Address to the Congregation of the University of British Columbia
May 30, 1969 by Professor R.G.W. Norrish

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, My Lord, Ladies and Gentlemen:

In honouring us today you are honouring all those who have worked with us, for it is indeed true to say that in all aspects of life no one can claim honour as exclusively his own, and I should like our associates and co-workers to know that are grateful for all that we owe to them. As our civilisation has evolved universities have become both more and more integrated and expanded. Abandoning the laissez faire and privilege of past generations they have become increasingly available to those able to profit by following the paths of learning and research; but their function lies not in scholarship alone. It involves character building in the widest sense, and the acquiring of technical skills in the arts and sciences upon which the richness as well as the wise leadership of our country depends.

Nevertheless, in spite of the great achievements of the past, there is everywhere becoming apparent an unrest whose origin is not easy to define and whose consequences often threaten to destroy or undermine the very foundations of the institutions which have giver it birth.

With the widespread extension of university privilege to all classes of people this rebellion of youth against established authority is perhaps not surprising, especially at a time of dislocation in world affairs. The mistakes of the past fifty years, obtrude themselves all too sharply on the rising generation to the exclusion of the achievements. In hard times everyone tends to be against the government, as witness my own country where the prime minister is struggling, to impose unpopular measures to keep the country economically on its feet, and to enable the workers to preserve what they have gained. The old mid-western saying "don't shoot the man at the piano, he’s doing his best", is still true. It certainly applies at the present time; unthinking anarchy can achieve nothing constructive in the end, and may destroy much of that which each one of us holds most dear.

There are many who honourably wish to change things who see this quite clearly; they understand the processes of evolution, the checks and balances that accompany revolutionary movement, and act accordingly: but there are others who from motives of escapism or opportunism, by selfish ignorance bring the honourable urge for positive reform into disrepute. They are not alone for it is a weakness present in all of us, which emerges in all sectors of life, and of which, being cognizant, we should all beware.


Man, proud man
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glaring essence like an angry ape plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.

Shakespeare’s lines are as true today as they have always been!

I am not one of those who believe in the dichotomy of knowledge as expressed in C.P. Snow’s conception of two cultures. I think there is much science in art and much art in science, as witness the invention of photography, the radio and television and musical instruments in general on the one hand, and the skill of the surgeon, the architect, and the engineer on the other: but it is perfectly plain that some disciplines are more exacting than others. The schedule of training for scientists needs drastic pruning, for over the years its content has grown with discovery so greatly as to leave little time for cultural education in the humanities. Likewise there is room for revision of the content of teaching for the humanities. In some of the older disciplines it has ofttimes become outworn and in some of the newer dangerously inadequate leaving too much time for immature extra curricular activity and experiment. Just as science needs leavening with a cultural extract of the humanities, so do the humanities need a similar injection of scientific understanding to make the whole man or woman, capable of dealing with those affairs of the world to which they are called. This in many cases will mean a drastic new approach to teaching; for just as the emergence of scientific, literary and artistic genius is to be encouraged, so also is the training and establishment of the worlds workers and leaders a basic responsibility of the university.

For this I believe we need two streams of training, bifurcating as early as possible within the university scheme of teaching but God help us to find the right criterion of choice.

We also need a criterion of choice for university entry itself; again God help us. In England we are endeavouring by empirical means to find those best fitted to profit by further education but we have a long way to go before our educationalists and psychologists can be sure of themselves. You have here the same problem which you will eventually solve in your own way. I hope that our separate efforts may supplement and support each other.

This brings me to a fundamental point: the fact that in England at least there has not been a corresponding development in the schools to match the great expansion of the universities. There is now a sad shortage of trained scientific and technical teachers, and without them we cannot hope to send enough sufficiently qualified science entrants to the universities. This is a problem which I believe is widespread beyond England. With more graduates from universities no doubt there will be more teachers but the competition of industry is very strong, and unless something is done to improve the prospects for the school teachers, we shall not attract a fair proportion of the best brains. Dedication is not enough; I believe that a more steeply graded scale of salaries is needed so that school teachers, when they reach the higher levels of their profession can match the higher industrial workers in their rewards.

These, it appears to me as an amateur are some of the emergent problems which face us as we move into the new world which is developing around us; they must be solved by good will and collaboration on the part of all who are concerned with education - the governors, the teachers and the taught. I will quote from my address given to the students of the University of Stockholm on the occasion of the Nobel celebrations of 1967. "It is difficult for me to speak to you, fellow students, for the young are bound to be impatient with the old and the old do not always understand the point of view of the young. I ask myself can generation speak to generation across the years? I do not know, for the progress of intellectual thought is not smooth. It may follow a winding course as through an uncharted forest, emerging now and then into a sudden burst of sunlight, but often becoming lost and sorely troubled, not seeing the great wood itself because there are so many trees.

In our case however, I think we can take heart from the goodwill that strengthens all men of good intent. We can take heart because we represent the forefront of human endeavour — we and all our brothers and sisters in places of learning throughout the world. We are the spearpoint of that mysterious force of evolution which has brought consciousness to life on earth — consciousness that has made it possible for us to extrapolate in the time and space, and however feebly, to discern something of the great mystery of the universe around us.

We should dwell on this thought. It means that consciousness is not a property located solely in the individual, but rather that it is potentially present in all forms of life from which we have evolved, down to the most simple. It means that consciousness is a property of the universe which has given us birth and which therefore may be said to have god-like attributes to which we cleave and which make us infinitesimally part of God. If I may paraphrase, there are more things in heaven and earth, ladies and gentlemen, than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

Let us follow the implications of this line of thought so far as it affects us. It means that intellectually we cannot exist alone; each depends for the progress of his thought upon those who went before and those who work beside him. It means that ultimately our world could be unified by the intellect rather than destroyed by the sword, and that if wisdom and understanding prevail in the conduct of our life processes and our communal affairs, we may veritably reach for the stars. At least, my friends, I say let us try. Let us seek that friendship and understanding with all the races of mankind which comes of intellectual intercourse, both humanistic and scientific and which transcends all those petty racial and nationalistic fears and taboos which threaten to destroy us — to destroy us just as we are seeing the sunshine through the trees.

We must all work; each must find the right work according to his talents — let us work "together."

For those worthy students who have not achieved high honours I have this short story about the great Scottish writer and poet, Sir Walter Scott: towards the close of his life he was prevailed upon to visit his old school and to listen to a lesson in English (or Scottish) with which he was well satisfied. At the end he turned to the teacher and said, "now tell me domine which one is the bottom boy of the class?"

The teacher complied; indicating a rather apprehensive looking boy, he ordered, "McPherson, come here!" Poor McPherson came forward with trepidation; he thought he was in for another beating. Sir Walter Scott looked sternly at the boy for some time, then smilingly he held out his hand and said, "Shake, McPherson, here's five shillings for keeping my seat warm!"

Perhaps after all the old can sometimes speak to the young.

Sir Kenneth Clark, a veritable giant among men has recently completed a splendid series of television broadcasts in England on "civilisation" in which he gives a masterful analysis of its growth in terms of all forms of art expression and scientific achievement. In the peroration to his concluding lecture he expresses certain sentiments which I would like to leave with you; and because he says so much more clearly than I could what I would like to have said myself I quote him verbatim. He says, and I quote:

"... When I look at the world about me I don't at all feel that we are entering a new period of Barbarism. The things that made the Dark Ages so dark — the isolation, the lack of mobility, the lack of curiousity, the hopelessness — don't obtain at all. When I have the good fortune to visit one of our new universities it seems to me that the inheritors of all our catastrophies look cheerful enough — not at all like the melancholy late Romans or pathetic Gauls whose likenesses have come down to us. In fact, I should doubt if so many people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded as the young are today".

He goes on later to say

"at this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men have not changed much in the last 2000 years and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are difficult to put shortly, for example I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other peoples’ feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."

I too believe in these simple and profound truths; I believe you all do too, but it is good that a man like Kenneth Clark should remind us of them in such a graceful way.

Mr. Chancellor, I thank you and the members of the senate of this great university for the great honour you have done us in receiving us into the body of your alumni. For me it is a great pleasure to be back on your beautiful campus where I have spent many happy hours and to see the progress of your university — moving from strength to strength. May it continue to prosper and be a guiding light for all those within and without its gates, now and in the future.