Friday, November 27, 2015

2015 Convocation Address

This speech was actually delivered when I was guest speaker at the Spring Convocation, not at the more recent convocation a couple of weeks back, but I had totally forgotten about the speech until I was reminded today. Here goes.

Convocation 2015

Principal, Chancellor, Rector, Colleagues, Family and Graduands:

Certain Indian yoga masters say that, whenever a novice sits down to meditate, there is a risk of all the demons floating around nearby rushing in and creating a distraction. Apparently, concentrated intelligence is a threat to these demons. They want to keep the mind of the novice away from the spiritual and return it to trivial earthly matters. The demons want the novice to stop striving for something higher and to instead rest content with the default world.

Sound familiar? Sure, the demons you know probably take a different form. They look more like, oh, that Netflix series you were bingeing on, or Facebook, or…uh…Tetris? In other words, one’s own demons are never terrifying monsters. They’re comfortable and familiar. But they are the adversaries of our more precious purposes.

Still, whatever your particular demons might have been, here you are, so you must have been at least moderately successful at wrestling with them and concentrating on your studies. Congratulations.

But what happens now? Does getting this rolled up piece of paper mean an end to the struggle? I hope not. The whole point of your degree is to effect some permanent change in your thinking.

But what change? Well, it’s become a cliché in convocation addresses to say that the purpose of a liberal arts education---with varying emphasis on the arts---is not to supply knowledge, but to teach you how to think. It’s a cliché, but as with many clichés, there is some truth to it.

Let me back up a bit.

We get the term liberal education from the Romans. What they meant is the education that would help a free person take an active part in civic life. At its core this is about conceiving improvements for society and interrogating the ideas that are handed to you. It’s about cultivating a critical attitude towards what have become social norms.

Now the reason that the arts are crucial to this enterprise has to do with the insights of extraordinary individual minds. Such a mind, notwithstanding that it may belong to an eccentric social outlier, occasionally affords us a vision that is more compelling and far-seeing than what the world is otherwise willing to reveal. And regardless of whether that vision is in the form of a concerto or a play or a painting or an essay or whatever, it establishes its own authority by compelling our imaginations, in effect freeing us from the tyranny of our preconceptions about how the world works.

A great work of art confronts you with something for which you were not quite prepared. It takes what you thought of as fixed reality and causes that to slide into contingency and illusion. By studying these works, by embodying them within ourselves, we are pursuing a kind of mental discipline: a form of discipline that, paradoxically, leads to intellectual freedom. We all understand we are not free to play the bassoon until we have studied and practiced the bassoon. In a similar way, freedom of thought depends upon study and practice. And the discipline of thinking critically about and through art, the activity of a liberal arts education, leads to a free imagination.

The idea is well understood within the university; outside there are other opinions. Not long ago, I saw a videoclip in which the tv personality Kevin O’Leary was talking about education. First he declared: “money is the only thing that matters,” and then he said that, consequently, a “liberal arts degree…is useless” (BNN Video, G&M, 6 Feb 2015).

Now I hope that none of Kevin O’Leary’s loved ones are here in the audience, because O’Leary will be playing the role of demon in the rest of what I have to say.

We know that what O’Leary says represents a very commonplace a point of view. But is he right? Is money the only thing that matters? Let’s agree that money is important, never more so than if you don’t have enough. But you can only eat, dress and sleep so well. Once you have enough of it to make your life comfortable, pursuing money for its own sake, or for power, is a kind of neurosis. Those who worship money or power can never have enough of either. As some very rich people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates will attest, having made yourself comfortable, the only real worth you will find in money or power lies in how you use it to improve the world.

But even were we to accept the premise that money is all-important, O’Leary is just factually wrong in suggesting that those with liberal arts degrees don't make money. On the contrary, the evidence shows that those with liberal arts degrees tend to do perfectly well financially. Why? Well, because you are imaginative, resourceful, articulate and insightful: all crucial qualities contributing to prosperity in any field.

Why would O’ Leary dismiss that? Well, let’s look at the other part of what he’s implying. For those who believe that money is the only thing that matters, what does a useful education look like? The preference would be for you to smoothly join the economic machine, become a docile worker causing minimal disruption to the flow of wealth up the pyramid. A useful education would make the student a morally obtuse, quiescent commodity.

By contrast, a student with a liberal education is a critical and carping individual with “ideas” about how the world could be “improved.” In the it’s-all-about-money world, such people are not merely useless, but inconvenient, even threatening. They become threatening the moment they decide they’d prefer to make a better society instead of apathetically or cynically resting content with default assumptions about the world.

This brings us back to those demons who, because they were threatened by concentrated thought, tried to distract the yoga novice. Naturally, I am not suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is an actual demon---though, neither can I rule it out---but his suggestion that money is all that matters does represent the sort of values produced by a refusal to think. In short, he is demonic insofar as he is a self-elected representative of the kind of self-absorbed, unexamined, lazy prejudices that much of your education has given you practice in recognizing and resisting. …And which I hope you’ll go on resisting.

Here’s where the idea [alluded to by Principal Woolf] comes in that, after you leave Queen’s, the university goes wherever you are: because, you’ll discover that resisting the demons of lazy prejudices often requires a disciplined mindfulness that has been fortified by your education. And you’ll find, too, that your robustly educated imagination is an enormous help in doing many of the things necessary to live a full and happy life. I’m speaking of things such as:

Discovering what you really need as opposed to accepting what others want you to want;

Learning how to express yourself so you always say exactly what you mean and so your own feelings and ideas never seem confusing and alien to you;

Understanding other human beings well enough that you do not automatically attribute to maliciousness what might be as easily attributed to incompetence or desperation;

Now these ideas are focused on the individual mind rather than society at large. But, as Mahatma Ghandi taught, any greater social struggle is first of all fought within the self. You have outgrown the simplistic world of melodrama, where evil is always external. You know that the demons of greed and narcissism, apathy and ignorance, fear and suspicion are not really floating in the air around us, or even on our tv screens. They are within us. Having the strength of imagination to see this and resist is where the struggle to make a better world begins.

Thank you.