Winter Conferrings 2004
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 17 Noll 2004
Professor Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, former Head of Roinn an Bhéaloidis, UCC
Good afternoon and congratulations to each and every one of you on your many and varied achievements. This is surely a significant day in your careers and in your lives; a day when you have, on merit, been awarded a valuable University qualification. Since this day next week will be Christmas Eve, we can even think of your award as a sort of Christmas gift ? a gift indeed not without a commercial implication for many of you - in line, perhaps, with the commercialisation of the religious feast. A more appropriate sense of seasonality in your award is to had however when we remember that Christmas is essentially a celebration of the birth and the intensification, within Western history and Western human consciousness, of those very values which Arts Faculties have represented since the origin of the idea of the University.
At a time, now, and when the University and Education in general, along with so many other aspects of society, are experiencing the stress of great and rapid change, I would like to share with you some reflections on these matters -when I am myself moving off-stage, as it were, after an involvement with UCC which began more than forty-five years ago.
The word Universitas itself implies the integral wholeness of its members in the fullness of their humanity and the intention of the institution to cultivate the breadth and the depth of that wholeness, in both its students and its staff throughout their respective university careers. How this is achieved is, of course, both culture-specific and subject to revision and reconstitution over time. There are, nevertheless, certain enduring considerations that cannot be entirely absent if the experience of University life is to be a positive and productive experience.
University life and participation in it is necessarily set apart in both space and in time, a privileged existence on campus and its environs that allows room for study, experiment and growth - in learning and in life. Such a campus can range from the medieval urban Sorbonne to the Oxbridge college (on which UCC was modelled) to the very commercial, city-centre London School of Economics or Yeshiva University. in downtown Manhattan. Indeed it can have a virtual nature ? as in the case of the various Universities of the Air and of Distance Learning.
Whatever its physical realisation, the University Campus has to offer opportunities for focussed calm and sustained mental concentration in Laboratory and Library and Lecture Hall. There is, here, a considerable challenge for today?s Universities ? given the expansion and congestion that is their lot ? to continue to make provision for that essential academic stillness and calm that is a sine qua non of scholarship and that has traditionally been represented, architecturally, by the college quadrangle ? of which our own UCC quadrangle here is a splendid example. Encroaching too often today on the idea of the peaceful academic quadrangle are the noise and bustle of continuous physical development, the loud machinery of cleaning and maintenance and the intrusions of various electronic devices of IT.
Whether with Quadrangle or without, however, every University, and School, at whatever level, must offer a Curriculum - courses of study to be pursued competitively and delivered through teaching and research so that knowledge can be transmitted, created and renewed to the benefit of the individual scholar and of society, as a whole. A balance must be achieved in the University Curriculum between the concerns of the present-day, social, economic and technological, and certain less vocational but more profound concerns. These have to do with the interpretation and representation of human experience ? in literature and philosophy and history, in artistic and dramatic and musical composition and performance, and in the application of such academic and artistic insight and sophistication in the domains of political economy, the civil order and social policy.
Besides all this, the University phenomenon is, at base, a kind of novitiate, a kind of apprenticeship aspiring to lead, through instruction and experiment, adventure and excess, and self discipline in study to rounded maturity and competence and qualification for the graduate and to cultural and social well-being in community life for society at large - whether local or global - as a benefit of such educational investment as schools and Universities require in order to do their proper work. Part of that proper work is making sure that due account is taken of the human reality that many central concerns and problems in achieving ?the good life? to which we aspire, are ones for which no technical solutions can be directly engineered. Another part is nurturing the curiosity and the creativity that will bring both better technical solutions where these are appropriate and possible, and an enlightened social and cultural dispensation on the part of the professional elites and the public servants who have undergone a University formation. As such graduates, you can honour the traditions of the University - a thousand years in the making ? and continue to bear witness to humane, humanist and humanitarian values in an age when economics and politics appear dominated by the pressures exerted on social relationships and on culture by the extension of market commodification to more and more of our lives and the sustained promotion of the values of a personalised consumerism at the expense of the values of shared citizenship and community.
Recent moves in this University among others to institute radical change and reorganisation in the structures of governance and teaching are critized as introducing highly inappropriate business models and business values into academic life. The challenge for academics is to respond so as to ensure that in a changed political and economic climate where the campus and the quadrangle and the curriculum and student life are altered almost beyond recognition, humanistic University values still prevail. The greatest threat to the University is the possibility of a failure of nerve, that is, a failure of imagination, on the part of the academic community, in the face of change. Such a failure of nerve would see the academic community here acquiesce in the crudest received version of that UCC of the future which is coming to birth. Alternatively, a re-imagining of UCC, by UCC academics themselves, would unlock a huge creativity that is in danger of being paralysed through an illusion of powerlessness in the face of seemingly impossible demands. Such unlocking of creativity can push back the more harmful sides of the plans and proposals that originate from sources some of whom know little enough about education or about the University ? and that are, in some cases, unsympathetic, if not inimical, to it.
I would dearly wish to see such creativity flowering here in UCC in a way that would link the imaginative energies of staff and students in a renewal of the authentic University mission. In such a task and in the creativity of its undertaking, both tradition and modernity can be equally served and the true educational spirit of the University can find re-vitalisation. The liminal condition of appearing to be poised on the brink of a seemingly huge break with tradition on the one hand, and a radical re-organisation of reality on the other, has been to the forefront of Western human consciousness during the last five hundred years.In the light of this, the controversy about change in the University sector today cannot be seen as posing entirely novel questions. Especially for Arts Faculties there can be the confidence that with imagination and creative effort the circumstances of our age can be adequately interpreted so as to allow us to reconceptualise and re-represent the humanist values that our academic disciplines manifest.
In again congratulating today?s graduates on their academic achievements I end by referring my academic colleagues who remain at the helm today after the graduates and myself have moved on, to a question posed for us all by Professor Arpad Szakolczai in his inaugural lecture to this faculty some years ago:
?How did it happen in the past that in moments that seemed thoroughly hopeless, dominated by irreversible and hostile forces, of mechanisation, bureaucratisation, formalisation, legislation and fiscalisation?. a ?spark? of the ?spirit? suddenly ?caught fire???
If the spirit of UCC needs re-kindling at this time then it is to the Faculty of Arts, I believe, that the privilege can fall of providing the ?spark?
Thank you all and good luck.