Winders: Welcome to the convocation address nobody asked me to give

I am sure you have heard it. I know I have – and far too often.

It seems to be the talking point of choice for emboldened university carpers and nervous advocates from provincial politicians on down to some of our own colleagues. Many code their language and speak of a ‘university bubble,’ an ‘ivory tower’ or ‘academic atmosphere.’ But no matter the wording, the message is the same:

Universities – and, specifically, their graduates – must not act as if they are ‘The Elite’ once they set foot in ‘the real world.’

Now, I understand the sentiment. In fact, there’s something quintessentially Canadian in the notion, as we often demur at any opportunity to tout our standing. The world loves us for that. Our universities mirror that attitude in many ways – we are polite and, often, far too worried what an uneducated horde might think of us if we speak up.

But I hate to break it to you, dear graduates – as of today, you are now ‘The Elite.’

Perhaps this is my Americanness coming through, but by virtue of what you are completing today, and what you are signaling to the world by doing so, you have become the elite in your communities and countries.

Look at the cold numbers. In London, only 40 per cent of the population has a postsecondary education of any kind. That’s in a community with three large hospitals and a major university. In Canada, among the best educated countries on the planet, only 31 per cent of people have a postsecondary degree, 21 per cent a bachelor’s degree and 6.5 per cent a master’s degree or higher.

Ask yourself: If you are going to make the world a better place, shouldn’t you understand something about it?

You are elite not only in your training, but in your opportunity. Don’t ever forget that.

Most of you were born into a time and place, when and where all this was afforded to you. You were raised by a family who instilled in you, by nurture or by nature, the importance of not only setting out on this journey, but completing it. You have had hundreds of people – friends and family, classmates and professors, even university staff like myself – invested in your success. Maybe many of those people who stood behind you along the way are sitting behind you today.

You deserve credit as well. You persevered down a challenging path and now stand at the finish line.

Today is the culmination of a monumental accomplishment. And I am not willing to take that away from you because someone might get their feelings hurt.

But as one of the great thinkers of my generation – Stan Lee through the voice of Spider-Man – once wrote: With great power comes great responsibility.

As I was preparing these remarks for today, I am reminded of the words of Mary Wright, an iconic Western professor and towering figure in the psychology of education. Western awarded Mary, who passed away earlier this year, an honorary degree in 1982. During her convocation address, she spoke of the responsibility you inherit today.

Wright told Western’s 237th convocation that day their degree was not a “passport to more privilege,” but a “preparation for service to society.”

“We must assume responsibilities as world citizens which have not been thrust on previous generations. We can no longer afford to indulge our ignorance of the ideologies, values and ways of life in any other nation,” she said. “We must try to understand unfamiliar ways of perceiving and solving problems of human rights, economic equality and political equality and we must start to appreciate the goals of other countries even when they conflict with our own.”

Graduates, you are entering a world with serious problems – climate change, income inequality, religious radicalism. And that’s just for starters. You are also entering a world that increasingly rewards ignorance, even embraces raw stupidity. Where once being called ‘an Einstein’ was a compliment, today it is a burden.

Shrug this off and accept the responsibilities of your lot in life.

Now, more than ever, we need ‘The Elite’ among us to rise up, speak out and act.

As of today, that is your responsibility. No matter what anyone tries to tell you.