I would like to contribute to this season of primary and secondary schools’ graduation ceremonies by having published an edited version of the text of a graduation address I gave to the 2008 graduating class of Harrison College as follows:
All of you graduates gathered here this evening came through and absorbed your seven years of educational instruction and discovery at Harrison College, and you are now graduating as members of the newest group of young intellectuals of our Barbadian society.
Yes, I use the word “intellectual” very deliberately! You are all intellectuals, and I want to spend a few minutes talking to you about the joy, responsibility and duties of being an intellectual in a developing country.
When Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers of the Republic of the United States of America were preparing
themselves to smash the British colonial system and to establish a new society, they issued a Declaration Of Independence in which they dedicated their new society to guaranteeing “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
What was new in this formulation was the concept of “the pursuit of happiness”. John Locke and the other founders of British liberalism had argued that the legitimate role of government was to protect “life, liberty and property”. But the American founding fathers substituted the concept of “pursuit of happiness” for “property”. (Perhaps somebody should give George Bush, Dick Cheney and the other capitalist “maguffies” who go around the world stealing other people’s property and causing great unhappiness, a lesson in American history!)
Anyhow, the concept of the pursuit of happiness goes back to the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who saw “happiness” not in terms of acquiring property or indulging in hedonistic sensual pleasures, but in human beings fulfilling their innate and God-given potential and purpose in life.
And at the heart of this innate humanness is the intellect ––the unique capacity of men and women for thinking, for cognition, for mental creativity: our capacity to use our human intellect to penetrate to and comprehend the universal principles or laws that govern the universe and that govern life on earth in all of its dimensions.
The only creatures capable of doing that are human beings! And when we do that, and use the knowledge derived to improve or further develop God’s creation, then we are fulfilling our potential and purpose as human beings, and are pursuing happiness.
I therefore want to encourage all of you to pursue and appreciate the joys of the intellect! The joy of re-enacting and rediscovering in your own mental processes the great intellectual discoveries of mankind. The joy of conquering new areas of knowledge. The joy of thinking, of playing with ideas, of making new discoveries, and of deploying ideas.
Do not become a utilitarian who is only interested in education in so far as it helps him or her to qualify for a job! Rather, be passionately interested in knowledge as the expression of your highest human potential. This world, this Caribbean, this Barbados desperately need men and women who are passionately interested in knowledge and truth.
I therefore urge you to see yourselves as intellectuals, and to take upon yourselves the challenge of leading a revolution of the intellect in our society –– a former slave and colonial society that has often been derided as being anti-intellectual.
And I do not mean that in an elitist way! I am not here suggesting any form of elitism. In fact, just the opposite. The gift of the intellect is the gift of all men and women.
And one of the evil things that our class-ridden society has done is to erect a false and degrading division between so-called “mental” labour and “manual” labour.
Therefore, part of your job –– as you pursue the joys of the intellect, as you combat the anti-intellectualism of our society, and as you seek to
transform Barbados into a society of ideas and creative thinking –– is to demolish the artificial and unnecessary barriers between so-called “mental” and “manual” labour.
I, for one, strongly believe that it is possible to make the world of ideas –– the world of culture, history, literature and philosophy, and even the world of science –– accessible to all categories of labour in our society.
Permit me, therefore, to fortify this point by quoting from a tribute which I penned upon receipt of news of the untimely death of Barbados’ greatest natural scientist Professor Oliver Headley.
This is what I said on that occasion:
. . . Whenever I got the chance to speak about the tremendous contributions that African people on the continent and in the Diasporan have made to science over the centuries, it always gave me great pleasure to be able to cite Professor Oliver Headley as a living example of our unquestioned ability in this sphere of knowledge and activity.
And I am convinced that of all our scientists, Professor Headley, because of his specialization in the field of solar energy, was the one best placed to make a fundamental breakthrough in infusing our people with a scientific sensibility and passion.
I don’t know if Professor Headley ever read the work of Simone Weil, the enigmatic French philosopher of the 1930s and 1940s, but in a 1943 memorandum to the exiled French government of General de Gaulle, she explained the necessity and methodology of bringing science to the French people as an integral part of post-war reconstruction:
“Science should be presented to rural people and urban workmen in very different ways. In the case of urban workmen, it is natural that mechanics should occupy the foremost place.
“In that of rural people, everything should be centred around the wonderful cycle whereby solar energy, poured down into plants, is retained in them by the action of chlorophyll, becomes concentrated in seeds and fruits, enters into man in the form of food or drink, passes into his muscles and spends itself on preparing the soil. Everything connected with science can be situated around this cycle, for the notion of energy is at the heart of everything.
“Were the thought of this cycle to sink deep
into the minds of French peasants, it would permeate their labour with poetry.”
I am sure Professor Headley would have seen his vocation in similar terms –– bringing light and poetry to our people.
The other major point I wish to make to you is that the time has come when all of us who care about this Barbados, this Caribbean, this world, need to do our best work –– now!
Make no mistake about it, our civilization has come to a critical crossroads, and is facing what is perhaps its most fundamental crisis of the past 100 years. Put simply, we are now in the beginning phase of a profound international economic and financial crisis, an energy crisis, a food crisis, an ecological and environmental crisis, and a moral and ethical crisis –– a veritable system of multiple crises, creating onen single systemic crisis of our civilization.
And you, the new and upcoming generation of leaders and shapers of our society, need to respond to this existential crisis by doing your best work ever.
You must not do like previous generations and be content to slavishly look for and follow leadership and trends from “over in away” ––from North America and Europe.
In fact, they are the ones who are mostly responsible for the crisis, and they have very little to teach us. Instead, be prepared to look within to the best of our own history, inventions and achievements, and seek to build up and add to these foundations.
(David Comissiong, an attorney-at-law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)