Everything Old is New Again

I’ve been house-sitting for about 6 years, and for most of that time those belongings that don’t fit in my car as I move between houses have been stored in a unit in Aspley. Whenever I need something I go rummaging in the bags and boxes, and when I decide there are books, or clothes or whatever that I won’t be needing for a while, I stuff them back into the storage unit.

As a result, it has become pretty messy, and while I wait for my thesis to come back from my son the proof reader I have nothing better to do (apart from developing a new clown act) than clear out a few bags and boxes, sort through them and generally tidy up.  So far I’ve managed to reduce the number of bags from around 20 to 6, and the filing boxes from 5 to 3.  And I still haven’t thrown out all my thesis research files…

So! It’s been quite fun, if hot and sweaty work. I’ve rediscovered old friends, like all the universal adaptors that I had to buy every time I travelled abroad because I couldn’t find the ones from the last trip. I found the loan documents for the car, and discovered I’ve still 3 years to go… Sad face. 🙁

The Great Court, University of Queensland

But I also found my Valedictorian Speech from when I graduated from UQ back in 2005. I quite enjoyed reading it again, so I thought I’d share.

“Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate and academic staff, distinguished guests, fellow graduates, ladies and gentlemen.  Good afternoon and thank you for this opportunity to address you.

“How to begin?  A moment of uncertainty.  Where do we go from here?  More uncertainty.  Did we do as well as we could have?  Did we do the right degree?  Should we come back for more?  Should I stop asking questions now?

“There is no straight answer to any of these questions, any more than there is to the question we have all been asked during the past years of study: “What are you going to do with your degree?” Did you ever hear such a daft question?

“Let’s cut to the chase here, and agree for the moment that by ‘degree’, we’re not referring to the piece of paper or the letters after the name. We’re really referring to the process of learning, arguing, realising, procrastinating, sleeping through and breaking through which we have all shared in some measure over the past few years.

“When I left school, well before most of my fellow students were a glint in their grand-parents’ eyes, it was one of my ambitions to become a university student, largely because I was enraptured with the Doctor in the House movies, and the thought of encountering students like the hesitant but heroic Simon Sparrow, aka Dirk Bogarde (and if you never saw him in his young days, just think Johnny Depp times 10).

“I had no thought of actually graduating; I just thought it would be grand to be a student.  That it took me 40 years to take the plunge is merely an indication that I am, in many ways, a slow learner.  Not that the time was wasted – I firmly believe that there are times in our lives when it is right and appropriate for certain actions, when we are ready to make the most of the experience we are being offered.  And my time to gain an arts degree happens to coincide with yours.

“What does it mean to hold the piece of paper, to have the right to put the letters after our names?  It does not guarantee us jobs.  Whereas years ago employers reserved the right to induct new employees into their work systems, nowadays they generally expect to engage people who already know how their filing system works, how to manipulate the software package they just had personalised to their own requirements, or how to create proposals or designs which resonate with their own corporate style.

“Even the most practical double degree doesn’t guarantee that you can walk into a school, an office or an orchestra and competently ‘fly solo’ without having to learn skills you did not acquire as part of your degree.

“So, what do we say when our friends and relatives ask us what we intend to do with an arts degree?  For the past five years, I have been answering that question by saying “well I don’t expect it to get me a job at my age. But I do expect to use it in everything I do.”  At first it was a bit of a cliché.  I didn’t really know how I was going to use it.  But within six months it was so true I could hardly contain my excitement.

“I found myself putting into practice immediately whatever I was learning about.  Every philosophy lecture revealed some new aspect of the human condition which I would eagerly pass on to the (albeit stunned) acting students, every history lecture took me to places which connected in both tangible and intangible ways with my work, my understanding of myself, the societies I grew up in, travelled, lived and worked in.  I was able to consciously, if uncertainly, integrate my studies into my personal process of development.

“Whether conscious or not, that is exactly what we have all been doing for the past three, four or however long it took years:  integrating new found understandings into ourselves, developing our sense of ourselves as articulate human beings with ideas and opinions of our own, and with respect for the opinion of others – well, most others:  because to quote Salman Rushdie, arts degrees “are all about Preparation.  They prepare us for a lifetime of preparation”*.

“What they are not about is certainty.  Certainty is the end of preparation. Certainty stands still, does not move or grow, it is satisfying only until challenged by someone else’s certainty.  Certainty is the end of adventure, the end of discovery, the end of life as we know it, Jim.  Because the only certainty in life is death.

“Our hard won arts degrees have prepared us for a life of uncertainty: and hopefully these sometimes painful, sometimes joyful years have prepared us to be comfortable with uncertainty, which is what David Mamet proposes good acting involves. Of course, the only difference between acting which embraces uncertainty, and life is – well, there’s a doctorate in that…

“Uncertainty has been the one constant ever since we walked into our first tutorial, and asked the first question – which was usually “will I get a good mark if I say that?” only to be greeted by either a blank stare, or “how should I know?” from the tutor.

“Questions, leading to answers which are more questions.  An abundance of uncertainty.  We may have hated it, tolerated it, accepted it temporarily or embraced it wholeheartedly.  I do so hope you have embraced it, that you recognise what a gift it is, to be able to deal with uncertainty, to accept it and to seek it out.

“This degree represents all the hard work we did in order to be granted it.  Even the brightest student knows that consistently good results don’t happen without hard work.  Michaelangelo once said – apparently – that “if you knew how much hard work went into it, you wouldn’t call it ‘genius'”.

“However, no amount of hard work guarantees success.  There are no guarantees.  If there were, life would be very tedious.  Instead, we’ve been given, at this institutions and at universities all over the world which still teach the humanities, under conditions of diminishing funding and rising costs, we’ve been given the opportunity to learn about life, about each other, about the ways in which human beings express their humanity, the wonderful and terrible things we are capable of doing to each other; we’ve learnt to challenge our own, and other people’s assumptions, and we’ve learnt to ask questions.

“This enables us to go out into the world with some sense of what is possible.  Not what is certain, not what should be, not what is safe and comfortable. With the support of our community, our families, our lecturers and tutors, and each other, we have earned the right to be creatively uncertain.  We can enjoy full, satisfying and productive lives in whatever profession or occupation we choose to undertake, as long as we continue to challenge certainty wherever we find it.

“Congratulations, fellow students.  It’s been a bumpy ride, and worth every bruise.  Have a fantastic, peaceful, healthy and uncertain life.

“Thank you.”

* Salman Rushdie, graduation address to Bard College, May 25th, 1996.