Updated: Oct 11, 2022
May is convocation season at our four universities, and in honour of this important ritual, I’d like to share one of my favourite convocation themed speeches: David Foster Wallace, American author and professor, delivered one of the most memorable commencement speeches when he addressed the class of 2005 at Keylon University; what would later become a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, Wallace illustrates the importance of critical reflection with the following parable:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Wallace explains the parable’s message in the following way: “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” In other words, we are all in the water, but the systems that shape our experiences are often invisible. Only through critical reflection can we make the water visible. And only then can we appreciate how it shapes our existence.
A huge proponent of the value of the liberal arts, Wallace argues that it “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water.” He expands on this in the following way: “the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
In my own work on Hope University, acknowledging Wallace’s "this is water" is fundamental. Effacing the systems and structures at work doesn't make them go away. Inviting them into conversation (naming them) is essential if we are to dismantle, renovate, and renew them in inclusive ways.
Once we understand "this is water," we also acknowledge, as Ava DuVernay says, “The system’s not broken; the system was built this way. It was built to oppress. It lives off of our ignorance and we can no longer be ignorant. And now that you know, what will you do?”
There is tremendous cognitive dissonance when we surface the discomfort that has been palpable for excluded groups and pernicious for the privileged for a long time – and it is now coming to a head: 1. the systems are broken and 2. the systems are working exactly as designed.
DuVernay calls us in when she asks, “And now that you know, what will you do?”
Hope is a verb. As we launch graduating classes into the world, we hope that we have equipped these incredible citizens to act – on behalf of themselves and for others, led by the values of a civil, just and democratic society. At the same time, we also have to model that within the academy in our willingness to always transform in order to engage in the world with curiosity and creativity.
In Shakespeare’s Guide to Hope, Life, and Learning, my co-authors and I expand on hope in the context of the university classroom: “Learning is embodied hope. It happens in time. It happens in bodies. Each act of learning is unique and can never be reproduced on a factory line. It cannot be abstracted from the bodies and the lives of learners who embody it, any more than a verb can function grammatically without an agent. Hope is a verb.”
This notion of hope-as-action shows up across higher education: in a recent article about inclusion in university instruction, a group of professors at Guelph University call upon us all to engage in what they call “disruptive action”:
“As we continue these important conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion, let us never lose sight of the fact that commitment to values is (only) an excellent first step and what needs to follow is disruptive action. Action that ensures that we aren’t just picking from the best who make it through our system but that the system itself supports us in becoming our best.”
There is something inherently hopeful about the process of naming, claiming, and aiming. The work ahead constitutes “hard hope.” Hope is not the absence of discomfort or despair. Hope requires us to face uncomfortable truths and sit in that discomfort with grace and a willingness to transform. This brand of hope is forged in hard truths and radical compassion, clear-eyed assessment and creative design.
Cheers to our graduating classes, and a special nod to the work that remains to do within our hallowed halls.
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities