citizens of Canada and the world, to make both better places to live on behalf of all those who have invested in you.

Good luck to all of you, and congratulations.