Convocation Address Linda Hughes University of Alberta, November 19, 2003
Eminent Chancellor Ferguson
Your Honour, Lieutenant Governor Hole
President and Vice-Chancellor Fraser
Board Representative Kinsella
Members of the Board of Governors and the Senate
Faculty, Friends, Family
Thank you. I am very honoured to be here today and want to thank the University and everyone involved for this very generous recognition.
I feel quite undeserving of this honour, when I compare myself to the accomplished academics and leaders on this stage and to all of you who are graduating today and have worked hard to earn your degrees, while I have simply enjoyed the good fortune to work in a community and a career that has offered me enormous opportunities.
So I count myself very privileged to be with you this afternoon, and to add my congratulations and best wishes to each of you.
While I feel very humble today, you should not. Take this opportunity to think about what you’ve achieved and take joy in that achievement. Because, while the diplomas you receive today may look the same, each one represents a unique accomplishment. You each faced challenges on your way to earning those diplomas, but you conquered them and you owe it to yourself to feel good about what you’ve done and to take strength and confidence from your success, as you build your life in the world.
Notice, I didn’t say “the real world,” avoiding the slight sneer that comes with that phrase – not because universities aren’t privileged places – but because it suggests that going to school is easier than the world of work. And those of us with long memories know that’s not true. Sometimes in nightmares that plague us the rest of our lives, we remember what it feels like to have three essays due, exams looming and a professor that just doesn’t seem to like your stuff.
What is true, however, is that this world of academia you are leaving has offered you something you won’t easily replace in your life. The university has provided you a rich and varied diet of knowledge and understanding. It’s nourished your mind and expanded your vision. You’ve encountered new ideas, had your opinions challenged and made interesting discoveries. It’s expanded the horizons of what you know and who you are. I can assure you, it’s made all of you more interesting people.
So how are you going to replace that in your life? You may keep studying in your areas of interest. But how are you going to ensure that your perspectives don’t start to narrow? How are you going to replace that great university experience of professors engaging you every day with new ideas and information?
One place to look is a newspaper. It’s convenient, it’s cheaper than a cup of coffee – a week’s worth of papers are cheaper than some of the coffees at Starbucks - and it’s quite amazing what you will find in a newspaper every day.
To prove my point, and in keeping with The University of Alberta’s enviable reputation as a world-class research institute, I did some research, and studied a randomly chosen week of Edmonton Journals to see if I would learn anything new. It turns out that a week of newspapers provides you with the equivalent of dozens of lectures from every discipline in the university. In fact in the week I studied there were many stories on university research.
One, based on neurobiological research, explained an age-old mystery: it turns out that men can’t actually see dust; what most of us thought was dead laziness turns out to be a brain chemistry problem that allows men to put up with household mess.
Another research story explained that there really are comfort foods and they really do relieve stress. Others explained how to recognize true narcissism; how asthma and antibiotics are related; and how certain behaviours impact life expectancy. Another story, not based on university research, and inexplicable to me, attempted to explain why people love Céline Dion.
There were stories that week about rising obesity rates; about the peace movement and Inuit health problems; about the dangerous driving habits of Albertans; and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I found out that someone, likely not a Nobel Prize winner, paid $91,000 to buy the moon rover that’s still on the moon. I found out that jujubes aren’t a candy but a Chinese fruit; why diesel engines might save the environment; why WestJet’s management style has made it an incredible financial success; and that the pace of change is so fast that people are apparently already feeling nostalgic for the 90s and Doc Martens and X-Files videos are considered collectibles.
In just one edition of the paper, in addition to the latest news on Iraq, local drug crimes, terrorism, global warming, mad cow disease, SARS, the Middle East, sports, celebrities, and design; I learned about the drug industry’s efforts to court doctors in Alberta; about the epidemic of suicide among young Canadians; about the poppy trade in Afghanistan; the role of Saudi Arabia and SUVs in international terrorism; about the search for Genghis Khan’s origins; about limbless lizards; about the history of the Stanley Cup; about force-feeding geese – a story that will ensure you never eat foie gras again.
In that one week of papers there were many stories about the U of A and education in general but one everyone should have read was a study showing children from middle class families are increasingly unable to afford university. We all bring our own biases to what we read – and my bias told me that the story represents the selfishness of my generation – the much-vaunted baby-boomers - who talk about the importance of education and the knowledge society but have utterly failed our children and our future by declining to pay for it.
There were many stories that week reflecting the failures of my generation, including the growing split between rich and poor and a UN report that one-sixth of the world’s population live in slums.
Newspapers bring the world to your doorstep. In addition, to basic information for daily living – what concerts are on, who won the hockey game, and where to buy a couch – we tell you what people in your community are thinking and talking about. Our letters page is equivalent to a daily town hall forum with close to 100 people expressing their opinions every week.
If you are in the habit of reading a quality newspaper every day it’s difficult to imagine how people function without doing so.
And yet the habit of daily newspaper reading has been slowly declining in North America for 20 years. More than 80% of young Canadians say they read newspapers, but less than half say they read every day.
I’m not worried about this for business reasons: newspapers are profitable businesses. I’m concerned because I feel passionate about the central role newspapers play in the life of a community and the lives of individuals.
Newspapers in North America are far from perfect – a critique of newspaper journalism could encompass an entire university course – frankly, in Canada, we’re not always as tough or intellectually challenging as we should be.
And there are other sources of news. Some people are satisfied to get their news from radio and television – but that’s a little like skipping class and then asking the guy sitting next to you what you missed. While TV and radio have many strengths of their own, they cannot replace the depth, explanation or debate you get in a newspaper. And one despairs the influence of American television, led by CNN and Fox News, with its hunger for compelling images and urgency; its drift towards news as entertainment, and its bias towards patriotism over truth.
The other great news source, the Internet, is the revolutionary equivalent of the printing press in its ability to connect people and provide instant access to information and knowledge.
But as a daily source of news it is, by definition, narrowcast. It only provides what you are looking for, not what you might need. It lacks the serendipity of a daily newspaper that lands on your doorstep and informs you about dozens of topics you didn’t know might interest you and, more important, exposes you to a variety of opinions you may not agree with or issues you would rather not face. On the Internet, people can comfortably pick the information sources that appeal to their biases and interests, avoiding what they don’t want to face and narrowing their view of the world.
A newspaper broadens people’s views. And because it’s read by most of the community, it helps build consensus and keeps people connected to each other.
Our over-riding mission is to protect people’s right to know. We try to keep governments honest by fighting for open access to information; we try to keep our courts and justice system open by fighting every attempt to put justice behind closed doors. We’re a critic and a watchdog; and a place where people can speak their minds.
I’m passionate about this because I fear we take this right to a free press so much for granted, just as we take our democracy for granted. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the slow decline in the daily newspaper habit is mirrored by the slow decline in voter turnout.
The last federal election saw the lowest turnout in 75 years. As few as 20% of 18-to-20-year-olds voted and Canada now ranks 109th out of 163 democracies in the world for voter participation. (The US is much worse.)
A study done this year, on the “Mood and Mindset of Canadians”, asked what we were passionate about. At the top of the list were friends and family, in last place, politics. More people said they were passionate about shopping, than politics. In the same survey Canadians said they were most proud of our history and least proud of our political system. (I don’t know how anyone thinks we achieved that history if it wasn’t through our political system.)
I think I understand why young people, in particular, feel disengaged, alienated and cynical about politics but disengaging from the process obviously isn’t going improve it. And to say, as so many do, that politics isn’t “relevant” to them - just as some say “news” isn’t relevant - is just wrong. Governments have an impact on every facet of our lives, so how can politics not be relevant. Only because we take our comfortable lifestyle and democracy utterly for granted.
Around the world, people are devoting their lives and dying for just a taste of our political system and our freedoms. And a free press is at the heart of those struggles. So far this year 51 journalists have been killed on the job, the majority murdered in reprisal for their reporting. 150 journalists were imprisoned last year and 1,400 were beaten, abducted or received death threats.
The World Bank recently published a book “The Right to Tell,” in which economists and sociologists from around the globe argued that a free press is essential to reduce poverty and boost economic development in the world. The first worldwide press freedom index, published last year, illustrates the point. Countries enjoying the greatest peace and economic security had the greatest measure of press freedom.
Reporters Without Borders, which prepared the study, said press freedom was increasingly under assault around the world. Last month, Amnesty International issued a report warning of new restrictions being implemented worldwide to control media.
And the threat isn’t just in totalitarian regimes. A UNESCO report this spring determined that the war on terrorism has given rise to restrictions on press freedom throughout Western democracies, particularly limits on access to information and the “right to know.” Not all restrictions have been legislated – the chill of self-censorship has sent a shiver through the U.S. media – all the way down to the poor old Dixie Chicks banned from the airwaves for expressing an opinion.
And we’re not immune to the chill here. In 1937, The Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for its successful fight against a provincial law that would have required government approval of newspaper stories. It’s difficult to imagine a government in this country would have proposed such a law and yet there’s a current of thinking that runs under the surface of this province that suggests criticizing the government, or expressing different ideas or contrary opinions is an “UnAlbertan” activity.
That attitude, sometimes from the highest levels of government, reflects a distrust of democracy and a fear of free speech as disturbing as the disaffection of those who find politics irrelevant.
During your time at university I hope you have learned the power and importance of free expression. No right is more important to our individual humanity or our collective success as a community than free speech and the free press that guarantees it.
So read newspapers – read magazines and books and websites – and keep your mind engaged in the way it’s been engaged through university. Your education hasn’t ended with this Degree, it’s really just begun. The university has taught you how to think and how to learn. Use those skills to engage with your community to make it a better place - the incredible gift of democracy and freedom means you actually can make a difference. And in doing so, you’ll make your own life broader and more interesting.
I wish you all an interesting life. If you take charge and keep thinking and challenging yourself, I’m sure you will have one.
Congratulations and my sincerest best wishes.