Back to top anchor
Speech

Victoria University of Wellington Graduation Ceremony

Issue date: 
Thursday, 4 May 1989
Speaker: 
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

For a young left-handed Māori from a boys' school, studying in the library of this University in the early 1950s was very difficult.

The place seemed to be full of Presbyterian divinity students and girls from Nga Tawa. That was disconcerting enough, but you also had to be quiet in the library and if you lost a book you had to confess to the Librarian, Harold Miller. He was a devotee of 19th century English Church figures like Dean Church and John Henry Newman, and his absolution was always preceded by an appropriate penance like a fine.

My exam results were never more than indifferent. I was long on application but short on inspiration. John Updike, somewhat cynically, says "instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it." Intellect for me meant reading books and finding out and I've never stopped doing that. Instinct, especially when I saw those Nga Tawa girls, had little to do with duty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay on The American Scholar spoke of "meek young men [who] grew up in libraries believing it to be their duty to accept the views which Cicero, Locke and Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of man thinking, we have the bookworm."

Well I was one of those invertebrates. Victoria seemed a very insular College and I loved it. James K. Baxter, Conrad Bollinger, Anton Vogt and Ron Jarden were to be seen in the cafeteria. Beverley Watkins was the sweetest thing bounding around in a lab. coat. And Professor Boyd Wilson to my eternal gratitude made it seem that French I was a branch of the entertainment business. It was rumoured that he made his tea with water taken from the little tap at the top of the water heater.

The novelist, Flaubert, said it for me "between the crowd and ourself no bond exists. Alas for the crowd; alas for us especially we must live for our vocation, climb up our ivory tower and there, like a bayadere with her perfumes, dwell along with our dreams." For your information, the dictionary says a bayadere is a 'Hindu dancing girl'.

Well I did that for a while. I mixed it up with rugby, the Midland Hotel, the Student Christian Movement or climbing the steps from Boulcott Street to the Terrace. It was an important but passing phase of my life. I am grateful that this University has seen fit to honour me. I am proud to be associated with the present group of graduands.

Just to know something is not enough. Some people assume that if you know something is good or right, you will do it. I don't believe that. Nor do I endorse the attitude that morally pure actions flow automatically from morally pure people. The heart has reasons which are quite unknown to the mind. Between knowing and doing what is right there has always been a great gap.

Knowledge is not objective. The point at issue, often, is not "what facts" but "which interpretation", and people don't easily tolerate differing viewpoints. The politics of consensus are easily replaced by the politics of conflict. This University in the 1950s was not a tolerant place but it was passionate and that made up for a lot.

Mary McCarthy's grandmother had some simple rules for a trouble-free life. She believed in keeping the mind closed and the bowels open.

Education has never enjoyed such a healthy neutrality. It can be used as a tool of social policy to keep democratic values alive. It can be used to benefit those people who are dead keen to get a good education. Or it can be used as some sort of political programme to get rid of inequalities or discrimination.

Education is often the story of people trying to make other people see it their way. Teachers are prone to teach from the top down, assuming knowledge, authority and understanding are with them and one day the student may qualify for a piece of the action.

But gradually the world is moving away from governing people through education. Learning is a process in which teacher and pupil, lecturer and student, listen to each other. The emphasis is on presenting information and concepts that stress choice.

Choice produces action and without action thought can never ripen into truth. Poverty, for instance, is not some morally neutral phenomenon which must be understood. It is an evil that must be rooted out and that's a choice.

You who are graduating have made your choices. You chose to study here, you've made choices about what to do next. Other choices lie beyond that.

Deal in truth and make your choices. Understand what others feel and believe, listen rather than preach and look at reality even if what you see is very different from what you would wish to be there.

Remember Mary McCarthy's grandmother. She made no choices, she accepted no responsibilities, she did not stand for anything. Instead may I leave you with Emerson's picture of the scholar. "The scholar learns that in going down into the secret of his mind, he has descended into the secret of all minds." In other words to explore the question who am I? unavoidably clarifies the question who are we?

I wish you well.

Last updated: 
Thursday, 4 May 1989

Help us improve the Governor-General website

Your feedback is very important in helping us improve the Governor-General website.

7 + 11 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.