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P.H.D. and Masters students attend their convocation in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto on Friday, June 15, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)
P.H.D. and Masters students attend their convocation in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto on Friday, June 15, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)

Post-secondary

Commencement speeches: Economic reality calls for new inspiration Add to ...

“The season of convocation was upon the land; excitement and optimism wafted like fragrance in the Acadanian air. For students and faculty alike, it was a time of hope, of great expectations. But for the oldest and wisest professor, loved and admired by all, it brought only unhappiness.”

With that, author Rohinton Mistry launched into an unusual address to a crowd of graduating Ryerson University students last Friday. In lieu of the typical speech, he told a tale in the tradition of A Christmas Carol: a spirit visits a fretting professor, whisking him into the night sky to show him visions of society present and future in the fictional land of Acadan.

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Except Acadan didn’t look so made-up (note the anagram for Canada). What the professor sees – a Gravy Train, an increasingly uncaring health-care system, and controversial government polices from fighter jets to the census – are the results of citizen apathy, Mr. Mistry suggests. And young grads must combat apathy at all costs.

Mr. Mistry grabbed the hall’s attention. While many of the luminaries accepting doctorates at spring convocations stuck to tried and true formulae – go forth, dream big, give back, with a few secrets to happiness and productivity – Mr. Mistry’s was one of several graduate addresses to tap an undercurrent of unease and uncertainty that runs strong in the Class of 2012.

Many graduation send-offs are forgettable, and some of the best are also forgotten. But record numbers of graduates are donning cap and gown after being bombarded with images of a world in flux – and warnings of their own impending unemployment. In that climate, what lingers are messages encouraging students to embrace the unexpected, and ones they can “map onto their own reality,” University of Alberta provost Carl Amrhein said.

“The message does change. When Alberta was really booming, students didn’t have to worry about an intensely competitive job market. Now, even in Alberta where things are relatively better, students are worried about finding jobs. So the person giving the convocation address has to ... focus on flexibility, and the ability to adjust, the characteristics of a university graduate along those lines,” Dr. Amrhein said. “In another time, they may want the soaring references to the philosophers of the past.”

One graduate who was enthralled by Mr. Mistry’s speech was Lidia Bit-Yunan, 23, who thought a sobering but witty message about the need to engage in the way Canadian society is changing was perfectly apt. “I think you definitely have to cater it to the time, because everything is catered to us nowadays,” she said.

David McCullough, however, wants this year’s class to stop expecting a world tailored to them. The Massachusetts teacher grabbed international headlines for a recent address in which he told high school graduates: “You are not special. You are not exceptional ... Because everyone is.”

“Good for that guy. It’s a point of view,” said David Peterson, chancellor of the University of Toronto, who has heard his share of “bromides and platitudes” over the past six years.

“I don’t think he was hard on kids, I think he gave them different things to think about.”

A few days after Mr. Mistry’s speech, author Margaret Atwood took to the same Ryerson stage with her own wisdom for coping with turbulent times – and inserted her own political jab.

“We don’t know how things are going to turn out on our planet, in the global financial markets, and in our increasingly unfamiliar country, where the furtive hands of federal gnomes are busily at work dismantling every public benefit we once thought was built so soundly,” she said. “In this age of instability, what sort of future can a person of your age expect? And what words of cheer can a person of my age offer you? Let’s just say you’ll need ingenuity and perseverance and thoughtfulness – it won’t be easy, but let’s hope that like a lot of things that aren’t easy, it will be fun.”

The open assaults from Ms. Atwood and Mr. Mistry on governments of the day raise the question of how much politics is too much at an occasion designed to celebrate a rite of passage. Former House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken steered clear of mentioning the protests that have rocked Quebec for months when addressing McGill University graduates last week. “Those people were graduating. I wouldn’t have thought they were much involved in the protest stuff,” he said.

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