Convocation remarks - 15 October 2011

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Convocation remarks - 15 October 2011

By Noel Chevalier

I would like to begin my remarks today with an advisory: the following program may contain disturbing content: disturbing not in the sense of off-colour language or zombie apocalypses, but disturbing in the sense of not allowing you to rest for too long or feel too comfortable even as you celebrate your considerable achievement.  You are graduating university: this is good.  It’s more than good: it’s an impressive, noteworthy achievement, well deserving of recognition, even in substantial, material ways.  But even as you eat and drink and bask in the glow of the job well done, some disturbing questions may already be forming in the backs of your minds.

Here’s one.  It comes courtesy of the Globe and Mail, and was certainly disturbing to me: “What is my degree worth?”  Perhaps the reason it disturbs me may not be the same as the reason it disturbs you.  The question really translates as “how can I demonstrate the economic sense of spending over $20, 000 on something that has no physical form?”  Or, perhaps, “if I invested all this time and money so that I can get a high-paying job, how do I know that (a) I actually will get such a job and (b) how do I know that this is the job I paid over $20, 000 to get”?  The Globe and Mail tackles such questions in its articles, and challenges the value of a basic Bachelor of Arts degree in a liberal arts program: they very thing you are now celebrating having received.  These are disturbing questions, because no one has an answer to them.  But what disturbs me is the fact that these questions are even being asked at all.  Over the next few minutes I want to take the opportunity to help you truly celebrate what you have achieved by helping you understand what you have achieved and suggesting a way of seeing that might put all of this in some more meaningful context.

First of all, I want to challenge the idea that “worth” has to mean “economically advantageous,” or, to put it another way, “marketable.”  Marketability, especially of something like education, implies that you yourselves are now objects whose inherent worth depends on your ability to perform specific tasks in return for which you collect a specific sum of money at regular intervals.  I’m not discounting the importance of this, but I am suggesting that your education, especially in the tradition that we call the liberal arts, was not designed to be used in this way, and, in fact, is designed to challenge the very assumptions that lie behind this way of thinking.  Because here is the dirty secret: education isn’t job training.  “Training” is about fitting one for particular tasks; it is about shaping the brain to respond automatically to perform certain functions.  Training has a mechanical quality about it, a sense in which the task for which one is trained is not meant to require critical thought.  Politicians and employers love to talk about supporting job training, and they love to encourage people to seek training—but inherent in that idea is that while you are undergoing training, you’re not necessarily being educated.

The reason for that is simple.  There’s a corollary to the dirty secret I just mentioned: training isn’t education.  Education, in its ideal form, is about challenging status quos and structures.  It’s about integrating the full range of one’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities, and developing them to their fullest.  Education is about discovering complexities, nuances, and subtleties, and learning how to incorporate those into one’s whole way of thinking.  Whereas training is about learning specific tasks and of generating single responses to pre-set questions, education is about discovering new ways of doing, and of furthering one’s understanding of the world and its people.

Remember: animals can be trained; they can’t be educated. 

I hope it will seem clear to you that, on the whole, the liberal arts do a very bad job of training and a very good job of educating.  You can’t identify what specific tasks can be accomplished by having someone study Hegel, or Ancient Greek, or Restoration Comedy: such things are, by some accounts, of no value. The question, however, is whether the measure of value is not in itself open to question.  Instead of “training,” it seems more fitting to find another measure of value for a liberal arts education, one that more accurately reflects what it is you’ve actually been working on these past few years.  You can probably guess by now where my own values lie.  All of us, of course, need to be trained from time to time—all of us need to learn how to do specific tasks and one can’t get very far by simply challenging everything.  However, the danger lies not in training itself, but in the tendency—very much in favour in political and commercial discourses these days—to assume that universities should move away from “education” and concentrate on “training”—precisely because a trained individual is assumed to be more marketable than an educated one. 

Up to now, our culture has operated under certain seemingly inalienable assumptions.  First, that the chief goal of human existence is to further something called “progress.”  Second, that technology, commerce, and bureaucracy can, in themselves, provide the means to move humanity forward to some ultimate end, to further progress, as it were, and to bring about a kind of utopia.    Furthermore, the place of the individual within this system of assumptions is to function as one who must further progress; failure to conform one’s own interests and passions to those of technology, commerce, and bureaucracy is seen as “anti-social,” and individuals face immense social pressure to blur the distinctions between real autonomy and a kind of false autonomy consisting of prepackaged “selves” based on brand loyalties.  In terms of education, what this means is that your degree is worth precisely the amount it can be used to further this perceived progress.

The language and the assumption of progress is so pervasive that it doesn’t even need to be articulated.  Last week, I was asked by an Angus-Reid pollster which of the two party leaders is likely to “move Saskatchewan forward” or “drag Saskatchewan back.”  The questions, to me, were meaningless: move forward to what?  Drag backward from what?  Such a free-floating idea of “moving forward” might sound impressive as political rhetoric, but it is pretty meaningless without some specific term to attach to it.  By the logic of progress, moving forward might mean greater technological innovation, or more wealth derived from commerce, or more carefully regulated government infrastructure.  But those logics would not necessarily see “progress” in terms of more equitable treatment for marginalised people; or more flourishing cultural programs; or fairer labour practices; or more concerted efforts to eradicate poverty, racism, and environmental devastation.  Moreover, the logics of progress as we currently define them cannot measure how much more empathy, or how much more social or cultural awareness one has: and I certainly doubt very much that any politician would expect to win votes by revealing that “moving forward” means more people reading Hegel or studying Homer. 

But then again, why shouldn’t it?  It seems apparent now that such technological, commercial, and bureaucratic utopia promised by the logic of progress is no longer possible, at least not under the current system of thinking.  I firmly believe that one reason such a failure has occurred is that the liberal arts—the very foundational values that have underpinned your present degrees—have been sadly absent from public discourse for the better part of a century, as the voices of the aforementioned technology, commerce, and bureaucracy have assumed a central place in how decisions are made and, ultimately, how people live their everyday lives.  It has become resoundingly clear that what lies at the heart of much social and economic unrest is a profound failure by those who champion technology, commerce, and bureaucracy to consider for a moment the real human beings that these entities presumably serve, and to frame their understanding of these entities within a language of ethics, of empathy, and of community. 

One current idea—actually a resurrection of a very old idea—is that of Enlightenment, a 21st-century Enlightenment, one that addresses that, as a new century has begun plagued by challenges, crises, and apparent breakdowns of all the old structures, a new way of thinking must be required to meet those challenges.  At the heart of this new enlightenment is the idea that true human progress, the measure of what makes us and our societies fully human, is measured by our empathy, by our capacity to form and connect with communities and to demonstrate our genuine concern for the world as a whole.  Such thinking does not reject technology—in fact, the astonishing rise of social media technologies in the last five years is often cited as proof of a renewed interest in personal interaction even as it is mediated through machines—but it injects a strong measure of what might be called “liberal arts” thinking into discussions of how this technology might develop.  In the same way, commerce in a 21st-century Enlightenment considers its social and environmental responsibilities alongside its profits and marketing strategies: former advertising executive Simon Mainwaring has noted that even mega corporations like Coke and Pepsi have shifted their corporate strategies from the aggressive competitiveness of the 1970s and 80s to more socially aware campaigns that attempt to effect real change in communities.  Of course, one may easily point out that Coke and Pepsi are simply developing a clever marketing strategy that reinvents them from being peddlers of unhealthy sugary drinks into selfless philanthropists.  I see no reason to dispute that, but whether or not Coke and Pepsi are really interested in redeeming their corporate souls through such campaigns is beside the point: what matters is that we are seeing the beginning of change in corporate philosophy from simple profit margins to connections with real communities.  What matters to me, even more, is that the kind of thinking that makes such changes even possible cannot be taught in business schools and certainly cannot be effected through mere training: such thinking can only come from people who are steeped in a liberal arts tradition of critical inquiry, intellectual curiosity, and deep historical and cultural awareness.  In short—the people with degrees such as yours are the ones who are going to be essential to developing the 21st century Enlightenment.

Whether you realise it or not, your time spent here has provided you with skills essential to framing important critical questions about the kind of society you want to live in; you can begin to recognise that by asking questions such as, “How does this new technology, this product, or this policy enhance the community I live in, and the wider global communities to which I am connected?” you can begin to make intelligent, informed, and ultimately beneficial choices for yourself and the people around you.  Your liberal arts degree can and will help you to approach the world in terms of multiple rather than single perspectives, in terms of active engagement rather than passive consumption, and in terms of community improvement rather than individual self-serving. 

This address, then, is not so much a congratulatory send-off or a sentimental farewell, but a call to action: to challenge you to assert the skills and values you have acquired here into public life, and to demonstrate that the liberal arts in the 21st century are as central and as fundamental as technology, commerce, and bureaucracy.  That you are not merely trained, but rather equipped, and empowered, ready to face challenges and to offer some challenges of your own.  None of us can choose the world we arrive in, but we certainly can choose the world we leave.  If you value your education, and look to it for something more than mere training, then you may find that those very people who want to disturb you by questioning the value of your degree will themselves become disturbed.