Mr Chancellor, Mr Chancellor, honoured graduates, families and friends of King’s.
Congratulations to all of you graduates. You brought a lot to the campus, and the past years have been wonderful for your teachers and the staff of King’s. I also want to congratulate your parents and friends and teachers who have supported you in many different ways during your time at King’s and Dalhousie. I got to know many of you along the way, and like your teachers, I will miss you whether it was chatting on the library steps, engaging with you in various classes in English, trying to protect you from the police in our annual CSP party, seeing you in a soccer game or performing in the Pit.
And as you move on, some of you will no doubt miss us, and the curious world we inhabit. Sometimes the moon rises over the Quad in the early evening, and there is something quite beautiful about this world at King’s.
James Boswell’s great biography of Dr Johnson was published in 1791, just two years after the founding of King’s. This biography is a remarkable portrait of a great literary figure, who dominated English letters in his time in somewhat the same way that our own Dr Wayne Hankey dominates King’s and the Classics department at Dalhousie. Here is an entry when on one day in 1763 Johnson and Boswell decided to take a little trip on the Thames to Greenwich.
“On Saturday, July 30, Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education.
Said Johnson;“Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.” “And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.”
Johnson replied, “Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.” He then called to the boy, “What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?” “Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.” Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare.
Dr. Johnson then turning to me, “Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.”
I began teaching just after I graduated from college, so I never really left the world of education. Despite many years at this, despite a lot of resistant students, I still agree with Johnson’s enlightened claim – every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he or she has to get knowledge. Latin and Greek may no longer be the defining signs of knowledge, but the longing is still there. It’s that longing to “get knowledge” that is behind what universities attempt to provide.
This old idea that knowledge is the end towards which we strive has always been under stress, and today is still undergoing its challenges. Instead of “use money to get knowledge,” the new mantra is “use knowledge to get money.” Today the individual student is encouraged to use the university to improve her material condition, to secure a job, in other words to get money. Governments look to the universities for deliverables, such profitable ventures in research that will improve wealth in society. That’s how the federal government explains the massive investment in the new nineteen all-male Canada Excellence Research Chairs which were so well advertised this past week. If you study literature or classics or continental philosophy, and you are good at these subjects, you had better be prepared to answer the question posed in the last chapter of Laura Penny’s new book – “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
None of this is new. The university has always been oriented toward the practical life. Centuries ago, we supplied priests for the clergy and trained the lawyers for the courts of canon law. We have always provided a trained bureaucracy for government. From the 1920s onwards with the founding of business schools we also began to supply the bureaucracy of the world of business. In the post-worldwar- II English speaking world, commercial applications arising from scientific research became another way that the university demonstrated its ability to support the practical aims of society.
But it’s not just about the money. Since the middle ages, universities have also been guided by an internal spirit of inquiry, whether that was in philosophy or the arts, or, increasingly in the nineteenth century, in the sciences and social sciences. The university has always been a place for inquiry and meditative conversation. This kind of thinking was perceived as an end in itself, whether the university was 12th-century Oxford or Paris, 19th-century Berlin, or 2oth-century Chicago. This thinking was protected within the ivory tower of the university. So we have a practical role, and we have a theoretical role, but we are always at risk of losing sight of the theoretical world. I hope you have seen the beauty of the inquiry that we stand for, whether in Foundation Year, in the combined honours, in your programs at Dalhousie, or in Journalism. The theoretical role encourages a focus on critical inquiry as having a value in itself. It encourages you to think, to find your own way into a community of thought.
Last night we heard one of our honorary doctors, Kim Cameron, tell us about his discovery of the dialectic, the method of argument that originates in the ancient Vedas of India and in the writings of the Greek philosophers. The idea of a thing in itself does not translate very well in economics. These days, as an administrator, I am increasingly being asked to explain what we do in terms of material use. We are asked to account for the ROI – return on investment, value for money. If the government supports the universities, what are the universities giving back? From now on, I have an answer: “We provide an encounter with the dialectic.” I am not sure this will work, however true it is. How then do we justify to you and to government the costs of a university education? Any practical-minded person is of course confused, because there is a strange gap between value and cost.
I just ask of you, when people ask you what you did, whether it was classics or journalism, political science or English, that you don’t succumb to the current economic thinking. If you did something because it interested you, just say so, and I hope you can stick with it. Your studies had value because they engaged you in thought. The thing in itself has value. While you studied, you “got knowledge.” That’s what Johnson was speaking about. Some people might consider the importance of “getting knowledge” to be naïve and other-worldly. They’re right, but they are wrong to despise it. So keep on learning. Thank you very much.
Before I step down I want to express special thanks to one person who will be leaving an important position at the University of King’s College. Dr Christopher Elson has served as Vice President for the past four years. Part of this time was challenging, and Chris never wavered in his loyalty to the College or, I have to add, to me personally. He has a tremendous capacity for kindness, one of the least exercised of virtues in a university environment. He was a graduate of King’s, and therefore has a terrific grasp of the unusual complexities and hidden truths of our small institution. He is an exceptional scholar of French, et donc je veux conclure simplement avec un vers d’un grand poete français– “Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage.” Chris, Ulyssean wanderer, you had a good voyage, and we all thank you for what you have done for us during your tenure as Vice President.