Delivered at the UWA Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Graduation Ceremony, 12th March 2007
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate, distinguished guests, members of staff, graduates and their guests.
At some point during my arts degree I came across a variation of a Greek proverb that reads “the fox may know many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing and it is enough”. We are often reminded that Western Australia has its share of foxes within its institutions – those who, proclaiming the benefits of experience or the virtues of economic commonsense – seek to put inherently contested issues beyond debate and uncritically shape the direction of public policy. Some wear panama hats – others more conventional attire.
I am pleased to stand before you tonight as a graduate of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The staff and my fellow students of this Faculty have taught me many things, not least how to write, research and reference the discussion of ideas in a disciplined but open-minded community of scholars. Important though these lessons are to the very endeavour of seeking wisdom, it is for the imparting to us of one big thing that my fellow graduates and I will always be grateful.
To borrow the phrase of my first year history lecturer, Professor Richard Bosworth, an education in the liberal arts, has taught me the necessity for “criticism, criticism and yet more criticism” – not ill- founded cynicism or smart alecry but a genuine commitment to developing personal values and ideas based on reasoned evidence. There is much to be feared from those who propound final solutions to complex problems and much to be gained by ‘knowing thyself’ in the truest sense of that phrase – exposing oneself to the humbling experience of casting thoughts into the broadest possible community of ideas, with full knowledge that personal and collective wisdom may be gained only through the demonstration of one’s errors. In short this university has instilled in me a desire to praise, nurture and defend the powerful legacy of the enlightenment – the notion that it is by commitment to a credo of rationality (aspired to, if not always attained), that we can come closest to constructing a paradise on earth.
Within the walls of this university there are numerous collectives and individuals who possess a passion for channeling the capabilities of the human mind to possibilities for public good. In such an environment it is perhaps silly to play favorites, but, in my experience, this faculty remains the home of enlightenment thought. There is no better place to discuss the complexities of group identities, the role of religious faith or the spiritual in political discourse or the power of the neo-liberal worldview. There is no better place to enjoy the hard won fruits of rational discourse while remaining conscious of the limits of our own minds, the possibility of being caught out by our own flaws.
In two fields of thought, in particular, this faculty and university have influenced my outlook on the world. Firstly, after my time here I’ve come to look critically upon exclusionary representations of diverse groups. For example, dishonest variants of nationalism that pretend that values attach only to membership of a state or connection to soil must surely be rejected if we believe that scholarly and ethical insights are offered by those studying in Berlin, New York, Tokyo or Port Morseby. We can’t allow our complexity to be reduced by the historically recent yet clearly destructive creed of nationalism. I’m proud that UWA’s goal is to attain international excellence, rather than achievement on any artificially smaller scale.
Secondly, my time spent studying at UWA and getting involved in our vibrant student culture, in particular the advocacy and activism of the Guild of Undergraduates, has infused me with a desire to see the private and public realms work together in an appropriate and cooperative manner. In an age when seemingly everything can be marketised and return a profit, real fears must be held for the continuance of the civic public realm. The gold rush of the 19th century gave this state public icons such as His Majesty’s theatre. It is appropriate to ask: what are the civic – the public rather than personal benefits - of the current economic boom?
Fortunately, despite broader trends that counter its values UWA remains a truly public, truly civic home. Many members of this class of graduates participated in the debates of 2004 surrounding the increase in HECS and the introduction of full fee paying places at this university. Despite differences of opinion, issues were discussed in a fair and even scholarly manner. There was an awareness that thought and reflection inform and discipline actions both public and private. The world of the politically active is little without the world of the scholar.
Perhaps the university sector will be the last remaining civic realm as the rules and rationales of the market sweep all before it. We can only hope not. For those who can’t resist the urge to financially quantify benefit, a report released in 2000 estimated that by 2010 for every dollar government puts into higher education, it will receive more than $2 in return. Economically and socially the benefit of a liberal education is not merely private – it is civic and unashamedly public. This university’s record of history graduates becoming Australian Ambassadors to China is just one of many examples of the public benefits of a higher education sector too often wrongly portrayed as the captive of vested interests. This group of graduates will go forward living out the virtues of a liberal education, directing the efforts of business and other sectors to nurturing the civic realm – confident but questioning of all, including those who seek to reduce the public sphere to little more than a handmaiden for profit.
To conclude, I ask for public indulgence for some private thanks. My mother Rosalie, my brother Simon and my partner Susie, have inspired in me not simply a love of learning but an awareness of the need to use knowledge to advance justice. They all know one big thing.
On behalf of the graduates of this faculty I would like to thank the University of Western Australia for gifts both big and small that we now return to the wider world.