(June 4, 1998, Gazette)
It is difficult for me to tell you how very grateful I am for this honor, and how delighted I am to be here today. Grateful, honored and surprised - and almost speechless. Shortly after learning that I would be speaking at your convocation, I came across a comment by John Kenneth Galbraith to the effect that such speeches must avoid all references to politics, to religion, to sex - or to anything one feels strongly about. After weeks of staring at a blank page I decided, despite a long held passion for John Kenneth Galbraith, that I would ignore his advice this time.
We are here today to witness the awarding of degrees you have earned through years of hard work, to celebrate with you the completion of a course of study. Those of you graduating this morning have chosen to study the humanities - the condition of being human.
It is fashionable these days to dismiss the humanities. The frequently expressed opinion being that time invested in the study of literature and philosophy - time spent reflecting upon the past, upon the meaning and purpose of human life - is time squandered. We are told repeatedly that young people need facts, information, technology, for their voyage into the 21st century.
We do, of course, need facts and information, and we need to know how to use modern technology - but these are puny things indeed for navigation into the unknown. That vast ocean of time we call the new millennium will move and change as we pass through it, it will be an ocean with tides and ice, with winds and wars, an ocean where patterns repeat, almost repeat, do not repeat. Only a fool would venture onto such an ocean without knowledge of its sources, its geography, without knowledge of its art, its literature, its social structures, without being guided by the wisdom of its traditions, its myths, its history.
I would like to make some connection between us who stand here today and a small, personal part of the history many of us share - the patterns we might, or might not, see repeated in the coming century.
Not one of us who walks across this platform today will walk alone. We are supported by parents, by family and friends, teachers and librarians, by fellow writers and fellow students. Some of these people are visible and in attendance, some are absent.
For myself, born in the middle of the great depression, those absent include many family members: loving parents, who through back-breaking labor gave me a comfortable childhood, aunts and uncles who read to me, who told me stories - relatives (most of whom had barely finished elementary school) who could recite poetry by the hour - The Charge of the Light Brigade, Lady Clare, Sea Fever. That family, along with public-spirited officials who kept Gosling Memorial Library open - even in the great depression - along with teachers in a small, all-grade Seventh Day Adventist school who encouraged - nay compelled me - to memorize Tennyson and Yeats, Coleridge and Keats, plus a daily Bible verse - these are the people who taught me to love words, the people most responsible for any worthwhile thing I do.
Yet, there is another, larger body of people, invisible - passed into that misty realm called history - to whom I want to acknowledge my great debt - our great debt.
We tend to think of history as a bridge spiralling up out of the black pit of barbarism into the golden light of civilization. It is a hopeful view. It is the view not just of dreamers but also of doers, of scientists and explorers, of anyone seeking a new world.
Poets are more clear-sighted. "Each age is a dream that is dying and one that is coming to birth," the poet says. Each age seeks its own Utopia - and its own tools to shape that Utopia - religion, science, alchemy, capitalism, communism, trade, transportation. Today's Utopian dream seems to be globalization - a world shaped by multinational corporations, using the tools of information technology.
The Utopia of the last century, the Utopia our ancestors dreamt of, was rooted in the discovery of North America, in the riches of a new found land.
Once, "boiling up" in some gravel pit, I asked my father why we always stopped in such God-forsaken places. Dad, who did not believe that man made in God's image should sit on the ground, was seated on a stool he always brought along. The rest of us were perched about on nearby boulders.
Seventeen years old I was, and in a whiney mood. I asked why we couldn't drive five miles down the road to a picnic site with a fireplace, with a table, with benches we could all sit on.
"That we will not!" my father said. "What do you think that clique in the government's goin' to do when they get all us people usin' their nice little picnic spots?" He gave me that look: pity, despair - and wonder, that anyone who had gone to school for 12 years could be so stunned as I was. "They're going to put gates up, they're going to make us pay to get in - after a while there won't be a place in the country people like us can use for free!"
That comment, made over 40 years ago, is not just an intelligent assessment of the history of land use, it also, I feel, reflects a deep tribal memory - memory of displacement, of poverty and powerlessness - memory of ancestors who came from countries where woodlands, fields and streams were enclosed - where there was no parity of access to nature, no access to health, no access to education, no access to any of the riches of the earth.
Those ancestors of ours, those scoundrels and saints who settled this new found land, did find fields and forests and streams they could use. They found an ocean teeming with fish. Yet, most of them were unable to share in the wealth of that fishery. Lacking formal education, isolated in small bays and coves, deliberately cut off from the exchange of money, without any knowledge of what their labour was worth, many of those immigrants who had crossed the ocean so hopeful, found - not Utopia but a place where they had exchanged one serfdom for another.
It took long, backbreaking years to overcome that serfdom. Generations of men and women laboring for a new dream called education. Working from dawn to dark to stay alive, scrimping and saving so that their children could learn how to read, so their grandchildren could learn how to vote, could participate in public life, so that you and I, their great, great grandchildren could have access to hospitals, to community colleges, to universities such as Memorial.
Our grandparents knew that history is not an upward spiral, they knew that today's gains can be tomorrow's losses. Every invention, every creed, every theory, every technology - every Utopian dream - can be perverted into a new serfdom.
Of course you will need facts, you will need information, of course you will need technology for that trip into the new century. But these are just tools, they are no replacement for wisdom - or even for knowledge. "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" T.S. Eliot asked in The Rock.
I congratulate you who graduate this morning for having chosen to seek wisdom. While cautioning you to keep a keen eye on facts, on information, on technology, I encourage you to continue that quest, to make it a lifelong adventure.
Above all do not become passive observers on your great voyage into the new millennium. Risk embarrassment. Use your minds and your imaginations to scrutinize pronouncements of the powerful, to question glib sound-bites, contrived statistics, unsupported statements. Use your voices and your education to resist humankind's descent into new, and perhaps more terrible, serfdoms than those from which our grandparents escaped.
We, the living and the lucky, owe that much to those others - to those dead and gone men and women who, while making fish, hauling wood, raising children, still dared to question their fate, dared to hope, dared to dream YOU - their great, great grandchildren graduating from this great university in this still rich new found land.