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
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.