Autumn Conferrings 2007
Dever Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 13 MFómh 2007
Mr Geoffrey Steiner-Scott, former Principal, Crawford College of Art & Design
President, Dean, graduates and distinguished guests, I am quite used to speaking at conferrings, but being an invited guest is a new experience for me. As principal of the Crawford College of Art & Design, it was my job for the last 23 years to address the graduates at our conferring ceremonies, so I know the drill. I should congratulate you on your achievements, acknowledge the sacrifice of your families and friends, and send you off into the world as ambassadors of reason and the university. This time, however, I can depart from the script, and I am grateful to President Murphy for the opportunity to do so.
The well known cliché, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like”, has plagued me for years. I prefer my version: “I know a lot about art, but I don’t know what I like”. And this is what it means: I have spent my life learning about art, but I am still surprised and excited every time I look at a work of art. The education I received, the education I have lived, has taught me to look at art and ask why. Why did the artist do that? What is the artist trying to say to me? How does that work? Why does it make me happy (or not)? This is one of the most cherished lessons you learn when you take a degree in the arts. You learn to question, to explore, to seek new explanations, to solve new problems. You learn not to accept the obvious or doctrinal answer, but to examine what is before you with an open and enquiring mind.
Art education is not that different than any of the other arts subjects that you have studied. We learn the skills of our discipline, the history and development of our subject, the social context in which we will practice, and the research methodology we will need to expand our knowledge. We learn to communicate our ideas, express our opinions, demonstrate our knowledge, and ask demanding questions. This is the very nature of the humanities and social sciences.
We have seen huge changes in our society, and the academic world has responded in many ways. Our universities and institutes of technology have adapted to changing needs with new courses, new methods of delivery, new disciplines. We have witnessed the decline of the agricultural, food and tourism economy and the growth of the technological, pharmaceutical, and business economy. It was predicted that the arts degree would be supplanted by commerce, business, computer or science degrees. But look around you. The arts degree did not go away when the Celtic Tiger economy lured academic leaders to market driven career training and applied learning. In fact, the demand for arts degrees is as strong as ever, as evidenced by this year’s CAO points. You and your fellow graduates have followed the traditional arts degree path, turning your back on the specialist training that your career guidance teachers, and perhaps your families and friends told you would be absolutely necessary for survival in modern Ireland. Instead of following that advice, you have opted for generalist training, and you have educated your minds.
Do not fear! The liberal arts degree is the very foundation of university learning, and its basic tenets are discourse, enquiry, argument, proof, communication, empiricism, experimentation, and discovery, and these have informed your education. Society, and industry, has an insatiable need for the skills you have mastered in your arts degree training at UCC.
In the July/August 2005 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Susan Crown, a principal of the Chicago investment firm Henry Crown and Company, and a Yale University trustee, explains the corporate attitude to humanities qualifications:
"A liberal arts education teaches you how to think: how to analyze, how to read, how to write, how to develop a persuasive argument. These skills are used every day in business. A liberal arts education also offers the ability to focus on large ideas. We live in a world where everyone is multitasking, often skimming the surface and reacting to sound bites. But as undergraduates, we had the opportunity to read great literature and history, to focus and to consider. This developed a standard of depth and care that calibrates our work for the rest of our lives."
So, “I know a lot about art, but I don’t know what I like” is the proud statement of the enquiring viewer who looks at every work of art with a fresh eye and an open mind. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs: you may prefer to say, “I know a lot about poetry, music, film, fashion, but I don’t know what I like”. “I know a lot about history, but I don’t know what’s going to happen next”. Always think this and you will keep learning.
The other saying which has been important to me as a guiding principle might not be so familiar to you. My printmaking teacher and mentor used to say, “What’s the use of making mistakes if you don’t make use of them”. He usually said this as he was tearing up my latest undergraduate attempt at a print. He had the habit of scattering the torn pieces of my failures on the table like fragments of ancient Greek parchments, to see what new images might emerge. The point of the exercise was to validate experimentation: not knowing what you will make of your efforts increases the likelihood of both failure and outstanding success. The unpredictable result of skilled experimentation can be the eureka moment that makes all the previous failures worthwhile.
Again, this is the value of the liberal arts education you have received from University College Cork. With an enquiring mind, you do not always know how to predict the outcome of your actions, but you are always ready to analyze the effect caused by your actions. This leads to better problem solving and a deeper understanding of the problem you are trying to solve.
Let me give you another quote from the July/August 2005 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine. Warren Goldstein, chair of the history department at the University of Hartford, writes,
“A liberal arts education, even vaguely defined and "core"-less, is the only intellectual antidote to the overwhelming flood of information and genuine technological change we are experiencing. A liberal arts education that works teaches students to read and to reason; to learn something about the range of human expression and experience; to consider the great literature and contending ideas of Western and world civilization; to recognize and construct arguments; and to have a sense of humility about the lives and minds that have gone before. It also makes possible a kind of citizenship without which democracy crumbles.”
So, you know a lot about everything, but I hope you don’t know what you like. Let me tell you that you’ve only scratched the surface. There is so much more to know, so much more to learn. Because your education is broad, you have opportunities you haven’t imagined, so get out there and discover what you really like. Use your education to the full. Enrich your lives, improve our society and culture, solve great problems. Make mistakes, but remember to always make use of them. And never say you don’t know anything, and never close your mind by saying that you know what you like.
Congratulations on your wonderful achievements at UCC. The day is yours, enjoy it.
Go raibh mille maith agaibh go leir.