(June 4, 1998, Gazette)
When I began to think of what I might say to you today – this happy day of your graduation – I recalled reading a talk given by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset to students at Madrid University in 1930, a time of great social unrest in Spain. By 1936 it erupted in a civil war between fascists and socialists, a war that the fascists were to win.
Ortega wanted the university students to prepare themselves for this emergency, hoping that by intelligent intervention the drama of war could be avoided.
But he feared that the students were not ready for the task and he was quite critical of them. He called them slovenly. "To walk through these halls, even on ordinary days, and hear the hullabaloo and see the gesticulations of you students, is to breathe an atmosphere so thick with slovenliness that it chokes." That's what he said to them.
As a former university teacher, I recall days, particularly during the student unrest of 1969, a time of strikes and turmoil on many campuses, when I also felt like that. In fact, it was at that time that I first encountered Ortega's essay.
Ortega tried to persuade the students that their energy was being wasted because it was unfocused. To do this he presented an analogy from sports. He spoke of how the athlete has to go into training, has to give up a lot of things, has to develop the determination to improve in performance each day – in short, how the athlete has to be in form. To be in form is the opposite of slovenliness.
Of course this is oversimplifying the matter. Most human beings are a combination of both. We are in form about certain things, particularly those that concern our profession or career, and slovenly in others. I'm sure you are not much different. You've studied hard to master your discipline but you've indulged yourselves along the way, watched a lot of trashy television, drunk too much beer on occasion, or wasted a weekend racing around aimlessly in cars.
Can you believe that we've done that too? But those of us who are older know that the true test of life is not being in form but remaining creative. How do we keep intellectually vibrant as we grow older? Will we continue to read challenging books? Will we still enjoy being shocked by new ideas? Will our appreciation of music and the other arts continue to expand or shrivel up into mere consumerism?
Never before have so many people in the world had the privilege of attending university, but is the world significantly better for it? Is it safer, cleaner, more cultured, wiser? Or is it merely regulated with more subtle efficiency?
The university itself has changed dramatically throughout its long history. No longer is it struggling to get a toe hold in society as a place where free thought could prevail over ecclesiastical proscriptions, or a place where Marxism could be discussed without provoking a police raid. Eventually, after a few centuries of evolution, it became a liberal intellectual institution - a universe of thoughtful dialectics, as its name implies. I once even imagined that the ideal university might consist of just two buildings: a library where one could stock up on ideas and a cafeteria where one could discuss them with others.
I remember Paul Goodman, the American social critic and author of a book called Growing Up Absurd, which was one of the primers of the '70s, coming to Simon Fraser University, where I was then teaching, and telling us that our beautiful new campus would be a ghost town in 20 years. Why? Because Goodman believed that young people of the future would rather float about the world seeking a master here, a mentor there, arranging a free, or maybe psychedelic curriculum to suit their needs. He himself had left university to set up an ashram and he invited us all to visit him there.
While a certain amount of independent education did go on at the time, the universities did not break up and the students did not desert them. On the contrary, they were more masterfully administered and more rigorously governed. Marginal subjects, like those I was engaged in teaching, were increasingly discouraged. General education gradually gave way to career education. Study programs became more focused, with a lot of prerequisite and corequisite courses, leaving less space for electives. Programs offering good job prospects flourished: business administration, law, computer science, dentistry ... leaving the liberal arts floundering.
But why am I telling you this? You know it all well enough because this is the university you have just attended. Regardless of the programs it offers, or perhaps because of them, it seems that the university has never been in better form. It has become a very efficient training institution for the specialized jobs required by business and industry.
To be in good form means to be exceptionally good at repeating yourself, presumably with some slight improvement each time, as the glitches are worked out. To be in good form is to be extraordinarily good at one thing, or at a specified number of things. More than this, it is to forfeit any desire to be good at anything else. The swimmer, the runner, the skater, have single goals in mind. Distractions, even glancing from side to side could be fatal.
Sometimes, I think, we reward these people too handsomely. We fail to see that they are basically uncreative, that they are performing mechanical tricks of no particular significance for the development of humanity.
But universities are sometimes guilty of this too. There are a lot of windowless corridors in institutions, and a lot of places to hide and carry out unnecessary or over-specialized research. Far be it from me to criticize those professors who have had themselves embalmed and presented to their schools as monuments long before their retirement. I am only concerned here with the extent to which the relentless pursuit of single goals can stifle all possibility of creative change.
A personal illustration. The other day I was trying to compose a new work for orchestra. I was gripping my desk with all my teeth, tense with fatigue, having worked solidly for five hours. I had a headache. I knew I should stop, take a walk or a rest. But I belligerently continued to work. Of course I accomplished nothing.
The next day was one of utter collapse. I couldn't do anything. I just lay on the couch, a complete invalid. What my weakness did was to still my ego. I had been trying to write ego-music. There's nothing wrong with ego-music. History is dominated by it, not to mention pop songs. But that's not what I wanted to write and it took my unconscious to teach me to stop wanting anything, just to lie still like the earth waiting for spring. I spent several days slovenly lying on the couch waiting for something to happen.
Of course it did happen. A solution came, like an epiphany some days later, and when I least expected it. It took the work in a totally different direction.
I have always been amazed at the inability of society to imagine itself in any other form than the one it presently assumes. Most people confidently suppose they'll go on driving cars, flying in planes and watching movies for the rest of their lives in spite of the fact that 100 years ago most people would have found it impossible to imagine a society encompassing any of these activities. Even Plato's famous Republic was not so much a recipe for a new order as it was an attempt at perfecting an existing one. It's natural to hope for improvements but it's frightening to think of a total reconfiguration.
Well-disciplined organizations resist creatively at all cost, or at any rate would seek to control it to their own advantage. But all you have to do is to walk down main street in a big city on Saturday night to see how unpredictably, absurdly, fascinatingly creative human beings continue to be. And some of the most creative individuals, with their technicolor hairdos and new tricks for panhandling, are among society's most outrageously untidy and slovenly.
But now I'm wondering about the fate of Ortega y Gasset's students at Madrid University. How many of them fought for the fascists and how many for the republicans in the war that came so soon after their graduation? Nemesis would proclaim that those who were in form fought with the fascists (since their army was most disciplined and best equipped) while the slovenly students fought with the republicans and lost.
But of course there's no way of knowing how each of them confronted that emergency, any more than you can predict how you'll react to the perils you'll confront after graduation.
At school you've trained yourselves to do specific things; but you may end up doing quite different things. You may have to unlearn a lot of the things you've learned, because no matter how you'd like to shape the world, most of the changes will be beyond your control. Creativity is what you have to hold on to, not techniques.
I like the story of Jean Cocteau, the French poet, who was once asked by an interviewer: "If your house was on fire and you could only save one thing, what would it be?" Without hesitation Cocteau replied: "The fire!"
So that's my final advice to you. Whatever you might have to give up, keep the fire.