José SaramagoJosé Saramago
University of Alberta, June 2005
Democracy and University
To quite a few, it must seem strange that someone who has never sat in a University classroom should talk about themes such as these; who, besides anything else, has for many years sustained ideological and political inclinations, which in the eyes of right-minded people render him a target of the worst suspicions. Let's say then, to repeat a classical remark, it is a case where vice — having nothing to lose — has yielded itself to pay homage to virtue. I hope the good intentions I'm filled with at this time of gratefulness and jubilation will deserve enough credence so that I may be forgiven of any mistake of judgment derived from an insufficient knowledge of the subject matter. I therefore appeal to your utmost kindness.
I am well aware that the main responsibility assigned to teaching in general, and especially to University teaching, is education. The University paves the way for the entrance of the student into [professional] life; it imparts the knowledge and skills necessary to the full practice of the chosen profession according to society's expressed needs. Whether the choice of the profession is ever guided by the demands of a specific calling, more often than not, it is the result of scientific and technological progress and of the requests of interested business. Anyhow, Universities will always have reasons to believe that they have fulfilled their mission goals when they hand over to society young men and women well prepared to receive and incorporate in their data bank of knowledge the new lessons they still lack, that is, those of experience — the mother of all successful human endeavours.
Now, if the University has educated, as it is part of its duty — and if continuing education is going to complete the work, an obvious question comes to mind: "Where is the problem?" The problem arises from the fact that up to now, I have confined my talk to the education necessary for the practice of a profession, leaving aside the other education — that of the individual, the person, the citizen, this earthly trinity — three in one single body. It is time that we deal with this touchy question.
Any formative action in education entails, naturally, a subject and a purpose. The subject is the person whom one intends to educate; the purpose is in the nature and aim of the education given. A literary education, for instance, will not raise any more doubts than those resulting from the teaching methods and from the greater or lesser capacity of the student.
However, the question will change fundamentally whenever one intends to educate people, inculcating in the one I call "subject" — not only the matter that is part of the curriculum but also an aggregate of ethical and relational values which one believes to be indispensable to the professional activity. Still, to educate people is not in itself a reassuring guarantee. An education system that would encourage ideas of racial or biological superiority would corrupt the very notion of worth; placing what is negative in place of the positive; substituting the joint ideals of solidarity and respect for our fellow human beings for those of intolerance and xenophobia. There is no lack of examples [of this type of education] in ancient history as well as in recent history of humankind.
What am I pointing to here? I'm pointing to University and also to Democracy. To University because it ought to be a knowledge-dispensing institution as well as a place par excellence for the education of citizens in the values of human solidarity and respect for peace, liberty, critical discussions, and serious debates of ideas. We can argue that a great deal of this task falls on the family as the basic unit of society. But we know that family, as an institution, is going through an identity crisis — which makes it powerless to tackle all of the transformations of the present times. Family, with some exceptions, tends to lull the conscience while University, being a place for manifold interchanges, embodies all conditions to create a practical and effective learning environment of the most important democratic values. And I would start with what seems fundamental to me: the questioning of Democracy itself. We have to find ways to reinvent and renew Democracy, to hoist it from stagnation of routine and disbelief, where the economic and political powers strive to maintain a decorative façade of the democratic building, keeping us from seeing whether there is still anything left behind it. If you want my opinion, what is left is almost always used more to cover lies with efficacy than to fight for the truth. What we call Democracy starts sadly to look more like the solemn cloth that covers the coffin where the remains are already rotting. Let us, then, reinvent Democracy before it's too late. And let the University help us in this pursuit. She can do it. You can.
I address my last words in this ceremony to the University of Alberta with my heartfelt thanks for the great honour of this Doctorate Honoris Causa bestowed upon me. I accept it with joy and respect, undertaking before you never to be unworthy of your trust. Thank you very much.