The Finished Degree

[Editor’s note: What follows is the convocation address delivered by Professor Willinsky on the occasion of his receiving an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the Faculty of Education at York University, June 19, 2008.]

It is truly an honor, if a slightly odd one as I shall explain, to be asked to join in this celebration of so many graduates’ proud accomplishment as well as an honor to receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws from York University. I say odd because the degree I am receiving could be cast not just as an unearned degree, but a belated degree, a belated bachelor’s degree that I started and didn’t finish some 40 years ago that now been magically elevated to a doctorate (which is like having desert without having finished your vegetables, if with a considerable time lag between courses).

Yet before I explain my own path to this podium, I must congratulate the graduates who sit before me on both completing, in a timely fashion, and truly earning a degree from this great university. It is more than I have been able to do.

Now I realize that each of you must have a marvelous story to tell about all that it took, with the help of family and friends, faculty and students, to secure this degree. My story may just happen to be the longest, although as stories go, it can be, I promise, briefly told.

I first arrived at York as an undergraduate student at the very end of the 1960s, fresh out of high school and a long way from Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario. I was certainly eager and keen to be living and learning on the edge of the big city, but after two years at York, I dropped out of university.

This dropping out wasn’t so much about York. After all, it was an era that had as its mantra Timothy Leary’s turn on, tune-in, drop-out. I did have a guitar, which I could do little more than tune. I did not inhale, at least not very much. And I did drop out, but not without taking something with me from this institution that has continued to serve me well.

What I took away with me when I left York, perhaps more than anything, was a course on utopias. A course on humanity’s endless efforts to dream up an ideal world. The course was part of York’s experimental first-year big-idea program. It was taught by a team of professors, among whom Professor Lionel Rubinoff stands out in my memory. He was among the first batch of professors that York hired in 1960 (something I needed Google to discover on the World Wide Web), but I knew then that he had just published a book, The Pornography of Power, which seemed very cool, as was his post-beatnik goatee.

Each week in that course we studied a different utopia. Of course, we began with Plato’s Republic, then went on to Thomas More’s Utopia, took a stroll to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, and onward to the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, with a step, finally, into the sci-fi world of Robert A. Heinlein with Stranger in a Strange Land.

Now I have to say that I was taking the course for the most practical of reasons — what we now call knowledge mobilization — but that was because I had not yet figured university out. I and many of my classmates were actively shopping for utopias. Did I mention it was the end of the 1960s? We figured that an entire new world was needed. Time had so clearly run out on the existing one.

Each week I came to class, having read about a different utopia, only to have Lionel Rubinoff brilliantly demolish not just the particular vision, finding the ideal world’s very opposite lying deep within the utopian moment – the injustice in Plato’s just world, for example, – but he also made sure that by the end of each class, that the whole foolish, presumptive, even dangerous, idea, of a utopia lay a shredded wreck at his feet. Off we would then shuffle, a little discouraged, a little relieved and gratified that we had not foolishly chased that week’s particular rainbow, suddenly exposed to be a nightmare.

It was, in a word, an education. York offered a fine education, full of close reasoning and the most careful of concerns about preventing us from heading down the wrong road, while presuming we knew more than we did. Utopia was itself, we learned, a critical device, a way of calling the world into question, and not to be mistaken as a blueprint for tomorrow’s brave new world.

But it was not the education that I was ready for then, at the end of the 1960s, with Jack Kerouac and the Whole Earth Catalog in my book bag, not when that very new world seemed within hitch-hiking range. And so I dropped out of York, thinking that this institution did not take ideas, like finding a better world, seriously enough. I was wrong about that, or rather I had yet to learn for myself how much critical deliberation and patient work it takes to change things in lasting ways.

After leaving York, I had little enough luck in finding the perfectly ideal farm or friends to start that perfectly ideal commune — are you surprised? — and I ended up at North Bay Teachers College training to be a school teacher. You needed but one year of university to get into teachers college in those days, and on top of that tuition was free, reflecting the province’s deep commitment, at the time, to recruiting only the very best teachers for its schools.
Once I was a teacher in the classroom, I slowly came to realize that teaching was about trying to create something purposeful and deliberate to use Henry David Thoreau’s words. I also learned that it made the most sense to see that this work was not about preparing students for some world or education to come. It was about working hard together, then and there in the classroom, on finding the sense and wonder of things at that very point.

What came to matter most in my teaching did not happen every day or with every student. It would take place once or twice a term, especially when we would try to go public with our work. We would take on projects that were far bigger than we were, and in taking that on, at least some of the students and I found ourselves intrigued by, caring about, and often eager to share this work with others.

For example would try to crack, year after year, the famous four-color map problem that we discovered in the pages of Scientific American; we once wrote a musical about how the heiress Patty Hearst ended up joining the Symbionese Liberation Army group which had kidnapped her; we made Monty Python-like videos of our city’s industrial history by visiting the city’s old factories; we tried to recapitulate the entire history of publishing, using every technique possible, from illuminated manuscripts to computers, to get out work out there, which included filling the walls of the school, just before lunch, with large broadsides of our poems; we published alternative text books for the school by producing multilingual poetry anthologies that the students had translated and then distributed among the teachers in an effort to replace the tired, anglo-centric Oxford collections.

Now, to be honest, when students from those years write to me long afterwards to say hello, they don’t mention these projects. In fact, the only thing that has come up more than once is Bob Dylan. A few recall me dragging them through verse after verse of those wonderfully poetic protest songs in music class. That, too, reflects teaching out of a care for what is being taught, perhaps too passionately or at least too loudly, in the lyrical struggle for social justice.

So what then of Lionel’s York University lessons, finally, as my York degree finally finds some closure? I have learned to temper the idealism and aspirations of change, and to remain wary of utopian plans to take us to another world — as the word utopia is made up of the Greek for not and place, as in not of this place. It is all about working very patiently with people, and persistently, with a sense of irony and humour, in an effort to change one part of the world at a time, one element in the school day, one aspect of a student’s sense of hope and interest.

And what does that then add up to, you might ask. Well, a look on the web reveals that Lionel Rubinoff did go on to become increasingly involved in the environmental movement at Trent University — Henry David Thoreau be blessed. For my part, I am working with students and colleagues at UBC and Simon Fraser University, and now at Stanford University, on changing a small part of the history of publishing that I used to teach. What we are trying to change is how the work done in places like York by graduate students and faculty is made public and freely available to more people around the world, inside of schools and out. And strangely enough, I am still dragging people through Bob Dylan songs, albeit the students in the band now lay down a little hip-hop free styling between the verses.

Which is only to say to you, that as educators, I invite you to work students on things that matter, matter enough to make that learning public for the sake of others, for the sake of making this world a more fair, just, and fascinating place.

Let me say in conclusion that it is indeed an honour to arrive at York University’s convocation after so many years and to be able to wish so many fellow educators, and now fellow alumni, every success with the important work that follows from what this day celebrates. Now that we are all, finally, holders of a degree from York University, earned or otherwise, we would do well to keep in mind this university’s wisely humble motto — Tentanda via (the way must be tried) — as we each try, in very different ways, to advance this very practical democratic experiment of education for the public good.

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