Thursday, 20 October 2011

Address to Graduating Law Students - La Trobe University

Occasional Address

Graduation Ceremony for Graduates of the Faculty of Law and Management

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Deputy Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Dean and staff of the Faculty of Law and Management, distinguished guests, parents, family, friends, and especially graduands -

Today marks the successful completion of a fine education. Congratulations on reaching this milestone. All those lectures, tutorials, hours in the library, exams, essays, and no doubt a few all nighters - to say nothing of many gallons of coffee. The taste for coffee I acquired as an undergraduate has served me well in the years that followed.

It is only right that your family and friends have come today. They have had a share in bringing you to this point, and it is fitting to mark the investment your family and your community have made into your future – and ours.

Today also marks the start of your next phase in life as you embark on your careers. Education expresses a commitment to entrust the world to the next generation – to you.

Some of you will be going through the uncertainty of looking for employment in your chosen field. Some will already be looking forward to well-paid professional life.

The law and management are particularly important disciplines for our future – concerning as they do both justice and the sharing of scarce resources.

The world in which we live offers so much to us. It is a place full of wonder, and you will have great fulfilment making your contribution to it. For those of us a generation ahead, we could hold our heads higher if we were passing onto you a world in better shape.

But as you well know, not only are you moving into a world with all the challenges of building a career and making your mark - to say nothing of building and nurturing relationships – but you face even greater challenges of a world desperately in need of help in so many ways:
-                A world on the brink of another global financial crisis: too much faith in unregulated markets has unleashed the powerful and greedy in a way which has deranged our international financial system;
-                A world already experiencing the effects of climate change brought about by our blind adherence to a consumer lifestyle
-                A world groaning with conflicts which in many cases could have been avoided

Here in Australia we are confronted by impoverished political discourse, by the complacency which comes from comfort, and the need for more inspirational vision.

Australia has in the past helped pioneer so many social advances: the 8 hour day, free universal education, women’s suffrage, and the basic wage. In 1948 it was an Australian statesman, Dr Evatt, who presided over the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations.

And yet we have now fallen far behind. Australia, alone of all western nations, has not enshrined internationally recognised human rights as part of our law, and routinely flouts these international human rights standards.

We are a comparatively wealthy nation – far wealthier than at any time in our history – but much of that wealth comes from mining, and there has been little concern to share that wealth equitably with the nation and with the generations yet to come.

How will you respond to these challenges? A great deal depends on the answer, which you will fashion, one way or the other, from the opportunities that lie in the years ahead.

When passing through one stage of life, and emerging into another, it’s a good time for reflection. By way of analogy, in the natural world, the butterfly passes through well-known stages of life. The larva, or caterpillar of a butterfly hatches from an egg, and begins to consume. Then it forms the pupa, or chrysalis, and remains in stillness for a long period while it changes.  Finally, from this chrysalis emerges the butterfly.

Caterpillars have been called "eating machines". As soon as they hatch, butterfly larvae seek out food and begin to eat. They eat leaves voraciously, most species shed their skins four or five times as their bodies grow larger. They consist of a pair of jaws or mandibles for chewing plant matter followed by a long gut for digestion. They spend most of their time eating and rapidly growing.

Caterpillars grow very fast. A tobacco hornworm will increase its weight ten-thousand-fold in less than twenty days.

Once this juvenile grub phase is completed, caterpillars weave their silken cocoons, and ensconce themselves inside, firmly constrained as they undergo transformation, finally emerging as fully realized adult butterflies.

Imagine if butterflies never metamorphosed, never entered the chrysalis phase, but continued on as voracious grubs forever, blindly consuming more and more, growing ever larger, destroying more around them as they multiplied in size.

And yet isn’t this the very danger we face? Our commercialized society encourages the immature grub phase for its members as if to hold us in that juvenile stage forever. Instead of being fully realized human beings, we are in danger of remaining blind, bloated grubs, consuming more and more of an ailing planet.

In the city, some shops already have Christmas decorations out – not in celebration of a spiritual festival over two months away, but in the hope of having you buy. We live in a society in danger of being permanently infantilized by endless consumption.

The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke said this in his “letters to a young poet”:
Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to defend itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult is one more reason for us to do it.

Just as the larva restricts itself in its cocoon in order to grow into a butterfly, so we will need to impose disciplines on ourselves if we are to reach our full potential.

To reach this point you have already overcome challenges. The reward for overcoming challenges is to be presented with an even greater challenge. And then a greater challenge again. And so on until we die. But if we baulk when we face a challenge, we suffer a small death, a diminution of life, right there.

In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson bought 14 acres of woods at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.

The following year, his friend Henry Thoreau, just 27 years old, having been dismissed as a teacher because he refused to administer corporal punishment, moved there and built a small cottage to live in. He wished to engage in an experiment of “simple living”, and he remained at Walden for 2 years.

Thoreau was a remarkable man. Famously he went to jail rather than pay taxes which would be used to support the war against Mexico.

He explained he went into the woods "to suck the marrow out of life":

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

While at Walden, Thoreau wrote several of his best-remembered works, including the first draft of his masterpiece “Walden”.

It is the sum of all wisdom not to do desperate things.  The great mass of mankind lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

You are about to be presented to the Deputy Chancellor in recognition of your academic achievements in the phase of your life which has come to its end. Now you will wish to make your mark in the world, and the world awaits and needs your contribution. Do not be timid as you think of what you might achieve. Your education prepares you to do great things; your good fortune in living in a country like Australia provides you with great opportunities, and at this time in history you confront great challenges.

As Thoreau reflected in Walden:
The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths that the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

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