Universities should focus on people

(May 18, 2017)

We are entering the season of graduations and commencements, where speakers will applaud the graduates and exhort them to work hard to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.

No one will mention that these students are graduating into a future made difficult, if not impossible, by the lifestyle choices of their parents and grandparents. Nor will they be told they are unlikely to enjoy either the environmental or economic benefits of their elders, whose enterprises have cut down or polluted what they didn’t use up or destroy.

Those would be facts, not the usual flannel that characterizes the commencement address people expect to hear.

Avoiding the subject does not change the situation, however.

Ninety years ago, Raymond Fosdick compiled a book of commencement addresses he had been asked to give: The Old Savage in the New Civilization. His point was simple: humanity’s technological abilities had developed far faster than its moral capacity. We are using dangerous new tools the same way our ancestors used clubs, thousands of years ago, and risk self-destruction.

The key to moral development, he said, was education. New moral and ethical abilities are needed throughout society to manage the amazing possibilities reflected in the new civilization we have created. We must deliberately educate citizens to think in new ways, with a kind of wisdom and maturity that was lacking in the society that self-destructed during the Great War of 1914-1918 and which was threatening to do so again.

In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have sounded like an old, unwelcome crow. Two years later, however, as the stock market crash of 1929 led into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism that preceded the Second World War, his audience likely changed their minds about him and his speech.

At the risk of sounding like an old crow myself, our post-secondary institutions here in Manitoba have failed their graduates and the society in which we live. They have not focused on educating citizens to make better choices than their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they have focused on churning out replacement parts for the machine civilization, whose further development threatens the existence of global society and much of life on Earth.

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Dreams hard to come by these days

(November 15, 2016)

To quote one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats: “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.”

It has been a tumultuous week for many, not just those people (mainly young) who still march in the streets of American cities proclaiming “not my president.” I have heard from many friends, from delegates at 22nd Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 22) in Marrakesh, Morocco; to people in Kenya; to former students in the Canadian Forces; and students at the universities here in Winnipeg. I have been disturbed by what they have told me about their anxieties and fears.

The last time I experienced something like this was after the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell in 2001. At least among younger people, 11/9 has awakened feelings similar to 9/11.

It’s not so much about losing the election — after all, nearly half of the American electorate didn’t vote and the rest of us never had the option. Nor is it even about the attitudes of the winner — one American friend observed it was hardly the first time a white male racist had been elected president.

It’s about something deeper and more upsetting. The people in the streets are worried because they feel they have lost their future, their dreams, their hopes of having a better tomorrow than the one sitting on the doorstep.

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Remembrance Day 2016

Listening to great-grandmother's stories

Listening to great-grandmother’s stories

Delivered at Minto Armoury, Winnipeg, on 11 November 2016

There was no reason for the guns to fall silent on this day in 1916. The Battle of the Somme was in its final phases, with the battle for Ancre Heights just ending and the battle for Ancre just beginning.

That fall, the First Canadian Division had worn the famous red patch for the first time, making a name for themselves as assault troops at Courcellette that they would carry through the Somme and sear forever into the memory of friends and foes alike with their assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Today it is easier to think about those ghostly figures, wreathed in gas, fog and smoke clambering out of the trenches on old video clips, because they are all gone. Their words and images, the rusted tools of trench warfare preserved in museum collections, speak to us in ways that we can shape and control. We remember them in the way that we want, without fear of contradiction.

It is harder to create the same mythology about the Second World War or Korea, because there are still some among us who were there.

Whether it is Cyprus, Golan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, however — from Kapyong to Medak, to the Panjwaii and Kandahar – there is a long list of places where Canadians fought because they accepted the call to serve. Each one needs its own stories to be told in ways that give voice to those who were there, not merely carving their names and battle honours onto a monument to enshrine what the next generation wants to remember.

Today we remember those who died in battle, those whose lives were forever scarred by the horrors of war and have passed on, and we honour their sacrifice.

But memorials, like funerals, are never for the dead. They are for those who are left behind, for those who must rise to greet the dawn of a new morning, regardless of darkness in which it begins.

Most importantly, therefore, we are here together today to honour the living, to listen to their stories as they remember them, however difficult it is for them to tell us and however hard it is for us to hear what they have to say.

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