Speech to UNITEC Graduates

The following speech was given last night in the Auckland Town Hall to the graduates of one of Auckland's universities [UNITEC]. The faculties represented were Design, Performing and Screen Arts, Social Practice, and Sport.

Tena koutou te whanau o Unitec. Tena koutou e Hare, e Ted, e Rick. Tena koutou nga manuhiri. Nau mai, haere mai. Kia ora ra. Ki nga iwi e tau e.

Today is a day to feel good, to celebrate, to congratulate yourself, to thank your long-suffering support team, and to thank and for most of you to say goodbye to the academic staff. Today is a day when your tenacious support team feels proud of you, proud of what you’ve achieved, and quietly relieved it is finished.

What’s it all been for? “Well Glynn,” you might say, “It gives us a ticket – access – to a place and type of work that will hopefully stimulate, challenge, and pay us. The ticket indicates to society that we have the skills necessary for this stage in our chosen profession.’

I’ve spent time in four tertiary educational institutions. There’s very little in the way of facts or formulas that I can still remember from those days. What I can remember is now intellectually, and probably morally, redundant. I did get four tickets that have been useful. Yet much more importantly tertiary education gave me five little pebbles.

The first pebble is a love of learning. Learning is for life. It is to be enjoyed. One of the greatest gifts you can give to children, students, or trainees is your infectious love of learning. So, never take a job (if you can possibly help it) where you don’t think you are going to learn anything.

The second pebble is a rigour in your learning. Devise for yourself and your colleagues critical peer interaction. When you meet once a month for a coffee and catch up with the gossip, think also about another type of meeting when you’ve all read the same journal article and corporately critique it. Education is like tuning a violin. In time a violin goes out of tune, and sounds awful. You need to work out ways to keep your violins (your education) tuned, and don’t think your employers are always going to do it for you.

The third pebble I call a bullshit detector. There is a lot of suspicious smelly stuff out there that gets passed off as true, good, and wholesome. Use your nose, the one with the sense of smell your tutors and you have been developing, and then have the courage to name it for what it is.

I heard a story the other day that exemplifies what I mean. There was a school board in Tennessee in the heart of the Bible belt, which was wrestling with whether or not to introduce a foreign-language curriculum. After heated discussion, the debate was brought to an end by one board member who declared: “No way! If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for my boy.”

Religion has a long history of being used as a vehicle for prejudice. But hopefully as you heard this story your bullshit detector was ringing loudly. Although you might not know the three languages Jesus could speak, you might have hunched that English wasn’t a language in 1st century Palestine!

The fourth pebble that tertiary education gave me is the value of taking time to think. A business that has employees rushing around all day, performance measures that relate to the number of tasks completed, and a fixation on monetary outcomes is on its way to a crash. That business is not taking time to listen. To listen to its employees, let alone its customers. It is trading in what it knows, rather than listening for what it doesn’t know. It is focused on certainties, rather than making time to grapple with, and marvel at, the large uncertainties.

The fifth and last pebble is to know what is at the heart of your vocation. Vocation is a big picture word, and I’m now going to make, as an outsider, an educated guess about the heart of your vocations.

Design and Performing and Screen Arts seem to me to be about the power of beauty and the imagination. They are not about designing something or entertaining people – those are by-products. They are about creating beauty – of structure, space, movement and screen – and evoking the imagination. These feed our souls. They touch something deep within us. Your skills and sensibilities can create a grace-filled space in which hurt can be held - sometimes even healed – and dreams can be born.

So when you are labelled by your status in your industry – apprentice designer, chorus line dancer, coffee collector… somewhere way down the totem pole – just remember that what you really are is a creator of beauty and a catalyst for the imagination, both of which nourish the world’s soul. And base your confidence and authority in that self-perception, not in your pay or position in the industry.

The heart of the vocation of Social Practice is people and their communities and what makes them flourish. It is about connectedness, and how to restore it when it’s lost. It’s about walking with people, sharing kai, sharing pain, laughing, weeping… and using your self-belief to create the conditions for others’ self-belief to emerge and be emboldened.

So when you are some junior social worker or trainee manager, remember that it isn’t about money (though money can help), nor is it about forms and papers (though they too can be helpful), nor is it about pleasing your superiors (though we all somewhat do it), but at heart its about a way of connecting with people that encourages and builds communities of self-belief, respect, and hope.

The realm of sport, coaching, and the management they require, also has a vocational heart. My guess is that it’s to do with integrating mind and body, and minds and bodies with their environment. In spirituality we would call such integrating ‘building a unitive consciousness’.

Let me give an example. I once saw eight 14-year-old boys in their season of rowing defeat that school’s Senior 8. The Senior 8 were all 3 or 4 years older with significantly superior skills, strength, and stamina. What the group of 14 year-olds had was their minds tuned to their bodies, and their minds and bodies tuned to each other. It was phenomenal to watch. They only beat that Senior 8 once though, but oh the glory of it. The unity of mind transcended the limits of the body to achieve the remarkable.

Sport is not only about bodies, and skills, and winning. That’s just the surface stuff. The heart of it is fostering a oneness of mind, body, team, and environment. That oneness brings with it a vitality and deep satisfaction, which can then be woven into the whole course of people’s lives.

So 5 pebbles: love of learning, and a rigorous pursuit of it; a nose for detecting dubious information and alerting others; the art of taking time to think; and knowing the heart of your vocation.

I call them pebbles because there’s an archetypal mythical story (which is code for saying it didn’t actually happen but its important anyway) about a young boy David who challenged a giant Goliath to a duel. And David chose five pebbles as his weapons.

There are values, thinking, systems, and structures – sometimes of Goliath proportions – that are opposed to the values within your professions. There are those who will seek to reduce beauty to utility, to reduce art to entertainment, to reduce social practice to sweeping up the messy bits discarded by fiscal and economic policies, and to reduce sport to medals, cups, and television. There will be pressure exerted upon you to conform to narrow definitions, to curtail your ideas to fit within blinkered plans, to prioritise obedience to the budget over the freedom of the imagination and the good of the community… These Goliath manifestations have the capacity to squash and demean and destroy anyone who gets in their way.

The mythic story has David acting on behalf of and for the good of the many. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that those who are blessed with the resources of mind, and sometimes capital, have a responsibility to use those resources on behalf of and for the good of the many.

The mythic story also does not extol so much the power of the pebbles, but the courage of the one who carried them. They won’t do you much good unless you are the intestinal fortitude to use them. So be strong, be tenacious, and be brave. And be prepared to bear the cost for your courage.

In the end David only needed one pebble. A little can change a whole lot.

Kia kaha.