The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: university

More Than Buildings

Ater b and w

“A UNIVERSITY IS JUST A GROUP OF BUILDINGS gathered around a library,” wrote American historian Shelby Foote years ago. It’s just the kind of minimalist view that Socrates would have disagreed with forcefully. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” the old philosopher wrote not too many years prior to his death.

It’s likely that Shelby never took into account just what such an institution of higher learning would mean to billions around the world. To them it would be the highest of all attainments, a grand destination for all those seeking enlightenment.

In the regions of South Sudan where we have volunteered for years, there is no greater ambition, no desire higher for a family, than to see kids get to the post-secondary level. The problem is that there just aren’t those opportunities where most people live – high school is as far as they can get. It’s one of the great tragedies of our day that a people who have endured decades of civil war, completed a successful peace process, and formed their own nation (the world’s newest), can’t rise to the level of their own aspirations for lack of opportunity.

When we first adopted our kids from South Sudan, community leaders understood that something remarkable was now possible for the three kids, and so they counseled with us to do everything in our power to get them to university. We took them 100% seriously and then just a few days ago came confirmation that our son, Ater (17), had been accepted at Kings University College in London. Jane and I sat together on the couch as we heard the news and all the weight of that promise we made to those community leaders suddenly lifted from us.

I still recall the very first day we took Ater to public school. He was only nine-years old but had never had a day of schooling in his life. He was nervous and held my hand on the way there. Then he saw the other kids playing on the school ground, instinctively moving towards them in a subtle wish to enjoy a childhood that had previously been kept from him. The bell rang and he rushed with the others toward the door. Suddenly he stopped and ran back to hug me, saying words I shall forever cherish: “Thank you, Daddy. I wanted an education more than anything and you and Mom got it for me. Thank you.” With that he was gone and likely didn’t think of me for the rest of the day in his new and playful world.

But I never forgot one moment of it, even until this day. Look at the picture on this page. He carries the hopes of an entire Southern Sudanese nation in that smile, along with the heartfelt wishes of a Mom and Dad who cherish him. Perhaps even more vital, his courageous mother who gave her life in Sudan so that he might be free to have this moment must be beaming in heaven. With her life she gave him a path ahead, and with our resources we will follow through on that dream for him.

Ultimately, this is Ater’s moment. He did it, despite all the obstacles he has faced in his young life. To him, Kings University College is something far more transcendent and marvelous than a bunch of buildings around a library. It is his springboard to an enlightened life in which he will learn to help others and grow in the process.

I think of the observation of Richard Levins: “A scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” If so, then the opposite is also true: Enlightenment that can embrace a struggling humanity is the greatest service offered by any educational institution. It’s your time, Ater – take it. Build on that absolutely transcendent disposition of yours, and to it add a renewed commitment to allow your knowledge to take you where humanity requires the most hope and a sense of justice.  From heaven and earth, we’ll be watching with pride.

 

 

 

 

Blood Purple

Glen jumping

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” … Albert Einstein

WHEN I ASSESS WHAT I EXPERIENCED YESTERDAY through these observations of Einstein, I realize I was never more fully alive. Standing before a filled to capacity Alumni Hall at Western University, and for the first time in life being introduced as “Doctor Glen Pearson,” I was carried along by emotions not of my own making and immersed in tradition far greater than any single life.

And yet the subject of my commencement speech was the sheer power of the enlightened individual. Before me sat graduates, all gowned in Western’s purple, who were about set to unleash their great talents and passions on a world that would surely be shaped different by their efforts. And for that brief few moments, all that youth and vitality mixed with my older years into what was the graduated class of 2014.

I had been robed earlier and stood with my family and Western President Amit Chakma for some official pictures, feeling welcomed and honoured, as only great educational institutions can accomplish. Filing in with the other dignitaries through the gathering of those who were about to become my graduating peers was a kind of baptism into a new family, keen of mind and prone for adventure.

No sooner was I bestowed with the Honourary Doctorate of Laws than I was asked to address the graduates, their families, and the faculty. I had been prepared, but the moment I stepped up to the microphone, it was immediately apparent to me that I was filled with a kind of awe – an historical mystery of time and place that makes one feel ennobled and humbled in the same moment. For the briefest of seconds I couldn’t speak. I was being swallowed up and singled out by tradition in a single act of great kindness and honour that only a great university can bestow.

I spoke of what the moment meant to my family. There before me was Margaret Roy, my mother-in-law – 91-years old and a woman of pioneering spirit who graduated from Western University in the year of my birth, 1950. When she was singled out, the audience welcomed and honoured her with warm applause. But present too were my wife Jane and a number of my children who were Western graduates. My three Sudanese kids will soon be graduating from those hallowed halls as well. And now, for the very first time, I would join the great Western family as one of its own.  Our veins would flow purple.

But the heart of the speech was really about the power of the individual and its capacity to shape and better the world. I recalled the words of Jane Austen – “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” – and stated that it was finally time to file such an outlook into the history books. There before me were hundreds of graduates and most of them were women, about ready to challenge their world, not only by their presence, but their abilities and gifts. Yet rather than merely applaud that fact, why not actually give them positions of leadership as a way of embracing a better form of humanity – more inclusive, gifted, and equal?

The remainder of my speech I don’t recall so well. I was, fully and meaningfully, lost in the body of my peers. All that I would expect of them, I must accept of myself. If they were brimming with potential, then so was I, despite my years. In an instant I knew that the standing ovation that resulted said more about the dedicated hopes and aspirations of those graduates and their families than in any words I could have shaped. It was their way of saying, “We’re set and ready to make the world a place to which our dreams call us.

I went into the day as a citizen and came away from it an honoured soul. With my mother-in-law, my 7 children, 4 grandchildren, and numerous friends, I stood in awe of the power of an enlightened institution about to be infused with a renewed legacy of teeming life. And I realized that, while some pursue meaning, all of these people who filled my day were about to create it. The world would never quite be the same because of that potential.

If the greatest thing about wisdom is to spot the miraculous in the common, then yesterday was a moment of great clarity and promise. The awe of it remains with me today, but the responsibility towards the creation of that new world now weighs heavier on all those who were present yesterday. We are up to the task.

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