Address to convocation by Dr. Sidney Altman
It is a distinct honour for me to be here. I share your pride on this day of reward and joy.
Although I am sure that all of you will be successful, some of you may think that I am supposed to notify you of the grand world you are about to enter, its challenges and intrigues. However, I do not look forward to that task since it is an issue that dozens and dozens of people have expounded on over the years with little to say that is absolutely new. So, I will talk about something different. Well, maybe not so different. Surely, books and their treasures are a subject that we are all familiar with. That, and the quality of your education and the desire to pursue it will be familiar.
My view of the undergraduate and graduate professional schools is that they are supposed to make you independent scholars or practitioners. By that I mean that when it is time for you to graduate, you can look at your advisors and teachers with a certain amount of "deferential" harassment. Not that you should question everyone repeatedly, but rather that you examine what is being said to you so that you can give the feeling that you are an interested sentient being, not accustomed to blindly following whatever is said to you. In most cases, however, what is being said is matter based on truth and experience. The idea of an independent practitioner of a profession is to recognize your deficiencies, and those of others, and to pursue problems that knowing what you do not know, what you do know, and what you will know when the next difficult instance arrives.
You will have obstacles and problems in your lives, both professional and personal. That is not a statement of great pessimism. It is a statement about our days and how we live them. I would look forward to your stories 10 or 20 years from now and hearing, with some interest, the way in which you confronted new ideas, new individuals, all, I presume, you will treat as mature, fellow citizens, where you live, who you live with, and the various professional opportunities that arise. Difficulties and obstacles, however, should not be overwhelming. It is important to remember that there are thousands, literally, before you who faced their own lives unfolding and coped with and overcame the seeming complexities and who proceeded to prosper.
In fact, it is worthwhile to consider who we are and where we came from and privately, where each of you is going.
Aside from First Nation individuals, we are all recent immigrants or descended from immigrants. In most cases, our parents or ancestors were not people who were financially well-off or who left positions of advantage in whatever part of the world they abandoned to come here. How did they manage to raise children in this new country of ours who had some belief in the value of books and the treasures they hide? In my case, my parents came virtually penniless to Canada and they happened, by chance, to meet in Montreal. As a couple, there was no sacrifice too great in order for them to provide for their children and the hoped for promise of the future for their sons. In fact, I remember when I was about three years old sleeping on sheets and pillow cases made of linen from 50 pound sugar bags, salvaged from my father's small store. My mother left such a pillow case among her valuables when she died. This souvenir was typical of the other sacrifices made in our life style to provide my brother and me with the advantages and benefits of an education. Of course, there was no real discussion of books—it was taken for granted that books were treasures to be cherished. Anyone who had some contact with books and who actually read them, was admired. I make the assumption that some of you came from similar immigrant backgrounds although the details of your lives might have been quite different from mine.
Perhaps it is inevitable that I would talk about books in this brief lecture. All of you in this audience know what I am alluding to when I mention the value of books. Even if your education trained you to be a professional in contact with the general public, your teachers relied on the knowledge to impart to you in some respect the foundation of what others had written and stored in books. So I congratulate you on what you have learned and, I hope, what you will continue to learn from your reading and other modes of study in the next decades. (Please do not tell me that computing devices will completely replace books. That would upset my sentimental and pleasant memories of holding a book in my hands and turning the pages to see what was next or what was most interesting. Of course, if you are allergic to the dust that accumulates on shelved books, may I suggest that you take an anti-histamine pill before you wander into the crannies of a great library.)
While the world of facts can be summarized in books, and this can be useful, there are other emotions that the written word can only touch on and describe in generalized detail. How much of that is truly reflected in your own experiences, of love, fear, uncertainty, confidence, and so on? We read to gain some insight into the nature of these powerful feelings but that is it: the personal reality is always different.
Electronic reading devices, of course, are modern gadgets and I should not denigrate them. Nevertheless, good ideas and creativity have no time frame so modernity does not matter.
There is a significant question that I and my long-time colleagues and friends must ask ourselves as the sun begins to set on our professional lives: What has my generation done with the benefits of higher education? There are some simple facts to be stated: Canada is here and thriving. The country has its usual political woes, but we have one of the best social welfare schemes in the world. Our science and technology leads us to the future. We have some of the best writers in English on the fact of the globe. Other achievements, beside the vitality and health of our universities, are too numerous to mention here. But the sustainability of these high quality goals will not happen automatically: there must be a desire by all of you to be interested in a particular sculptor, or athlete or writer or painter or scientist and to support the activities of these people. I wish the best for you in maintaining our various accomplishments and, if you can, improving them somewhat.
I recognize that the goals and style of the younger generation are appreciably different from those of my generation. However, the intelligence and curiosity are there in their natural state. Avoid the petty and meaningless connivances that some of your colleagues may engage in to achieve marginal professional advantage. In fact, there are many distractions along the way, some more or less serious. And if I were not to speak about your professional life, may I suggest that Canada as an intact nation is worth preserving.
I speak to you, if not loudly then perhaps at least clearly, to cherish your education and to value your citizenship. Participate in the best activities that you can choose and offer to your friends, colleagues and society, the best you, and your education, can give. If nothing else, recall that this university offered you the best of the collective mind of the faculty and your fellow students. Share what you have learned, in every way possible.