Thoughts for the Journey Ahead
Dr. Millard W. Arnold
Member of Council
The University of the Free State
2018 Commencement Address
University of the Free State
Masters and Doctoral Candidates
Dr. Mokhele, Chancellor of the University;
Professor Petersen, Vice Chancellor and Rector of the University,
Mr. Willem Louw, Chairperson of the Council of the University,
Members of Council present,
Presenters of Candidates
Professors and Colleagues
Members of Faculty
Administrative Staff of the University
Ladies and Gentlemen
And last, but certainly not least, the candidates for Masters and Doctoral degrees, the reason we are gathered here this afternoon.
Indeed, it is an extraordinary accomplishment which you have achieved and I invite everyone present here to join me in a round of applause in appreciation for what you have realized.
I’m not really sure why I’ve been asked to speak to you today – I’ve always believed that commencement addresses were given by someone that people really wanted to hear. Someone who is famous, or has done something staggering like climb Mount Everest blindfolded. Or maybe a comedian who could have you rolling in the aisles. Well sorry for you, I’m no one in particular, have trouble climbing stairs and the funniest thing I’ve ever done, might have been showing up here today. I guess I was chosen, because I didn’t know better, or maybe it was because we have this thing with American accents might sound really cool.
Well, whatever the reason, here I is….I’ve been instructed to be inspirational, but if I can’t pull that off, then by all means, be as brief as possible. I suppose what that means, is that if you’re going to bomb, get it over with as quickly as you can and put folks out of their misery.
How can you be inspirational to a room full of geeks? I mean, high achievers? You’ve already accomplished what very few ever achieve, and something your loved ones are probably still wonder how you pulled it off, so what could be remotely relevant or of interest to people who write dissertations on subjects like “The Propulsion Parameters of Penguin Poop”, or “Which Can Jump Higher, The Dog Flea or the Cat Flea?” Those are actually dissertations, although they were not done here. In fact the Flea dissertation was the 2008 winner of the Annals of Improbable Research’s Ig Nobel Prize in the biology category, You may not have heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes but it recognizes the feats of those who “make people laugh… and then think.” By the way, it’s the dog flea that jumps higher.
I am honoured and pleased to address you this afternoon, but truthfully, I am privileged and humbled at having this opportunity. You are moments away from being bestowed with some of the highest honours a university can offer, but more importantly, you have positioned yourself to go forward from here and have an immeasurable impact on society and our world at large. You have positioned yourself to be difference makers and you have positioned yourself to change the trajectory of a country and a continent desperately in need of the skills and talents you now possess.
I’d like to share to thoughts with you this afternoon, and I’m afraid neither of them are inspirational. The first is our continuing need for more PhDs and the second is my concern about mental health issues which are increasingly a devastating by-product of graduate schools worldwide. Hopefully, somewhere near the end, I can find a thought or two which you might find inspirational
I was recently struck by a report from the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Study of 2016 which ranked South Africa 137th out of 139 countries for the overall quality of its education system. It placed South Africa’s mathematics and science education last out of 139 countries. These are not good statistics, It may well have something to do with our failure to produce enough doctoral graduates. In her penetrating review of doctoral education in South Africa, Professor Chaya Herman of the University of Pretoria notes that “While South Africa has produced approximately 30,000 PhD degrees since 1899, Australia, another former British colony, which only introduced the PhD degree in 1948, has awarded more than 94,000 PhDs by 2009.” It is evident”, she writes, that in spite of the long history of the doctorate, years of exclusivity and discrimination and the absence of a PhD culture…have stunted the development of knowledge production and research capacity at doctoral level in South Africa with devastating consequences”.
I have not had the opportunity to see the more recent data, but the material I did review indicates that South Africa produces doctorates at the rate of one eighth of the rate of the European Union in the 25 to 34 year age group. Professor Johann Mouton of the University of Stellenbosch’s Centre for Research on Science and Technology, notes that in South Africa, most doctoral students who complete their degrees do so on a part-time basis, consequently they are more mature, often in their 40s by the time they graduate. “That’s not productive for the economy,” he points out. Continuing, he says, “there is no money in the system to give doctoral students a scholarship to finish three years and go straight from their masters degree.”
Although nearly 20 percent of the national budget is allocated to education, it reflectS a lack of appreciation of the systemic nature of our educational system. Understandably, much of our educational spend is directed at primary and tertiary levels where the need is greatest, however, it fails to address the pipeline issues, which is the necessity for doctoral graduate – like many of you here this afternoon – to train the next generation of academics. Less than half of South Africa’s full time academics have PhDs, but as they retire, we are unable to replace them, which should be a national concern as it impacts the very foundation of our academic system. To echo Professor Herman, extreme intervention is necessary to increase the pool of PhD candidates so as to allow for a sufficient supervisory capacity to monitor and guide doctoral studies.
This is not meant to be a harangue. Rather, what this is, is a plea for those of you who are uncertain about a professorial life, to think again, and for those of you who are committed to academia, to appreciate the importance of your contribution and what it could mean to the future of the nation.
Some few weeks ago, former African heads of states gathered in Johannesburg to pose solutions to the problem of education and learning in Africa. I was fortunate to be able to attend the meeting, and equally pleased to be joined by our Chair of Council. The theme was “disrupting African education, and whilst there were numerous useful contributions, Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, was perhaps the simplest and yet most profound. There are three things that needed to be done, he implored. One, he said was “research”, the second requirement he remarked, was “research” and the third necessity he stressed, was more “research”.
We have come together today, to celebrate the fact that you have long understood Prime Minister Odinga’s plea. You have done research. Those of you receiving masters degrees have learned how to think critically, integrate ideas and even advance in some fashion the information you have grasped. Those of you receiving doctorates have learnt how to conduct original research resulting in the advancement of new knowledge in your field of specialty, the culmination of which has been a dissertation that, until superseded, has made you the world’s leading expert on the topic you have researched. You have advanced the boundaries of knowledge; or, to put it in the words that Trekkies understand, “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Let me say a few words about my other concern, and that is the possible impact which graduate school may have had on your mental health and, the possible impact it may have on your professional life. I raise this issue because academia, is needless to say, extremely stressful. The degree and level of intensity that accompanies academic success taken an often underappreciated toll on one’s psyche.
Last week, The Atlantic magazine published an article exposing the effects graduate school has on people’s mental health. PhD candidates, it stated, suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts at astonishingly high rates. Admittedly, an American study, it nonetheless is something that cannot be dismissed by us here in South Africa. There are numerous reasons cited including the fact that roughly 13 percent of PhD recipients graduate with hundreds of thousand rands in education-related debt, although for those in the humanities, the figure is almost twice that. Compounding the problem is the perception, at least according to the economics PhD candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their communities.
This, needless to say, is concerning. I don’t know how these figures related to those of you sitting in front of me, but the mere thought that this too could be a South African problem, is something I felt needed to be addressed. I opened my remarks by stating that you had positioned yourselves to have an immeasurable impact on society and our world at large. The study cited by the Atlantic magazine stated that among those who reported that they recently had suicidal thoughts, 26 percent assumed that their psychological well-being was better than the norm. We cannot underestimate the devastation and loss that this can have on a family, a university, a society, a nation. If you think this is yet another American problem being foisted on us here in South Africa, just remember that a little more than six months ago, the University of Cape Town lost Top South African cardiologist Professor Bongani Mayosi who committed suicide, following a struggle with depression.
One of you – maybe more than one – will turn out to be the next John Nash, the founder of game theory for which he won the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics. If you don’t know of John Nash, he wrote one of the shortest PhD dissertations ever published, entitled “Non-Cooperative Games”. It was 26 pages long and cited only two references. For those who are not mathematicians, perhaps you will remember the 2001 Oscar-winning movie, “A Beautiful Mind”, based on the life of John Nash. Unfortunately, throughout much of his career, Nash displayed many characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia, including hallucinations, delusions, fear of persecution, and lack of interpersonal relationships. A troubled genius, struggling within himself. If I leave you with anything this afternoon to ponder, it is this: We cannot afford to lose sight of the importance of our mental health.
I would like to share an observation that might be helpful in dealing with this vexing issue. Every morning, there is a bird in my garden who wakes me, admonishing me to “think for yourself; think for yourself”– or at least that’s what it sounds like to me. Those of you who are birders might have some idea of what kind of bird this is; I’ve never been able to spot it, much less, ask it to explain its incessant chant, but to me, this is a very wise little bird whose song reminds me each day of what it is that should be central in my life – think for yourself.
We are deeply influenced by others; what you read, to whom you listen, to what you see. We constantly think of things, but they are things external to ourselves; thinking about ourselves is almost taboo. It exposes a certain vulnerability which is difficult to confront. And yet confronting ourselves is precisely, what is required: a deep, painful introspection; to look inward and understand what it is that you intuitively know – to think for yourself. To experience yourself as you are to yourself.
You have completed a course of study that has involved controlled or applied thinking. It has been direct and focused, aimed at understanding an issue or creating something new. It has been goal oriented thinking which has been arduous, painful, time consuming, frustrating and in the end, as you sit here today, rewarding. To think for yourself is no less demanding, it takes courage and unfathomable resolve. It is a process that goes to the very heart of originality and creativeness. It involves both passion and stillness. It comes from deep inside when you truly allow yourself to be alone, free from distractions and preconceptions.
Thinking for yourself may seem obvious, and of little, or no relevance whatsoever to the world you are poised to enter. I offer it only to say that in an academic world where it is “publish or perish”; in commerce, where it is, “what have you done for me lately”, it is important to be grounded and rooted into the essence of yourself. Will it prevent depression? Suicide? Mental illness? I don’t know. But being true to yourself, because you understand who you are, I think cannot but help.
I am enormously taken by the works of A.C. Grayling, the British philosopher and author of more than 20 books including “Thinking of Answers – Questions in the Philosophy of Everyday Life”. He is fond of reminding people that the average person’s life span is less than 1,000 months, and is appalled that our “mass education system exists almost exclusively for people in the first two decades of life.” He believes that education should be a “life-long endeavour” and that “true education provides people with a broad knowledge of culture and history, enabling them to appreciate the amenities of civilised life, to understand what they encounter in their experience as citizens of the world, and to relate with greater insight and generosity to others”. That strikes me, as what it is that this University has tried to instil within you, and what you have so diligently worked to achieve.
We have gather here today not to celebrate the end of a journey but to revel in the excitement of a new beginning. The transition you are making from one preparing for the future to one creating the future.
In conclusion, if f I have to leave you with an inspirational note, I would say this: you are the best that we could possibly produce; it is within you to go forth and do great things, but whether you do so or not, go forth and simply be. I will leave the last words to Greyling who says it much more eloquently than I ever could. “if we honor the obligation we have to ourselves to develop, to the best of our ability, the constellation of interests and passions and talents that we have” he states, “even if we don’t succeed, never win a gold medal, never get knighted, never get published – that in itself is the good life.”
All that I can add to that, is: Go and have not just a good life; have a great life.
Congratulations, the Class of 2018