Saturday, August 29, 2009


What follows is the preliminary text of an address I will deliver to incoming undergraduates during their orientation the week after next. I believe that the most important quality a teacher can have is empathy. As time passes, however, I wonder more and more if I’m able to empathize with teenagers. How would I, at age 18, have received this talk? I’m honestly not sure. Let me know what you think. I borrowed the bit about students today and when they’re going to be retiring from Ken Robinson’s talk at TED, and I’ll say so in the speech itself when I deliver it. GB.

My Address to the Undergraduates
September 2009

Probably you’ve heard people say that a BA means absolutely nothing - that everyone has one. It’s not true. Only about one-in-five Canadians have a BA. In your age group only one person in three is in university. Those numbers are going up but it will be a long time before it reaches one-in-two. It’s also not true that a BA doesn’t count for anything in the job market. The job market is tough for everybody. You wouldn’t believe what it’s like for PhDs. A friend of mine with a PhD just spent the summer working in a bookstore. I kid you not. It’s rather frightening, isn’t it? But the statistical fact - and we have study after study to prove this - is that, on average, the higher your education the higher your lifetime earnings. It isn’t always true, but it’s true on average. A person with a BA will, on average, make more money than a person who has only a college diploma, and that person will tend to make more money than someone just high school.

But what I want to suggest today is that there’s a lot more to it than that. It has to do with the real value of an education in the liberal arts and social sciences, and it’s a value that is constantly under attack and that we have to do more to defend. And I want you to think of it this way. The purpose of an education isn’t just to help you get you a job in three or four years. It’s to help you lead a good life - which means that your education has to serve you over the course of your life, not just in the years immediately after graduation. But the problem is this. Most of you are going to be retiring sometime around 2060. I’ll say that again. Most of you will be retiring sometime around 2060. No one in 1910 could have predicted what the world would be like in 1960, and no one in 2010 can make that prediction about 2060. One thing I can promise you, though: most of the information that you accumulate over the next four years will be forgotten by then. If you take my Canadian history class next year you won’t remember much of it by 2060, and the same goes for most of your other classes. I took a class in medieval literature. It was wonderful. I’d take it again in a second if I could. And I’d need to, because I’ve forgotten every word of it.

So you might ask, then, what’s the point? Some people would say - and you’re going to hear a lot of this sort of thing - that all you learn in university is a lot of useless nonsense that gets you a useless degree. But they’re wrong. We need to stop thinking of an education as merely the accumulation of more facts that will help you get a job. We teach history and philosophy and literature and all of the other subjects not just because they’re rewarding in their own right, but because studying them teaches us how to think, and learning to think well is one of the keys to the good life. This isn’t a new idea: it’s one of the oldest ideas in our tradition: it goes back to the one of the very first institutions of learning in the Western world, the Academy, in ancient Athens, where the motto was “know thyself.”

But it seems like an odd idea, doesn’t it? Teaching someone how to think. Because you’re sitting there saying, “Well, I know how to do that already.” But consider it like this: nearly everyone can move their arms and legs. But that doesn’t mean that they can play professional sports. Playing professional sports takes long and arduous training. It’s the same with thinking. Everyone can do it, but not everyone does it well, and you can learn to be better at it.

If we do our job right - and if you do yours - over the next four years, through the study of the arts and social sciences, you’ll learn to think better and more creatively, to reflect, to ask questions, and to find answers on your own. Because, whatever else happens, those are skills that are needed in the job market, and those are qualities that that will serve you over the course of your life, and it’s one thing we can say for certain that the world will need in 2060, and that the world needs more of today.

Well, you may be asking, how do I do that? How do I become a better thinker? Going to a good school helps - and you’ve done that. There are professors here who can stand alongside any teachers and scholars anywhere in the world. Second, you have to take advantage of what the school has to offer. The main difference between high school and university is this: here, you are joining a community of scholarship. Your professors aren’t just teachers - they’re scholars who are actively engaged in research and publication in their field. You are being invited to join that community, and that means your education is for the most part self-directed. We try to point our students in the right direction - whether or not they go there is up to them. And that means that you’re going to have to work hard, and that means putting in a lot of time.

But, fortunately, because you’re young people, time is something you have a lot of. Time is the greatest asset you possess; it is also the one asset you have less of with every passing minute. And so let me leave you today by encouraging you to use your time here as well as you possibly can.

Thank You.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Last summer, an atheist organization put some rather silly signs on buses, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as if riders were going to get off at the next stop and torch the nearest cathedral. As I’ll argue in the near future, it isn’t nonbelievers that the faithful need fret about, but the damage being done to religion by some among the faithful themselves. On my way to work — depending on which way I go — I pass probably a dozen or more church signs day after day, and it strikes me that, in many cases, nobody is working harder to keep people from churches than the churches themselves. Does the local corner parish really think that “Exercise your heart: walk with God!” emblazoned on an ugly roadside rental sign is going to get me through the door this Sunday?

Over the course of the summer, I’ve made note of a few such signs. These range from the inane and the unfunny (“Hot outside? We’re prayer-conditioned!”), to depressingly asinine (“if you’re going in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns”); and, perhaps most commonly, the straightforwardly menancing: (“Pray now or Pay later”.) My favourite in the latter category is this one: “Afraid of burning? Ask Jesus for Son block.” Nothing like the threat of torture to make people see things your way.

From time to time, I admit, I’ve noticed church signs that struck me as vaguely clever. Some years back, a local adult video store put up a sign that read, “membership has its privileges.” The adjacent church countered with, “membership here has its privileges, too.” Well done. Then again, this was the Church of England, which holds that pretty much everybody is saved without effort, so it’s not clear what those privileges are. (The comedian Eddie Izzard has observed that a Church of England inquisition would give heretics a choice between “cake or death”, and then be surprised that there was “such a run on cake.”)

In a summer of looking, I found signs that were coy, some that were smug, some that were straightforwardly hateful, but never once did I see one that was profound. And why not? With one of the great works of English literature the King James Bibleand millennia of theological thought before them, surely they can do better than something that sounds like it was written by the runner-up for a job at a greeting card company. The threatening ones, at least, had the virtue of sincerity, and I’ll take “Pray now or pay later” over “Rainbows are God painting" any day.

Taken together, the manner in which so many churches sell themselves these days suggests something slightly pathetic and out-of-touch, like those television and movie-trailer ads that use the latest slang to get teens to stop using drugs. (In my day, they told us that staying clean was “rad” and “totally awesome”, and while I never did drugs I was tempted to start, just to hit back at whatever boneheads thought it was a good idea to condescend to me and my friends.)

One needn’t accept the metaphysical assumptions upon which churches are based to recognize their importance as social institutions, making contributions to the conversation about how we ought to lead our lives. It is therefore painful to see so many of them reduced to hawking their wares like the most undignified used car salesman. There is the rule about books and covers, of course, but a lack of imagination and whiff of desperation in exteriors seldom bodes well for the interior contents.

I could go on and on. Just last week I saw, “Christians never meet for the last time” - in my books, at least, that's not a selling point if it includes people who think up slogans like that. Same for, “prayer is the key to Heaven’s door”, since keys can lock doors, too. And just this morning I found a blog — defunct now, sadly — that catalogued crummy church signs. My favourite is: “Heaven is not Burger King. You can’t have it your way.”

Damn. And here I was hoping for extra pickles upon arrival.