Delivered on May 16, 2013.
Mr. Chancellor, President Cooper, welcome guests, and above all, new graduates: On behalf of my fellow honorary degree recipients, Dr. Donald Sobey and Drs Rose Wilson and David Wilson, I want to thank you for the great honour you granted us today through your kind invitation to join the Kings community as members of the Class of 2013. King’s occupies a very special place in Canadian higher education, offering a wonderful curriculum and an intense learning environment. I’ve also noticed it’s a fun place to be a student. It’s a pleasure to share this day with you.
From many years of experience participating in such ceremonies, I know my job description pretty well. Be brief. Share a few personal thoughts on the occasion and offer a few words of encouragement to the graduating class. And, above all, be brief. And don’t repeat yourself.
Given my background, I hope you don’t mind if I say a few words about universities and higher education. I promise not to mention money, let alone ask you for money, even once.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “the ivory tower”. Typically it’s a pejorative term used to suggest that university people are out of touch with the real world. Now, I have a confession to make. Despite studying and working in one university or another for the past 46 years, until recently I never knew where this phrase came from or why it described the academy. Frankly, I never thought about it at all, until – and I’m sure this has happened to you – for no clear reason one day it just popped into my head. I looked at a dictionary, but couldn’t find a reference. I asked a few academic colleagues, but they didn’t know either. I suppose I should have asked a King’s student. Given my generation, it took a while, but eventually I thought to Google my question and all was revealed. In the Song of Songs, King Solomon’s great love poem in the Old Testament, he compares his beloved’s neck to a beautiful tower made of ivory. Over the centuries this ivory tower became a Christian reference to purity. This in turn morphed into a unique place apart from the world to pursue knowledge of purity, such as a monastery, and from there it is only a short step to imagine how a distinctive seat of learning could be described as an ivory tower.
Now, there’s nothing pejorative in all of this unless you assume that the learning we pursue in a university is somehow divorced from reality, or at least what those outside the university consider important. So, new King’s and Dalhousie graduates, was your education divorced from reality or unimportant? I suspect your parents are probably hoping I’m going to say “of course not!” Perhaps like a typical academic, however, I think it depends.
Fundamentally modern universities address two seemingly simple questions: “what makes us tick?” and “how does it work?” For those with a spiritual cast of mind there is a third question, “what does it all mean?” But despite our setting today in this lovely cathedral, that question, which once was central to the raison d’être of the medieval founders of the university, that question is now for better or worse less commonly addressed in the academy.
“How does it work?” speaks to the world of the basic and applied sciences and addresses the material world from the smallest units of matter to the deepest reaches of space. The curriculum at King’s, however, focuses on the other great question, “what makes us tick?” This question addresses what we think and feel, how we work and play, and because it suggests the collective “us”, it also asks how we behave together in organizations, how we pursue wealth and power, how we manage crime and punishment and how we govern and regulate ourselves. These questions are the province of the liberal arts and their applied cousins in business, law and journalism.
Surely these are important matters. Virtually every pressing global and national challenge we face today falls within these topics of inquiry. But to study them thoughtfully requires social and psychological space. Action generates experience, but deep knowledge and understanding requires reflection and this frequently requires some withdrawal from the hurly burly of the street to have the time and distance to make sense of things.
I think ideally that’s what you’ve enjoyed over the past few years. An ivory tower. Your practical impact on the world was probably modest, hence the occasional pejorative jibe, but your potential now is enormous. Don’t worry too much about whether you’ve been trained for a job. That will come along for you as it has to all your predecessors at Kings. Instead of just a job, you have been trained for a career, probably a very diverse career, with all the adaptations that will inevitably require.
I recall attending a meeting in the office of our then provincial Minister of Finance. We were interrupted at some point by a call from his wife. When he hung up, he mentioned that his wife was concerned about their son’s future. He was going to graduate in a few months from Kings with a major in history. “What can you do with a major in history?”, he asked. Well, I said, he could always become a university president like I did with my major in history. He laughed and said, yeah, he had studied law but now he was responsible for managing our province’s finances.
Stuff happens. None of us can know our future. As you move on from the ivory tower into the bustling street outside, all you can do is follow a few well-worn pieces of advice that we’ve all heard before, which doesn’t make them any less useful. Do things you care about. Work hard, really hard, if you want to be noticed and get ahead. Be open to small opportunities that come your way because you can’t tell when or which small things could lead to big things. Where you can, try to serve others; such service is more than a résumé filler. It often brings profound fulfillment and happiness.
When I start offering this kind of advice at home, my kids accuse me of acting like Polonius in Hamlet. That’s another advantage of a first rate education. Your kids can quote Shakespeare to tease you. So, this is probably a good time to remember my prime directive, be brief.
Let me close, then, simply by wishing my fellow members of the Class of 2013 much success and every happiness in the future. This is your day. Enjoy it. It’s been an honour to share this ceremony with you.