Northrop Frye convocation address

I am of course very grateful to the University of British Columbia for the honour it has done me, though at the moment I feel less gratitude than simple pleasure - pleasure at being admitted to a community where I have so many close and old friends. My only regret is that Miss Agnew, whom it was intended to honour at the same time, was prevented by ill health from taking her place on the platform with me. I have just come from similar ceremonies at my own university, and no matter how many of them I see, I am always deeply impressed by them. What I see from this side is something more difficult to see from yours. During term the staff does a lot of complaining about the little so-and-so's they teach, with their late essays and their wandering wits and their general illiteracy. But they have an enormous respect and affection for them all the same, the complaints being an essential part of that affection, and that is primarily what this ceremony, for them, expresses.

Students of primitive societies tell us how important is the rite de passage, the social ritual marking the transition from one phase of life to another. There are, for example, the initiation rites of passing from youth to manhood, where one of the elders of the tribe, equipped with an instrument called a bull-roarer, makes a loud and meaningless noise, for the purpose of showing the youths that they don't need to be frightened by such things any longer. You will appreciate how vast the gap is between these primitive youths and yourselves, and between the bull-roarer and myself. In our society we have simplified our passage rites to four main groups, those connected with birth, graduation, marriage and death, and of these that of graduation is the only one in which you are expected to know what is going on.

These same students tell us further that in rites of passage there are always at least two elements involved, one of separation from a past phase of life, and one of incorporation into a future one. The separation part of this rite is simple enough: What you're incorporated into is less easy to see. It's customary to say that you're going out into the world, but if you're not in the world now you never will be. You're bound to feel, quite rightly, that there is much more to this business of being graduated than merely ceasing to be where you've been.

There is a whole group of words that mean one specific thing when they're spelled with a capital letter, and something much broader and vaguer when they're spelled with a small letter, If you're a capitalized Liberal or Catholic, you vote for a specific party or go to a specific church, but you can be anything and still claim to be liberal or catholic in lower case. The difference, however, is not simply between the concrete and the vague. The small-letter conceptions represent the standards or values which the specific groups are supposed to embody. The Liberal party is supposed to stand for liberal political ideas, the Catholic church for the catholicity, the unity and universality, of God's people. It would take a pretty narrow-minded partisan to maintain that the group who belong to the specific institution and the group who meet the standards embodied by that institution were exactly the same. Now, I suggest that "University" is one of these double-standard words. Here you've been attached to a University with a capital U, a specific institution that gives specific degrees. But people who may not know you've been here will speak of you as having been "to university," with a small u. That means something more: it means a certain way of life that you've been in contact with, and would have been at any University. As you leave the University of British Columbia, what you are being invited to join is the lowercase university, the university of the world, as I should call it, which represents the social values that this institution exists for.

This larger and broader university is not a clearly recognized conception in our society, and yet it's hidden, as an assumption, in much of what we say about that society, it isn't recognized because it's invisible. Some time ago the CBC television interviewed me on the subject of education in France, about which I know nothing whatever. Fortunately the main question was related to Canada. It was, should we devote our main educational efforts to producing a managerial or intellectual elite? My answer was that if society demands an elite of this kind, the universities will produce it; they must produce what society thinks it has to have. Many of our important people are university graduates and it is no doubt legitimate enough for a University to point with pride to the important people who hold its degree. But the real elite, the really best people, are an invisible group, and nobody except God knows who they all are. Some of them have influential places in society, but most of them are diffused through and dissolved in that society, like the salt to which Jesus compared his disciples. They include the quiet self-effacing people who are busy teaching school or fixing teeth or saving money to send their own children to university, who sit through endless dull committee and board meetings because it's a public service to do so: in short, the people who devote as much of their lives as possible to keeping up the standard of culture and civilization, both for themselves and for their communities. They would include a teacher of French I know in a small town in this province, who bought herself a couple of cats in order to have somebody to talk French to in this allegedly bilingual country. They certainly include the members of this staff, who, like nearly everybody else in a Canadian university, are maintaining standards of scholarship at a weary distance from the nearest research library.

So far as it is a teaching institution, the University exists primarily to recruit people for the bigger lower-case university of the world. At the same time a good many people come into the university of the world with very little formal education, and among those who have the education there is a heavy drop-,out. The reason is that when you move from one to the other, you move from one kind of knowledge to an entirely different kind. Here you're exposed to knowledge about things, which is very easy to acquire, as is obvious by the number of people in front of me, and very easy to lose. It's what you produced on examinations last week, and will start forgetting next week. Knowledge about things is mainly intellectual, and it demands a good memory and a sense of detachment. Its great virtue is objectivity, the ability to see things as they are, preferably on both sides. What you transfer to the university of the world is not this, but knowledge of things. Knowledge of things is really your vision of society, and is part of what you are. It is engaged and committed, not detached: it demands moral qualities, like courage, and holding it is a constant test of character. To join the university of the world it is not enough merely to do one's job and mind one's am business. To maintain the standards of culture is a fight, and a fight with enemies. It doesn't take long to discover who the enemies are: they are the people whose vision of society is that of a mob, who are dedicated to hysteria, slander, persecution and hatred. In some places the enemy has become so strong that the university of the world has been actually destroyed or driven underground. The institutions called Universities are still there: they still teach arts and science and train for professions and grant degrees, but their degrees are no good any more, because the essential social reason for producing them no longer exists.

A few years ago I was invited by my colleague Professor Roy Daniells to this campus, where I spent a pleasant summer teaching a course in Paradise Lost. One of the things about Paradise Lost that startles and amuses students is the curiously domesticated life that Milton ascribes to Adam and Eve in Eden. They are suburbanites too relaxed to bother putting on clothers, preoccupied with their gardening and their own sexual relations, delighted when an angel from the neighbouring city of God drops in for a cold lunch, exchanging news of their own activities for news of what goes on in the big world, about which they are mildly but not excessively curious. The atmosphere is rather like a New Yorker cartoon of a nudist camp with a naked retired colonel sitting in a leather chair with a drink and a cigar and reading the Times. This strikes us as grotesque because we thing of the original state of man as savage, emerging from an animal life by imperceptible stages. But Milton stands for that greater, older, wiser tradition which tells us that the original state of man was civilized, and that the suburbanite is closer to the core of human nature than the orang-utans is.

If man's original state is civilized, it is natural to assume that he actually lived in the first place in cities or gardens, which is why Christianity clung to the historical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth as long as it could. But most of us today feel rather that manís original state is not to be understood by his past, but by his present and his future, just as the original state of the acorn is not the pellet in the ground, but the oak tree it is trying to become. If you find this hard to understand, you need to develop your imagination, preferably by reading literature, and you can learn a great deal about it from your own British Columbia literature. If you read, or reread, the second story in Ethel Wilson's Equations of Love, "Lilyís Story," you will read a very simple account of how a girl puts up a gallant fight for herself and her child against her own background. Its meaning is less simple: its meaning is that a person's real character is revealed, not by what he has been or done, but by what he is trying to make of himself at any given moment, Next, I suggest you read Earle Birney's radio play, Trial of a City. Here the annihilation of Vancouver has been decided upon by some mysterious tribunal, and everyone who appears to defend the city shows that there is no reason in the world why this should not be done. Fortunately not all the reasons are in the world. The point is that man can always be condemned by his own past. What we have done becomes, forever, the property of the accuser of mankind, and as long as we assume that the future consists only of the logical consequences of the past, we can look forward to nothing but disaster.

This brings us, of course, to the chief preoccupation of our time, the apocalyptic explosion. We have certain mechanisms set up that, in a few minutes, can kill half the human race and destroy the value of living for the other half. And yet, others say, if we don't set this bomb off, we shall have a population explosion, where the world will become so crowded that having a large chest expansion will constitute an act of aggression. Shall we suffocate with life or with death? It is merely ignorant to imagine that this problem is original with us, and the answer to it is in the Book of Deuteronomy. "Behold, I have set before you today life and death; therefore choose life." The "therefore" is inserted not because it is logical, but precisely because it is illogical, the irrational choice that refuses to face the consequences of one's actions.

I imagine that, population explosion or not, you will see, in the remainder of your lifetime, a tremendous expansion of the University, in the specific or institutional sense. True, university authorities at present seem to be in an exclusive mood, concerned largely with discussing safe methods of student control. They have to: their budgets are limited by the blinkered vision of politicians: their staffs are being much too slowly processed through our graduate schools. But exclusiveness is not the answer: even raising standards is not the whole answer. I think already one can see how far and how fast the university is developing a new relation to society. Our language often operates in a way that conceals the changing facts of life from us, and we often continue to think of words in the sense we're accustomed to after they've ceased to bear that meaning. I remember a movie of my childhood called "So This is College", the theme of which was the rivalry of two football-players for the same girl. There was one academic reference in it: one of the heroes arranged to meet the girl In front of the English building. This put him one up on his rival, who apparently did not know here it was. Two minor characters were inserted for comic relief, a professor and a dean. It has taken the public a long time to outgrow this vulgar notion of "college" as a playground for spoiled children. We have tried to counteract it by stressing the traditional conception of university life, which includes leisure, youth, withdrawal from society, personal contact with teachers, and the like, and certain aspects of university life will, I hope, always be like that. But there is an immense amount of university work that has a quite different significance in society, and we canít go on indefinitely calling it university extension. I imagine that before long the universities may combine with other educational. bodies and media into a vast teaching network that will cover as much of human life as, say, parks do of well-planned cities. Perhaps we shall see them open, not merely to young people in the sex-dazed period of late adolescence, but to adults with the leisure and willingness to explore once again the world of the mind. In such a world the gap between the specific University and the university of the world would be less obvious, but it would still be there.

I have spoken of what you are about to be incorporated into, but this is a rite of separation too. I think there is an impressive significance in the fact that, of all institutions, the University is the only one that requires you to leave it. No church and no political party would ever admit that you can be graduated from them: they will always demand your vote and your allegiance. Of course the University expects you, as alumni, to retain some loyalty and affection for it, and you should: there is no point in throwing away what is part of your own identity. But it also dismisses you, because, while its reality is mainly in the past, it knows that your reality is always in the future, always beginning in the present moment, and that you move toward and not away from the discovery of your original state. Like a Spartan mother, it sends you out to stand or fall by the power and skill it has tried to give you: It is not careless about your fate, merely careful of your freedom.