Graduation address given by Dr Dugald McLellan

Dr Dugald McLellan gave the following occasional address at the University of Sydney Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 9 April 2010.

Dr McLellan is a scholar of the Italian Renaissance, art historian, Senior Tutor of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney 1999-2010 and recipient of the title of Honorary Fellow of the University of Sydney.

The photo below of Dr McLellan giving the occasional address is copyright, Memento Photography:

Dr Dugald McLellan

Graduation address

I am very honoured indeed to receive this most prestigious award from the University of Sydney. I also accept it as a more general acknowledgement by the Senate of the positive and active contribution of the residential colleges to the life of the wider university and community.

The history of the colleges of this University is only a couple of years younger than that of the mother institution itself, and the nature of the colleges created then was very much a part of the intellectual and educational environment that made them both what they are. Inevitably the relationship between the two has from time to time been spirited, and the role of the colleges within the university has waxed and waned.

In the current atmosphere of change the colleges have a strong sense of their responsibilities as privileged institutions within the university. As evidence of this sense of responsibility let me cite some recent data from my own college, St Paul’s – and I do this not out of a sense of triumphalism but because it needs to be said. In the last ten years the college has produced five Rhodes Scholars, in the same period, five of the Presidents of the University of Sydney Union, the highest elected student office, have been residents of St Paul’s; all of the members of the victorious Sydney University debating team at the international competition in Turkey were Paul’s students; and, in the broader community, both the Australian of the Year and the Young New South Welshman of the Year were former residents. I presume the other colleges have similar records.

Let me say how delighted I am that Maestro David Drury, Director of Music at St Paul’s, is playing the organ on this splendid occasion.

I would like to add my congratulations to those graduating and taking out higher degrees today. You are indeed fortunate to have taken out degrees in the Arts Faculty, because a seriously-engaged arts degree, of all university degrees, prepares you most completely for life. You have been taught the principles and the means of assessing those principles of your various humanist disciplines. And you have absorbed the language and processes of critical debate to test hypotheses, develop your own arguments and refine your own understanding. These skills and disciplines will equip you supremely both for a constantly changing work place which is increasingly dependent on an adaptable workforce, and for the more general challenges of life in a no less volatile world, as a member of a whole range of social units – family, marriage partnership, workplace, sporting club, local community, city, nation and beyond. In exploring the importance of these skills in post-university life I want to concentrate on the role of conversation.

In his BBC radio talks on “Conversation”, now published in book format, the social historian Theodore Zeldin declares that “the 21st century needs a new ambition – to develop not talk but conversation”. The sort of conversation he is interested in is “one you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person”. It is therefore an active, transformative conversation that he has in mind.

Ever since humans learned to talk there has been conversation of some sort. With the invention of writing as a means of ordering society there came a need to control spoken interchanges between people. Conversation took on new meaning – in contrast to the written word its ephemeral nature was now emphasised but more importantly its potential for subversion became even more evident. By prescribing how and when verbal exchanges might be made and by whom, and what they might contain, sub-groups and groups within society were able to assert their own identity and exercise their own power. Rules were set up to control behaviour from within and to present a closed community from without.

The ancient Greeks’ most formal conversational display was the symposium, which combined eating with a separate drinking session during which the Dionysian spirit was released to encourage inspired conversation. Cicero defined convivium (feast together), the Roman equivalent of symposium (drink together), as “sitting down to dinner with friends because they share one’s life” though his writings on the conversations he enjoyed on those occasions provided the rules of practice for subsequent generations. In the Mediaeval period the monastic tradition encouraged dialogue with God – in one order when dialogue did take place the monks were discouraged from offering their own opinion, instead they were recommended “to repeat those of the saints”.

In Renaissance Italy the first of many manuals on how to conduct conversation were published – book publishing enabled the dissemination of rules for the conduct of verbal exchange and changed the way people conversed. Conversation became controlled by strict laws, some of which remain valid today: “Every one should listen and speak in turn”, “being overconfident and peremptory . . . does much unfit men for conversation”; “beware of speaking more than comes your share” and so on. But those limiting the topics for discussion to “indifferent matters” and encouraging the development of elaborate rituals of flattery and politeness, and the practice of euphemism and circumlocution, have no place in our more robust, informal, egalitarian and egocentric world.

The conversation manuals of more leisurely times, written for the participants, were replaced in the 20th century by the works of sociolinguists, social historians. psychologists analyzing the conversational speech and behaviour patterns of participants. That does not mean that there are no longer any rules or norms for the conduct of conversation. It does however mean that the time may well be ripe to join Theodore Zeldin’s campaign for a New Conversation. It is surely no coincidence that significant changes in the rules of conversation took place after revolutions in communication technology. The digital revolution which began in the second half of the 20th century has similarly transformed the way we communicate with each other. Perhaps the new means of communication should be embraced within the New Conversation. There will be those who will convincingly argue this, but I am not one of them. One constant that has defined conversation over the centuries is that it is a live, verbal interchange and this is what distinguishes it from the growing alternative methods of communication that exist in our world.

Following Zeldin’s lead I will attempt a definition of conversation for the 21st century. At one end of the spectrum of verbal interplay are those communications limited by their practical and functional objectives, communications which enable us to carry out our day-to day lives at their most basic level. At the other end are the public addresses (like what you are being subjected to at the moment) – the lecture, the sermon, the harangue. In the middle is a vast array of verbal interchanges that I would call conversation – intercommunications between two or more individuals among whom there is some level of intimacy, at least the dynamics of the group are such that the participants do not lose their individuality or have the sense that their own voice has more or less equal weight than another.

Dr Johnson, the doyenne of conversationalists, defined conversation as “talk beyond that which is necessary to the purposes of actual business”. For our times this might be reformulated to target the world of ideas, at least a world operating at a level above subsistence, where individuals are assumed to be able to lead satisfying and meaningful lives. Whereas once it was considered dangerous to talk about politics, sex and religion – what, you may ask, was left to talk about? – the New Conversation must tackle those very topics which breed dissension. By embracing matters that affect how we relate to one another, and how we respond to the wider society and world we live in, are the ones we must talk about and by talking through them reach a greater understanding of ourselves and of the other. Let me quote Zeldin again: “Conversation puts you face to face with individuals, and all their human complexity. Our education cannot be complete until we have had conversations with every continent, and with every civilization.”

Whereas conversation was once ordered to prevent the opportunity for conflict to arise, by embracing important issues at a micro and macro level, conversations conducted with intelligence and generosity can be effective means of resolving disputes and reducing tension, of leading to better relationships and more positive understanding between individuals and larger units (including countries). Instead of conversation that seeks to confirm the status quo and that is nervous of the unknown, the new conversation will be exploratory, bold and all embracing. It is a conversation that occupies a different stage, dances to a different tune and is directed to a different end – one which is expansive rather than constrictive, introspective in its thoughtfulness but outward looking in its breadth and range, generous and humble in its embrace of difference, yet rigorous in its application of reason. The better prepared you are for this conversational adventure the more satisfying it will be, and your Arts degree will have provided you with excellent grounding. Perhaps the most pleasurable and enlightening aspect of my fifteen years at St Paul’s has been the possibility of wide-ranging conversations across philosophies and cultures and generations. May you have many conversations that, in Zeldin’s words, “catch fire”.