D e a n’ s  B l o g

Imagining Otherwise

It seems that much of what lies at the core of FASS is under attack these days, from governments who don’t wish to fund teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences, to journalists and some business leaders who see no role for universities beyond training that leads to very specific jobs—jobs that can be used by industry to generate profits. The past week witnessed a number of discouraging stories, from the layoffs at the National Gallery of Canada to the attack on academic freedom at the University of Calgary. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I have ever agreed with Tom Flanagan on anything, nor am I likely to do so. But to hound him because he dared to raise a question for debate, namely whether those who viewed child pornography on the internet merited incarceration, disturbs me dearly. As readers of these weekly musings will know well, I am one who believes that an important part of the value accorded to society by universities is their function as a place of open discussion and debate, a place where we challenge the ideas, although not the individual who gives voice to them. Regardless of what we might think about this or any other issue, there has to be, somewhere, a forum for open discussion, a place where no subject is taboo, and I am increasingly wary of those who seek instead to enforce their views by stifling debate, or by resorting to “ad hominem” attacks. Indeed the latter seem to have replaced traditional debates in our parliament, certainly during the infamous Question Period. But surely we must despair when they also become prominent on our university campuses. Ultimately, better behavior, both our own and that of our fellow travellers on this planet, comes from the belief that it is the right thing to do, not because of arbitrary judgments or even legislation.

There are so many issues in our society, on our campus, and even in our own minds, which cry out for more thoughtful attention. Where does one start? Is the task impossible? And even if it is impossible, does that invalidate the effort?

I derived some insight on these questions last Saturday at the 12th annual New Sun Conference on Aboriginal Arts. The first speaker was Dorothy Grant, a Vancouver-based fashion designer whose garments incorporate riffs on traditional Haida designs. I shall confess that I am not one who pays much attention to fashion, as my partner and children have been at pains to point out to me for decades. Clothing is simply not something I think about a lot, and I may be the only person in North America who has crossed into his seventh decade without ever donning a pair of jeans. But, quite frankly, Dorothy’s clothing designs were absolutely stunning. And she also had much wisdom to impart, in particular with regard to the Haida value of respect for oneself and what one does. I think we need a lot more of that value in our universities, and most particularly in the area of the “liberal arts”. These constitute the bedrock of human civilization, and we need to fly that flag proudly … and loudly. Respecting oneself requires knowing oneself, as the ancient Greeks understood so well. And here again universities have an important role to play in preparing individuals for their future life, simply by offering the possibility of a voyage of self-discovery.

Another Vancouver resident, Daniel Heath Justice, a writer and academic in the Dept. of English at the University of British Columbia, spoke of the importance of story-telling, both fiction and non-fiction, to create identity, to develop understanding, and at times also to heal. I owe him my title this week, which was also his. Our job as academics—both faculty and students—is to understand the current state of our world, and imagine otherwise.

But perhaps the most memorable quip of the day came from celebrated stage and screen actress Tantoo Cardinal, who addressed squarely the issue of feeling inadequate and powerless when there is evidently so much to be done. As she reminded us, “You cannot eat the whole bannock at once. One piece at a time!”
The New Sun conference is an amazing annual experience, and my only regret was learning that some were turned away this year, for lack of space. It is worth remembering that this and other valuable aspects of our life in FASS are only possible due to the generosity of donors, like New Sun herself, who have a vision, and then work to make it happen. I hope that we can all be inspired by her sterling example.

As we move into the season of the 2013 Campus Community campaign, let us all resolve to take our own particular piece of bannock by choosing one thing that is important to us and then helping to make it happen.

Posted on Sunday, March 3rd, 2013 in Dean’s Blog

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A presentation of the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture
with the support of the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and the New Sun Fund
administered by the Community Foundation of Ottawa, plus the generosity of private donors