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Vol 37  No 15
June 9, 2005


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Address to Convocation

Dr. David G. Pitt

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, members of convocation, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. I must begin by congratulating the members of the graduating class, who today have reached another round on "young ambition's ladder." Some of you have reached the utmost round, at least of the standard academic ladder; some of you an intermediate one, and some of you a lower but nonetheless equally important round. All are significant achievements and deserving every commendation. I must also congratulate Professors Miller and Schrank, each of whom today becomes a professor emeritus. It is, I know, an honour well deserved, and I wish you both many long years to enjoy it.

I shall have something more to say directly the graduating class later, later, for you, after all, are the primary raison d'etre of this august occasion, the stars of the performance. I am only a gratuitous item salvaged ­ shall we say? ­ from the Antiques Roadshow. I must, nevertheless, express my sincere thanks to the university for salvaging me and for the honour conferred on me in doing so. I've been fortunate to have had a number of honours conferred on me by various institutions during my lifetime, but I shall value none more than the one conferred on me today by an institution that 56 years ago I helped to found.

You won't find my name among the university's acknowledged founders ­ I don't mind that: there are usually many unacknowledged cogs in every wheel ­ but it was 56 years ago this month, almost to the day, that the first premier of the new province of Newfoundland plucked me out of the Graduate School of the University of Toronto to become the first new appointee to the faculty of a university that was itself so new that it was then still on the drawing-boards. The blueprint, however, was soon finished and the University Act passed in August (1949), and I, after much careful consideration having acceded to Mr. Smallwood's importunate plea, was thrust into the role not so much as that of a shipwright, assisting at the laying of the keel of a new vessel ­ in spite of the blueprint ­ as that of a job-carpenter, whose task was to help convert a small caravel ­ a well-built, serviceable caravel, to be sure ­ into something closer to a galleon, if not a palatial ocean liner. I use nautical metaphors, of course, since the university's motto, translated from Latin, is "Launch out into the deep;" and I refer to the transformation of the junior college, Memorial University College, into Memorial University of Newfoundland. I think that had the task been to build a new ship from the keel up, the job, while critical, would have been very much easier than transforming the caravel, for all its fine appurtenances, into at least a serviceable merchantman, if not yet an ocean greyhound.

But I shan't now go into the details of that undertaking. Five years ago, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the university's first convocation, as one of the few surviving members of the faculty that managed to pull it off, I stood here and described in some detail how it was done. I won't repeat that now. And besides, my memoirs, on which I've been working now for nearly five years, contain a fairly long chapter on the convoluted early history of the university ­ the inside history, so far unrevealed, told by one who was there and helped to make it. It, when published, as I hope to see it ­ if my physician with his various pills and potions can keep me extant long enough ­ will contain an account of most ­ not quite all: some things are best forgotten ­ of the behind-the-scenes travail that brought this university to birth.

Speaking of Memorial College, I am reminded that this year marks its 80th birthday. The original building, which still stands on the original site on Parade Street, was opened as a Normal School in 1924, but the college, occupying the same building, was not inaugurated until 1925. I am not aware that any special cognizance is being taken of this historic milestone, but I think it ought to be. The real progenitors of this university were the four farsighted individuals, W. W. Blackall, V. P. Burke, Levi Curtis, and Arthur Barnes ­ the latter, Newfoundland's first minister of education ­ who, in the early 1920s, soon after the First World War, decided that the most fitting memorial to those who had died in that war, ought to be not merely a monument to the dead, but a citadel for the living, present and to come. This was their vision and their hope, as it was of Mr. Smallwood and his associates in 1949. Thanks to those early pioneers and to people like the college's first president, J. L. Paton, and its first professor of English, A. C. Hunter, when finally the time came to bring a university into being, we had a reasonably sound foundation on which to build. I say "we" because, although I was the "new kid on the block," because I was the new kid, I found that I was expected to be the chief draftsman, carpenter, general factotum, mainly responsible for at least getting the process started, of turning the small academic institution we had inherited into a viable, modern, first-class, if small, university. But, as I've said. I shan't go into the details of that process here, or of the chaos that had to be reduced to order, of the old order that had to be made to give way to new, or of how those members of the old order who resisted change ­ and they were not negligible ­ were persuaded that the time had come truly to launch out into the deep.

Viewing the university now ­ the multi-versity that it has become ­ I find it difficult to relate it to the small, struggling, impecunious institution where I taught the first students of Memorial University in that epoch-making year, 1949-1950. The total student enrolment was roughly 300; the staff ­ faculty and support staff ­ numbered 30, all but me being carry-overs from the junior college. The total operating budget was less than a 100,000 Canadian dollars; and our physical plant was the original college building and a wooden structure bequeathed to us by the American Army, a former USO building known as the Annex. But I know that what we did with what we had was not badly done.

Viewing what I now see as the university, reading what is written about what is here and what is in prospect, I know that in my wildest dreams and my brightest visions of the future of the University, I could not then have conjured up anything remotely like it. Am I thrilled by what I see? I can't say that I am entirely thrilled. I seem to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson, a century and a half ago saying: "Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind." I am apprehensive about what I fear may be the accumulation of things, of stuff, technologies and machines, their manipulations, their ubiquity, and their virtual hegemony over the human spirit, the human world, often at the expense of the elements that make it human, elements that in a society such as a university is, or used to be, are normally cultivated and nurtured through an immersion ­ not total, but substantial ­ in what are still known as the humanities.

What I've just said about things ­ machines, technologies, et cetera ­ describes, of course, the world we live in today, one in which an ever-swelling technological tidal wave seems to be sweeping us relentlessly onward toward a vortex in which distinctions between the human and the non-human cease to exist. But the university, it seems to me, ought to be, as it were, a Rock of Ages that cannot be overwhelmed by tsunamis of science, of technological "progress," or "scientific futurism," so-called. I didn't say unaffected by them; I said overwhelmed. Yet that, I fear, is what is happening. I hope I am wrong. If I am not wrong, I wouldn't want to come back 100 years hence.

Under the degree regulations that I devised in 1949 ­ single-handedly, because time was very short, we already had third-year students clamouring to be members of the first graduating class eight months hence, and because the president had charged me to do so ­ no one could complete a degree without either a major or a minor in the humanities. Those regulations remained virtually unchanged for almost a decade. They were changed, as I knew they would be, as they had to be, but not to the point of dehumanizing them. To what extent the degree programs today are leavened with courses in the humanities I am not certain, but from what I've heard rumoured, the humanities in many programs have been given short shrift. I hope this is only an unfounded rumour. For if true, Memorial may have already ceased to be a true university, that is, to cite the classic, historic definition, "a society of scholars devoted to a search after knowledge for its intrinsic value," not, that is, for some end or use beyond itself. A. L. Lowell, the celebrated long-time president of Harvard University, who strove throughout his tenure to preserve at Harvard the primacy of Humane Learning, once declared that a true university is a place where nothing useful is taught. He was, of course, being only half-serious: even a humane subject like English Language and Literature is very useful, even in the pragmatic sense. Lowell was, of course, attempting, as did his equally celebrated colleague, the "Apostle of the Humanities," Irving Babbitt, of whom T. S. Eliot was a protégé, as was my chief mentor at Toronto, and supervisor of my doctoral dissertation, Professor Arthur Woodhouse, to counter a growing perception in America of a university as a "school" where, as A. C. Hunter used to say with a sardonic snort, "courses in basket-weaving and macramé are culturally equated to courses in the classics or philosophy." Only a few weeks ago I was reading a column in the Washington Post, in which the writer, decrying what is happening in this regard in many American colleges and universities, declared somewhat extravagantly perhaps, that it was evident that "the lunatics are now running the academic asylum," and went on to cite concrete evidence to support his allegation.

"A society devoted to a search after knowledge for its own sake." A quaint and impractical conception of a university, you may say, and for the 21st century it undoubtedly is ­ unqualified. But any qualifications must not be allowed to eliminate the primary fundamental: that knowledge for its own sake, quite apart from any practical application it may be given, is an unequivocal value. What the university must not become, what many modern so-called universities, especially in North America, have become in spite of Lowell and Babbitt, is a factory for processing commodities, human commodities that is, for the market-place. What I hope is not symptomatic that this is in fact happening at Memorial is something that unpleasantly surprised me a while back: my learning that as a pensioner of this university, presumably like all university personnel, I've been given the general identification of "Human Resource." Resources, in my dictionary, are "raw materials to be processed into something useful or edible, commodities, stock-in-trade, means to an end." Have I, have you, members of the faculty and staff, really been reduced to this?

Voicing doubts and apprehensions about the direction of university development, I must make clear that I am by no means a "mechano-" or "techno-" iconoclast" or saboteur, or what is sometimes called a "retroversionist," one who would turn back the clock to some pre-technological age when life, hypothetically, was simple, slow-paced, natural, and therefore "good." (Actually, the philosopher Hobbes was probably closer to the mark when he described it as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.") Having as a boy lived during the depths of the Great Depression in one of the poorest, most isolated, deprived ­ if not depraved ­ outports in Newfoundland, I am no romantic primitivist. When in my mid-teens we moved to a place where I no longer had to study by the light of a kerosene lamp, or burn my toast over the open pot of a cast-iron wood-stove, or no longer had to resort to a "charmer" to have my tooth-ache quelled, I felt that I had entered the New Jerusalem.

The fruits of applied science and technology are, manifestly, a mixed bag of banes and blessings, great and small. I won't run through the gamut, you know it: from the wheel and war-paint and the witch-doctor to the working robot, the World Wide Web, and weapons of mass destruction. Science and technology have done great things for us physically, materially. But what have they done for us spiritually, morally? They have alleviated much of the pain our ancestors suffered, lengthened the average life-span, created the global village; but also created global warming, multiplied the means by which to despoil the earth and the ocean, and by which to kill each other. Is it true, as some critics say, that a good scientist must ipso facto be amoral? I find this hard to believe, yet it gives me pause when the scientist insists that the ends to which his discoveries or inventions are the means, the uses to which they are put, are of no concern to him, that his sole concern is to get results and publish them regardless of the consequences. I am reminded of the poet who, addressing the scientist, wrote:

"It is the end, my friend,
Toward which your wonders tend,
That make me tremble lest the world should end,
In ways which even you can't comprehend."

A century and a half ago, it was, I think, John Ruskin who, when told by a someone that British Rail had just whisked him from London to Manchester at the rate of 30 miles an hour, enquired, "But what news did you have to bring to the people of Manchester when you got there?" A seemingly simple, mundane question, but one that postulates volumes on the very subject that I have barely touched on here.

As I prepare this script, sitting at my word-processor, a large mantel clock ­ my University of Toronto clock actually ­ stands sedately on the mantel-piece above the fireplace directly behind me. Designed to chime pleasantly the hours and quarter-hours, as it does quite accurately most of the time, it nevertheless has a curious proclivity, every now and then, quite unpredictably and unaccountably, to abandon its predestined routine and strike ten o'clock at a quarter to or quarter past, or strike the half-hour at the quarter, or engage in some other equally erratic and eccentric antic. It doesn't do this very often. Normally it keeps perfect time, in the servile, monotonous routine that timepieces, like all machines, are supposed to do ­ very much like the unvariegated routine of much of one's life, especially if one allows one's career to become one's life. I am always ­ curiously perhaps, even perversely ­ gladdened, cheered to know that even a machine, a member of a species that during my lifetime has pretty much become the master race of our civilization, can at odd times ­ not because it is to all appearances defective ­ behave like a human being when he, or she, is truly being human ­ that is, when he is being, shall we say, a little capricious, acting out of character as a programmed functionary of a programmed society. I am reminded of the character in J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, who says of nasty, old Captain Hook, "He can't be all bad. He has a Thesaurus in his cabin" ­ which prompts me to cite briefly a couple of more personal illustrations of how sometimes a scintilla of humane learning may appear unexpectedly and propitiously on the cutting edge of science.

A few years ago when required to undergo surgery for a complaint that old men often suffer from, lying on the operating tumbrel, desensitized from the waist down, to break the spell of muted foreboding that seemed to have descended, I quoted, to the young anaesthetist who stood vigilantly nearby, the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's Prufrock:

"Let us go then, you and I,
When evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherised upon a table ..."

To my surprise and the great relief of my state of trepidation, he immediately picked up where I had left off and recited accurately the next three or four lines of the poem. I knew I was in good hands. Nor was that all. A few hours later when lying in my bed restfully recovering from my extremity, the pretty nurse who came, as she put it, to clean me up, knowing that I was a superannuated professor of English, proudly informed me that she had completed a degree in English Literature before going into nursing and that Chaucer was her favourite poet. Thereupon I recited the first two lines of The Canterbury Tales, to which she promptly responded by reciting the next two in a Middle English tongue that was probably more accurate than mine. Science and the humanities can unite in a very harmonious and reassuring blend. I am not so certain, however, of the conclusion to be drawn from another experience of mine a few years later, again when lying on an operating table frozen from the waist down, though for a different but no less sobering procedure. (I seem fated to experience the unlikely and unexpected in the most unlikely places and circumstances.) But just as the two surgeons had laid bare my inner woes, someone stuck his head in the operating-room door to announce that two jet-liners had just crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York and that the twin towers were collapsing in ruins. Yes, it was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and for a short time I was abandoned for an obscene demonstration of applied science. My two saviours soon returned, however, and expertly applied their special scientific skills to my inert corpus and I was soon back on my feet feeling better than I had in years.

Of course, humanities departments, too, need to be careful about they do. Sir Charles Snow, himself both a scientist and a humanist, some 40 years ago, in an essay that some of the older people present will have read in an English course, wrote of the dichotomy that he felt was sundering the intellectual universe into what he called the "two cultures" ­ and the scientists were not wholly to blame. The humanities must not turn their backs on the sciences and the vast contribution they have made to human knowledge. More than 200 years ago, the poet Wordsworth anticipated, approvingly, the time when the matter of the natural sciences would be regarded as a proper matter for poetry, when, as he expressed it, "the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid [its] transfiguration ... and welcome [it] as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of Man." (Preface to The Lyrical Ballads.) But the scientist has to be co-operative. The relationship has to be a reciprocal.

In their own bailiwick too, the humanities must be vigilant to guard the jewels in their treasuries; make sure that they are not offering counterfeit instead of genuine specie, or casting fake pearls before real deep-sea divers, even if they are only novices. In the column I quoted from earlier, the one that refers to "the academic asylum" being taken over by the lunatics, the humanities are by no means exculpated. Even departments of English in some American universities are lambasted: for giving students a choice between Shakespeare and courses on "Soap Opera" or "Gangster Film" or "Boxing Fiction." So much for the University of Chicago's "Hundred Great Books" curriculum! The ghosts of Robert The Hutchins and Mortimer Adler must be weeping in the wings!

Unfortunately time does permit me to elaborate further. But before I conclude, I must return, as I said I would, to speak directly, if briefly, to today's graduating class: having now reached a goal you had set for yourselves, some of you will, no doubt, be aiming for further goals in academe, higher rounds on the academic ladder. And in that endeavour I wish you well. But many of you will now be going out into the world to embark on what are called careers, a word that comes from a root that means a road or a racecourse, which implies a journey or a quest, with their connotations of adventure and brave new worlds. But you know what the word usually means today without my telling you. But what I do want to tell is this: don't let your career and your life become wholly one and the same. If you are conscientious, your career will inevitably occupy much of the time that makes up your chronological life span, but don't let it be the master of your fate, the captain of your soul. Some people, I know, find their chosen careers so interesting and challenging, so satisfying and fulfilling, that they have no desire for a life apart from them, but in the end such people will not have truly lived as free human beings. A career and a life, while they can fruitfully subsist in tandem, ought to be separate and distinct entities. But one is not necessarily inimical to the other. Have a career, but also have a life. Chime the hour at half-past now and then, or the quarter-to at quarter-past. You will hear the chimes at midnight soon enough. And, as you now launch out into the treacherous deeps of the world outside the safe haven of the university, if you don't like T. S. Eliot, or can't read Chaucer, then ­ metaphorically speaking, at least ­ keep a thesaurus in your cabin.

Provehito in altum!

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