Remarks to Convocation
July 1, 2011
Science/Medical Science Baccalaureates, University of Western Ontario, June 16, 2011.
David Naylor President, University of Toronto (Honorary Graduate).
President Chakma, Colleagues in the Platform Party, and, most importantly, graduands along with all your family members, friends and fans here assembled:
First of all, to each member of the graduating class, I want to extend my warmest personal congratulations. I am extremely humbled to be sharing this occasion with today’s graduates and their families and friends. It is almost exactly 25 years since I completed my post-graduate training in the great academic hospitals in this city, and I am deeply grateful to the President and the Senate for remembering a wayward son of Western today.
I probably do not need to tell the graduates that Western is a very special institution. It has a tradition of excellence in research and education, and a superb focus on the student experience. Members of today’s class are joining thousands of Western graduates who have gone out and made an impact in every imaginable walk of life and every corner of the globe.Each of you is now part of this living legacy. And your accomplishments will in turn enrich that legacy for the generations of Western students who will follow you here.
Now, according to time-honoured practice, I am supposed to use the next few minutes to offer the graduating class some life- changing advice. This is not only an impossible task. It may also be futile.
There is every reason to believe that, after a few years, no one will recall any of the speeches from their graduation day. I am a case in point. All I can remember about my graduation is that my sister criticized my beautiful powder blue neck-tie. In hindsight, she was right. But it was the Seventies, after all, and people wore pastel colours and lot of really ugly clothes back then!
Coming back to life-changing advice, I do have something of an advantage today. Given my line of work, I have heard at least 150 different convocation speeches in the last dozen years. And I have therefore heard some speakers take brilliant evasive action when confronting the conundrum of advising a graduating class.
For example, one of my colleagues recently argued that, since the purpose of higher education is to foster curiosity, he had no business offering advice. Instead, he encouraged the graduates to keep learning and expressed confidence that they would figure everything out themselves. A pretty good dodge, I think…
Another one pointed to the proud families in the audience, and suggested to the graduates that this was a very good day for them to ask their parents for money!
Today, I am going to use a different evasive strategy. I am going to explain why I envy you.
It’s not about aging. It’s true that being young is fabulous. Everything works. Nothing sags or droops. And all of you have the resilience of rubber balls. But no, that’s not what makes me envious of you.
I envy you the next thirty or forty years of your lives, because this is such a fascinating and challenging time in human history. When I entered University in 1972, Atari had just marketed the first video-game – it was, unfortunately, called Pong. The first cell phone wasn’t even invented until 1979. Personal computers did not start to gain any serious following until the mid-1980s. And there was essentially no internet and no world-wide web.
Today, your generation – the digital generation – has more data at its fingertips in a few seconds than most of us could ever have imagined accessing in a lifetime. And yes, data do not equate to information, information is not the same as knowledge, and it is a long journey from knowledge to wisdom. You, however, have a serious head start.
When I entered University in 1972, the Cold War between the US and the USSR dominated our understanding of global affairs. That year’s Summit Series between Canada and the USSR wasn’t just about hockey supremacy. It was a clash of ideologies…even worse than the recent Stanley Cup Final between Vancouver and Boston!
Today, the Soviet bloc has long since dissolved. Globalist Hans Rosling has predicted that by 2048, China and India will both match countries such as Canada in per capita income. Many of you will live and work in several different countries over the course of your lives. And maybe, just maybe, your world will be a more peaceful place as more and more nations emerge into prosperity, influence, and cooperation – replacing the realpolitik of a handful of great powers invested in their own supremacy.
Again, when I was in your shoes, the first economic shock from higher oil prices had hit the industrialized world, creating years of stagnation and inflation. No one imagined that the oil might actually run out. Conservation biology was gaining momentum, but the broader environmental movement was in its infancy.
We have left you a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. But your generation and the next will stabilize this hot and crowded planet, put alternative forms of energy into routine use, and ultimately grow beyond our current petrochemical addiction.
My generation first went to the moon in 1969. There were several moon missions during my years as an undergraduate and medical student. The first Star Wars movie appeared in 1977, heralding an era of inter-galactic travel and interaction with alien life-forms. But, while the movies kept coming, we all fell back to earth.
Your generation will be the one that returns to space, that begins exploring other planets in this solar system. You may even live to see the discovery of convincing signs of life in distant galaxies.
Turning last to a topic close to the hearts of many of today’s graduates…In the world of biological science, gene splicing was invented in 1973, but sequencing the genome was inconceivable. The potential of stem cells was only dimly understood. When then US President Richard Nixon committed large sums of public money to a huge War on Cancer in the 1970s, science simply wasn’t up to the job.
Your generation will use tissue engineering and stem cell technology to grow personalized spare parts. Allogenic organ transplants, and artificial hips and knees will be a thing of the past. And it is also entirely possible that some of you will make major contributions to curing one or more forms of cancer.
I could go on, but my message is simple. Yes, it is a challenging and uncertain time, but it is also a period of huge promise that will offer you wonderful opportunities for great life adventures.
Now, to finish up, I will conform to expectations. I will offer four eminently forgettable pieces of advice.
First, and this is very important: Never eat anything bigger than your head! Actually, I used to say that to my children when they were small. And it’s still good advice…
Second, keep learning and never stop. Your muscles may shrink, and your waistline may grow, but an active brain will keep you young.
Third, don’t look back too often. The happiest and most successful people are those who focus on the task at hand and savour the moment.
On the other hand, please do look forward once in a while. In the words of T.E. Lawrence, “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous [people], for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.”
Fourth and finally, stay optimistic. There will be bumps in the road, but life has a remarkable way of working out.
Here’s my evidence. A long time ago, on a June day like this one, I returned home from a hard day of summer employment at the Kirsch curtain rod factory in Woodstock, Ontario. I rushed to examine the mail, and was bitterly disappointed to find a rejection notice from Western’s MD program. It was my first rejection notice but assuredly not the last. In fact, the only MD program that accepted me was from some place down the road in a city called Toronto. Today, thirty-seven years later, I finally got a doctorate from your fine university!
You, fellow graduates, not only have your degrees, but you have the most precious gift of all: the future. I obviously don’t know exactly how the next forty years will unfold for each of you. But this much I do know with certainty. The best is yet to come.
Again thank you for letting me share your special day.