Issue 7, May 2008 | Michael Ondaatje

Valedictory Address

Delivered at the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Graduation Ceremony April 2008

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate, distinguished guests, members of staff, graduates and their guests.

I am honoured to stand before you this evening as a graduate of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. For more than a decade now, I have been a "student" at this university. Between 1996 and 1999 I was an undergraduate - a regular patron of the tavern, recreational socialist and passionate, if "amateurish", coffee shop debater. Simple pleasures were certainly indulged during these years - enduring friendships were formed, personal relationships developed and a spirit of community seemed to follow you everywhere - from the uni parties you went to on the weekend to the uni classrooms you sat in throughout the week. A spirit of community, a cultural vibrancy, both co-existing alongside an inevitable sense of individual purpose - a desire to get the best out of yourself academically, a hunger to be engaged and challenged intellectually.

I'd like to think it is this hunger - to invoke UWA's motto, the hunger to "seek wisdom" - that explains why we're sitting here this evening, decked out in our trendy academic attire. But even if we have additional motivations for completing our degrees - and we surely do - I'd like to think that all of us, somewhere along the way, have had "that teacher" or "those teachers" who have pricked our curiosity, stimulated us to read more, inspired us to follow a particular path. Of course, intellectual curiosity and drive are not simply "in us"; we are not "born" with either. In my view, they take hold - and sometimes take over - when you're exposed, for the first time, to that extraordinary teacher. The teacher who eschews dogma of any kind and who creates a learning environment in which you feel able to take chances with your thinking. The teacher whose lectures leave questions in your mind long after the allotted hour for asking them is over. The teacher whose love of subject makes you want to make it your own.

My teachers at this university have taught me much more than the practical skills required to research and write a good essay. They have also instilled in me important "life skills"- a dedication to choosing my beliefs and principles through the lens of rational thought; an awareness of the intersection of local, national and international dynamics in our world; and a view of the arts as a vehicle for democratic exchange which emphasises complexity and enlivens humanity. In short, my teachers have inspired in me the conviction that the Enlightenment continues to represent humanity's best hope, and that Universities generally and Arts Faculties especially, remain the primary bearers of its powerful, if contested, legacy.

Some of you will no doubt disagree with this assessment. You might even say to your friends after the ceremony tonight: "that Ondaatje guy's living on another planet, he's got it all wrong." I would certainly hope so. We in Arts Faculties are, and must continue to be, a diverse bunch. A large community of scholars engaging with debates which have left indelible imprints on history is bound to trigger furious discussion and end in conflicting opinions. But would we really have it any other way? One of the most valuable lessons I have learned during my time as an Arts student at UWA is that a good dose of scepticism is absolutely essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy. Scepticism, especially, of ideologues of the right and the left who claim to have all the answers, who claim to have a monopoly on "truth." Those neoliberals, for example, who seek conformity of thought through a process of "marketisation." And those warriors of the "cultural left," who, whilst professing their commitment to "diversity", are intolerant of any diversity that conflicts with theirs. Confronted with the "answers" and "the truth" of the pundits and politicians, we of the Arts, trained as we are, will go on asking questions - doubting, debating, criticising - attuned to the foolishness and the fraudulence that so often accompanies "certainty".

Tonight we may be leaving UWA but I seriously doubt whether UWA will be leaving us. We are of course entering the next phase of our lives - work and employment - but we are doing so well prepared, with the intellectual grounding and yes, the practical skills, that we have been taught, in this place. The skills of researching, writing, communication, and teamwork will almost certainly enable each of us to make a living. As the child of Sri Lankan immigrants who came to this country in search of greater opportunity, I would be the last person to sneer at those who would emphasise the vocational aspects of their degrees. But I would also say this: whereas these skills might help us make a living, the intellectual grounding we have received at UWA will enable us to make a life. 

Two years ago, on this stage, my first lecturer at university, Professor Richard Bosworth, spoke of the power and meaning of the intellectual dimension of university life. Bosworth's words, in my view, go to the very heart of what we do and who we are. This is what he said:

Tonight you may be wearing a gown and you may boast a degree. My job is to congratulate you on your achievement which is of course a great one. But now the bad news. You can celebrate tonight but you haven't finished with what you have begun. UWA Arts will have failed you if, in five years, ten years, twenty years, fifty years, wherever you are, whatever you do, whatever you have forged, whatever employment you pursue, you don't stir in your sleep and reach out for a book, an idea, a phrase, a musical expression, an artistic image, that first irritated you as an undergraduate and left you feeling pleasingly incomplete. UWA Arts will have failed if you haven't been corrupted by philosophy, history, literature, music, art, film and the rest for ever. They should have rendered you humble, they should have rendered you brave. They should have left you seeking.

On behalf of the graduates of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences I would like to thank "those teachers" who have left us seeking.

Michael L. Ondaatje is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Newcastle.