Gregory O'Brien: In praise of staying put

Gregory O'Brien
Kevin Stent/Fairfax NZ

Gregory O'Brien

Wellington writer and artist Gregory O'Brien was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Victoria University this week for his contribution to New Zealand artistic life. This edited excerpt from his acceptance speech, delivered at the graduation ceremony on May 18, 2017, celebrates the value of a Humanities degree

OPINION: We often hear that the youth of today are very slow to leave home.

They linger for years, decades even, endlessly shuttling between childhood bedroom, kitchen-fridge and sofa. In Italy and Chile, according to various reports, the average male doesn't leave home until he's 37.

As parents, we might well feel obliged to evict these ne'er-do-wells, for their own good. But are these homebodies really such a problem?

I would like to speak briefly in praise of Not Leaving Home, in praise of Hanging On, Refusing To Go. Although, in this case, the home I'd like us all to not be leaving is the house of learning, the university – a place that, if it has done its job well, should have become, by now, the intellectual and spiritual home of each of us.

When I graduated BA from Auckland University in 1984, I never made it more than a few metres down the road. In hindsight, I think of my trajectory outwards as that of a horizontal bungee jumper. I am still rebounding.

Within a few months, I was back there, illustrating a book for poet C.K. Stead, which was published by Auckland University Press; there were readings, conversations, publications, a literary journal called Rambling Jack launched in the English Department common room, an occasional beer with Karl or Bill Pearson or Dennis McEldowney across the road at the hotel referred to enigmatically as the Big I.

Although I never enrolled in another course, I have continued to raid the academic fridge for provisions in the 33 years since graduation.

Universities are far broader community than their tenured staff and enrolled students. You'll know this soon enough. For decades now, I have been generously plied with sustenance of many kinds – not only from the realms of English Literature and Art History (my majors).

Like my mother's province of Taranaki, the university is a place where all of us are connected and where new connections are forever being made. It could be described as an immensely subtle space of collaboration, communion and ongoing conversation across different territories.

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I will conclude by celebrating the great potential of the university to explore human life and what lies within, beyond and around it. That, for me, is why the word university is nestled up so closely to the related word "universe". It means the study of everything … the state of being alive, of looking in every direction, of being curious and open to wonder.

When human beings think, it is the universe thinking its thoughts – that point was made by the mathematician/poet Lars Gustafsson. In a parallel fashion, you could say the university is a society thinking its thoughts, sorting out its priorities. A university should never be reduced to a trade school or technical institute for the professions. Neither should it ever be labelled a "service provider" and its students "clients".

According to the 1990 Education Act, our universities are charged with, among other things, being society's "critic and conscience". How heartening it is to see so many people graduating in the Humanities. The vexed state of the world is a constant reminder of how essential the Humanities are to the well-being of our society, our cultures and possibly even our species.

If Donald Trump had a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare's plays, I have no doubt he would make a better president. Has there ever been a time in history when we've been more in need of dynamic, insightful work in such fields as religious studies? In an era characterised by doubt, anxiety and stress, we need the Arts generally, not to fill an ornamental function but to complete who we are.

As, together, we become more profoundly a part of this archipelago of Aotearoa/New Zealand, we also acknowledge the status of Maori and other Pacific peoples as our older, wiser siblings in this oceanic realm.

In that context, I thank and celebrate this university, this universe of human thinking, seeing, feeling and being, this home we carry with us, this well-stocked refrigerator, this marae of such things as we care deeply about – the university on the hill, another ancestral mountain for all of us here today.

 - The Dominion Post

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