(June 4, 1998, Gazette)
I am deeply honored to be sharing your convocation ceremonies today. The excitement and confidence that I am sure you are experiencing as science graduates of Memorial University is well earned. And it is shared by all of us who are here to wish you congratulations on such an important day in your lives.
We understand how your parents and families are feeling: a great deal of pride, I am sure - and perhaps even a little relief as well - that your hard work and achievements have brought you academic success.
In 1787 a German newspaper editor wrote:
"Usually one thinks of a learned woman as neurotic. And should she ever go beyond the study of literature into the higher sciences, one knows in advance that her clothing will be neglected and her hair will be done in antiquarian fashion, that she understands the culinary arts of the ancient Greeks but cannot cook a simple egg, that she forces her way into circles of men for whom she is nothing more than a book."
I wonder what the writer would have thought if he could have seen the young women who received their degrees tonight?
That editorial was written about 200 years ago, but attitudes like the editor's were still prevalent until well into this century. It was not until the 1920s that women were able to vote, or, in Canada, were recognized as persons before the law.
In 1973, women received 39 per cent of the degrees and diplomas awarded by Memorial University.
Twenty-five years later, in 1997, women were 56 per cent of the graduating class.
In science, 25 years ago women were 22 per cent of the graduates. Last year they were 48 per cent.
It is not, and should not be, a competition between the sexes. Increased fairness of opportunity benefits the whole society.
Now, a lot of people are inclined to think that changes like that "just happen" as a result of some sort of natural evolutionary process. "Of course the position of women has improved," they say. "That's just progress."
Well, they're wrong. The changes in women's position in society didn't "just happen." We made them happen by raising consciousness on the issues and enlisting understanding of the arguments.
It was a long, slow process, and if changes have come quickly and dramatically over the past 20 years or so, it is because generations of women and men worked hard to lay the groundwork.
The idea that "things just naturally get better" has been around for a long time, and it is remarkably persistent. And whether you like it or not, you people graduating in the sciences are at the centre of society's attitudes on the subject.
The idea of limitless progress seems to have got started 200 years ago, with the Industrial Revolution.
Back then, the changes brought about by the application of science through technology could be seen every day. More goods were being produced. More people were travelling faster and farther than ever before. Diseases were being treated and prevented. Surely, our ancestors thought, the world will go on getting better and better.
Most of the people who were thinking that way, of course, were from the rapidly growing middle class. If they thought at all about the festering slums of the great industrial cities, or of the children who worked in the factories alongside their weary parents, they were inclined to say, "Well, that's the price we have to pay for progress. In the future, things will be better for everybody."
And how was that to come about? By the application of more science and technology, of course.
"Progress" was equated with technological change, and belief in its inevitability became a kind of secular religion, which has persisted right up to the present. We are being told today that "we can't move against the current even if we wanted to" as though governments and citizens were impotent. But we who believe in a strong democracy know that is not true.
Twenty years ago the buzzword was "automation." Computers and robots were taking over jobs that had been done by people, and the popular magazines were full of stories about "the workless society" and speculation about how we were all going to spend the leisure time we were going to have.
Strangely, nobody predicted what actually happened - that some people would be working longer and harder than ever, and a lot of others would not be working at all.
Nowadays, the buzzword is "globalization." Progress is to be achieved by cutting back on health care, education and social welfare. By moving industries to Third World countries where working conditions are pretty much like they were in London in Charles Dickens's day. And, if we are not vigilant, by possibly bringing those conditions home to Canada, to Newfoundland.
The utopian future is still just around the corner. The light is still at the end of the tunnel.
And if our industrial practices seem to be creating problems, there is always somebody ready to recite the other credo of our secular religion: "You can't stand in the way of progress."
If the air we breathe is polluted, the forests destroyed, fish stocks driven to extinction, and communities dislocated, well, that's the price we have to pay, they say. If it gets too bad, don't worry, more science and technology will fix it.
But there have always been people who don't accept the creed; who say that sometimes the price is too high: who have other ideas about what constitutes improvement and how real progress can be achieved.
Those noisy, dirty factories of 200 years ago gave rise to a labor movement that has struggled over the years for decent wages and working conditions. The suffering and wasted lives of the Victorian slums inspired public campaigns for social welfare and child protection.
Two world wars and a decade-long Depression led people all over the industrialized world to an understanding that the promise of progress was not being fulfilled, and would not be unless they demanded action from their leaders.
Their feelings and commitments were expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed 50 years ago by the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, and signed by Canada. Article 25 of that document reads:
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance."
Nowadays, large world organizations are telling us that all those basic human rights stand in the way of progress. Whose progress are they talking about?
People who have questioned the secular faith in progress didn't find it easy. But if they hadn't been doing it all along, what kind of world would we have? For a start, I suppose, most of our women graduates wouldn't be here. And most of the men from working class families wouldn't be here, either.
Those who stood against the current changed our lives for the better.
One of my heroes was an American biologist, Rachel Carson. Her book, The Silent Spring, first published in 1962 and just recently reprinted, is now recognized as one of the founding documents of the modern environmental movement.
In it, she taught us the interconnectness of nature and warned of the dangers of chemical pesticides, especially DDT which was then being widely used.
Naturally, she was pilloried for standing in the way of progress. Among other things, she was accused of being a communist - which was not true - and of being "a spinster" who "kept cats," which was true, although hardly indictable offenses.
One reviewer dealt what he thought was a death blow by saying her book reminded him that you cannot win an argument with a woman.
I recall that one of her fellow-scientists from the University of British Columbia showed what he thought of Carson's ideas by eating a spoonful of pesticide on live television. He survived, but then he was not a fish or a robin, or pregnant at the time.
A few years later, as we know, DDT was banned worldwide.
We still have plenty of problems with environmental pollution and degradation, but where would we be today if Rachel Carson had not found the courage to question the inevitability of what some people said was progress? Or if earlier heros had not challenged the belief that women were unsuited for scientific education?
It's a matter of choice. Whose definition of progress and improvement are we going to accept? And if we take refuge in the belief in inevitability, all we are doing is leaving the choice to somebody else.
I don't want to do anything to lessen the pride, elation and joy that you graduates and your families are feeling tonight, but after the celebrations are over, I hope you will remember that the rest of us are going to be depending on you to help us make the right choices and to ask the right questions.
Congratulations again on your achievements. We are all proud of you. I thank you for your attention and wish you a secure and prosperous future in a secure and prosperous world.
In closing, Mr. Chancellor, I offer my heartfelt thanks to the Senate and the university community for the tremendous honor they have conferred on me.