Making peace with flux

Editor’s Notebook
Back in 1927, Harry Crane Perrin, McGill’s first dean of music, promised a crowd of new graduates that his faculty would never stoop to teaching jazz, a musical genre he derided for its “deleterious effect on public taste.”Guess which university currently operates one of the best-regarded jazz programs in North America? Sorry, Harry.

Convocation addresses may not always be terribly prescient, but they can be counted on to offer plenty of juicy food for thought. Universities, thankfully, tend to be pretty choosy in who they hand out their honorary degrees to. Nicole Ritchie, Doctor of Science? I think not. Kevin Federline, LLD? As a harbinger for an imminent apocalypse, perhaps.

More than 6,000 new McGill graduates served as the star attractions in a series of convocation ceremonies that were recently held on the downtown and Macdonald campuses. They received some thoughtful advice from the honorary degree recipients who spoke.

Daniel Dennett, for instance, one of the most influential philosophers of our era, talked about why it’s so important to be cognizant of what has transpired in the past. He was talking about his own field, but it doesn’t require much of a leap to apply his conclusions to a wider spectrum.

“The history of philosophy is largely the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people,” he told an assemblage of science graduates. Translation: The best method for avoiding screw-ups is to pay close attention to how others have screwed up before you. Quoting one of his own heroes, legendary McGill cognitive scientist Donald Hebb, Dennett added, “If it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.”

That’s the sort of insight that would probably be foreign to the frustrating fellow that Lily Dionne-Jermanovich, BA’07, once encountered. She described “Smug-Man-from-Saint-Henri-Coffee-Shop” in the valedictory remarks she delivered to arts and religious studies graduates on May 31.

As Dionne-Jermanovich noted, Smug-Man is a very familiar figure to anyone who has ever concluded that going to university to study literature or linguistics, art history or anthropology, is a worthy activity. The question posed by him and his confreres is entirely predictable. What in heaven’s name will such a degree equip you to do?

In her thoughtful and bilingual remarks, Dionne-Jermanovich, a cultural studies graduate, responded with a well-reasoned retort. As they wrestle with Kafka, Kierkegaard and the Koran, arts grads come to realize that there are no easy answers and that there are precious few quick fixes. Life, as a consequence, isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always interesting.

“A liberal arts degree builds in us a comfort with open-endedness, with flux, with instability. And with this comfort comes resilience.” Graduates venture out “into a less-structured ‘real world’ with a heightened sense of ourselves.”

I don’t think I can match that sort of eloquence, so I’ll just add this. Thanks to the magic of Google, I was able to determine the following about Dionne-Jermanovich’s time at McGill (and in 30 seconds flat): She was an award- winning student, a competitive tennis player, an actress in student productions, a McGill Daily writer, and the co-organizer of an arts festival.

If such a remarkable young woman is so determinedly proud of the time she spent here, McGill is obviously doing something right. So stick that in your café latte, Smug-Man.

Speaking of flux, you might notice that the McGill News doesn’t quite look like itself. To paraphrase Donald Hebb, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing even better. For many years, editors Diana Grier Ayton and Andrew Mullins established this publication as one of the best alumni magazines in the country and they earned the awards to prove it.

Vice-Principal (Development, Alumni and University Relations) Ann Dowsett Johnston has collected plenty of magazine awards herself as a longtime editor and journalist at Maclean’s. Under her direction (and with some very imaginative contributions from our designer Steven McClenaghan), we’ve worked hard to develop a fresher, crisper and bolder look for the magazine. Hope you like what you read. And if something strikes you as amiss, let me know. I’m always happy to learn from my readers.

Daniel McCabe

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