Address to graduands - November 4, 2011
9 November 2011
Pro-Chancellor Brennan, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Armstrong, Dean of Education and Social Work Professor Tierney, Dean of Science Professor Hambley, distinguished guests, graduates of the University of Sydney, friends and family.
Firstly, let me congratulate each and every one of the graduates on the personal discipline, study and commitment that have brought you to this proud day, both for you and your family and friends.
It is a delight to be here in my university, invited as a science graduate and an educator to speak to this graduation assembly from the faculties of Science and of Education and Social Work. I feel a great honour to have been asked to speak today, and I thank the Vice-Chancellor and the deans for the opportunity given to me. I do feel a high level of ownership and connection to this University which played an enormous role in my formation: I studied here, made friends here, played rugby here and most importantly met my wife here. In recent years I have had the pleasure of forging a link between the faculty of Education and Social Work and Shore School as we have sponsored scholarships to recognise and support young educational undergraduates.
I wish to share with the graduates today some simple advice on matters that I have found to be profoundly helpful in my life. I recognise that each of you has a story and there is a wide range of life experience amongst you but I believe that there common themes in our lives.
You are intellectually well educated, but intellectual capacity is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom is to take what we know, filter it through the virtues of our character and apply it to the way we live with others, and what we think of ourselves.
I commend to your reading Henry David Thoreau's Walden, a 19th century masterpiece. From it I quote two depressing thoughts from a less gender inclusive period of language use:
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"
"Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."
Right now I wish to state: it need not be thus and I suggest four antidotes. They are deep relationships in which you focus on your love for others; meaningful work; the continuing life of the mind; the pursuit of the virtues of gratitude, humility and generosity. All of these are things we can take responsibility for, and not be captive to externals and all of them take us out of ourselves, for self-absorption is the enemy of contentment.
The rise of the individual in our culture has brought many benefits in life, but I have found that it is my connection with and my love for other people that have brought the greatest joys to my life: my wife and family, my friends; the school community I serve. When I focus on committing myself to them in service and love the rewards are enormous. When I pursue my own interests then I am stunted and sold short. Commit yourselves to deep relationship and to living in the context of community.
I love my work; I started post PhD as a research scientist. I had some talent, but really it was not me. To my father's open disappointment I became a teacher. In my first lesson over 25 years ago I had prepared thoroughly a lesson on polynomial division - I can see the excitement on your faces. After 10 minutes I asked were there any questions. A hand shot up and I puffed up with pride that a curious learner had been captivated. Unfortunately the question was "when is your leg going to stop shaking?". As the room collapsed into hysterical laughter I knew I wanted to spend my life working with those gloriously entertaining young people we call teenagers. To be fulfilled in work is to find joy - there could be nothing more depressing than working at something for no intrinsic reward. Search for that work that grows you as a person, and do not stop looking, for otherwise you are condemned to drudgery.
Today does not mark the end of your education, it is simply a significant marker of your progress. I applaud the achievements you have but urge you now to look to those about to come. Pursuit of reading, engagement with the arts; further study; intelligent discussion and engagement with the world are renewing, enriching and invigorating. Seize professional development opportunities as they come and welcome those chances to step right outside your comfort zone - they are major times of growth. Live with your minds by enlivening your minds.
But I venture that underpinning the contented life, the fulfilled person are three virtues. They are not the only virtues, but they are, in my view foundational. They could also be described as mindsets. Humility, gratitude and generosity. If they are authentically ours they guard us against attitudes that will wilt our personalities and constrict our hearts. They are also essential qualities for effective leaders, and most of you graduating today are already or will be leaders.
Humility is not modesty. To be humble is not to deny one's talents, gifts and influence but to exercise them for the good of others, and not for praise, adulation or reward. It is a transformational virtue because it allows you to focus on the real issue at work, in the community, at home. You can rise above self-interest, a challenge so many cannot meet.
Gratitude is a necessary attribute to feeling good about life. Thanking others, crediting colleagues and a general approach of "glad to be alive" helps to focus on the positive. It also guards against those engines of shallow consumerism: envy and greed.
And finally generosity. In a world where we are urged to put ourselves first it can be a simply wonderful thing to live and give with an open hand and open heart. As the ancient writer of the Book of Proverbs recorded 3000 years ago: "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act" our time, our energy, our resources to the people, work and causes in our lives. Tight hands reflect tight hearts!
People to love, work to fulfill, a growing life of the mind and characters of virtue. I commend these four things to you as this great University recognises your study and achievements on this day full of promise.