Honour, virtue, and achievement: some recollections from the University of Notre Dame Australia

This is a transcript of a keynote speech presented to Academic Prize Winners of the University of Notre Dame Australia on May 20, 2015. It also served as my own farewell to the University. I consider questions of honour and virtue, and ask why it is that we give awards to high-achievers at all. 

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, honoured guests, prize winners, University staff, friends and family, good afternoon.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Gaddigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we’ve gathered on today. My name is Matthew Beard and it is a profound surprise, but a wonderful honour that I should be addressing such an esteemed event.

Full disclosure: unlike other keynote speakers you may here, I haven’t climbed a mountain, won a World Cup, or cured a disease. Instead, what I can offer you today are thoughts from a life have words from a life that has changed during its time at Notre Dame.

In 2007, I enrolled in the University as an undergraduate student and – after hopping between Law and Arts – finally settled in the School of Philosophy and Theology where, thanks to passion, blessed luck, gifted teaching, and a little bit of hard work, I was invited to these very same prize-giving events. That was a while ago now – last time I was here the Archbishop Fisher prize was the Cardinal Pell prize! Since this time I’ve completed a PhD, become an employee of the University, and plied my trade – philosophy – in as many forms of public and private spaces as possible. Because to me, reason, ideas, and knowledge are beautiful.

So here we are. And because I’m close enough in time to remember what it’s like to sit where you do, but also far enough removed, I would like to share a sliver, and it is only a sliver, of the wisdom that only time and experience can provide, in the hope that it might be of use in the future. In that spirit, this afternoon I’d like to share three thoughts, offer two (hopefully) modest pieces of advice, and then ask a small favour, if I may.

To begin with, three thoughts on what seems like an obvious question: why do we bother to recognise achievement? I don’t ask this question because it’s a particularly difficult or esoteric question, but because in answering it we glean some valuable lessons about academic achievement that apply to you – the academic achievers.

First, we recognise and reward achievement because honour – which is what we’re about to heap on you through applause, certificates, medals, and a lifelong record of achievement – is an excellent form of encouragement. As a community, we want to see more of certain behaviours and less of others. We honour the behaviours we appreciate and shame those that we don’t. Part of the reason you’ve been brought here today is to honour what you’ve done as a way of encouraging you to keep doing it. There is a danger in achievement: the word itself implies the end of something: once a goal is achieved we no longer need to pursue it, and we can “rest on our laurels.” Don’t.

Don’t stop, because we need you to continue. That’s why we’ve honoured you.

Don’t stop because although we could have honoured you anywhere – through a private phone call from the Chancellor, a pat on the back from your Dean, or the praise of friends and family – we choose to honour you publicly. We do this because we want people to be watching when you are honoured. When we award you, we also point to you as an example to others: your behaviour is the type we want others to strive toward. You are the role models. That’s what it means to achieve an award: to have exemplified excellence. So don’t stop, because your award isn’t only for you – it’s for everyone who might be watching what you do next. Like it or not, you’ve now inherited a responsibility to continue to strive: to continue to be worthy of honour.

So that’s the first thing I want to say: you status as an award recipient today requires you to keep doing what you’ve been doing to the same excellent standard as you have been.

The second thing is this: as well as honouring the fact that you have achieved, we are praising what you have achieved; namely, academic excellence. As a university, our collective labours are dedicated toward knowledge of the truth: we are the institutional manifestation of the natural curiosity of mankind. We do this because the knowledge we obtain here can be usefully applied to the betterment of others (although in my own field, philosophy, there are those who might disagree!). Sadly, we live in a world where not every person can receive an education, but still, if we’re wise, we can make sure that every person can benefit from education. The French philosopher Michel Foucault is rarely mentioned in Catholic Universities, but he argued that knowledge is power and, generally speaking, he’s right: knowledge, when controlled by a privileged few is a recipe for dictatorship, but the dissemination and philanthropic application of knowledge can democratise not only ideas, but human flourishing itself. In short, knowledge provides the power to make our fallen world a little bit better

Try not to get so caught up in what you’ve achieved that you forget how you achieved it.

In praising your achievements, though, we don’t merely celebrate your knowledge for what it might produce, we celebrate it for its own sake. Any knowledge is – as an experience of truth – Divine. It is rightly treasured wherever it is found. Today, we recognise that the knowledge you have worked hard to obtain is good – not merely instrumentally, but for its own sake. Knowledge, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, holds no survival value; rather, it is one of the things that gives value to survival.

So, that’s the second thing: we praise the knowledge you’ve demonstrated, and we hope that you recognise it for the precious gift that it is.

Thirdly, and most importantly, although I’ve talked a lot about honour and praise, you should take this with a grain of salt. Honour – as Aristotle so rightly noted 2500 years ago – is secondary to virtue. Today we commend you all not only for the knowledge you’ve gained, or to encourage you to do more, but because virtuous behaviour – dedication, curiosity, and the cultivation of wisdom – deserve to be commended. But here we celebrate not only your virtue, but the virtue of all those who made your achievement possible. I’d wager there are a number of self-sacrificial parents, family and friends here today: your achievement is partly their virtue; the compassion of your teachers – not only those at Notre Dame but all those you’ve ever had – have contributed to your being here today; and in a Catholic community we recognise that all achievement is only possible through the source of all virtue: divine, creative love.

So that’s the third thing: virtue. Try not to get so caught up in what you’ve achieved that you forget how you achieved it, and who helped to get you here. Focus on your own internal development, not on who notices how much you’ve developed. There’s another virtue that will help with that: humility, and that brings me to my two pieces of advice.

The first piece of advice is this: modify the pride you feel in your achievement with a little bit of good humour. Be open to new ideas, including those that might bring you down a peg. I recall being particularly proud of myself after publishing my first piece in The Guardian, only to be brought crashing down to earth by one of the comments:

“What’s the difference between a cold-hearted twit with his head up his ass and a name-dropping, self-congratulatory pop philosopher with nice teeth?”

As flattered as my dentist was by the remark, it’s a fairly capricious remark. But I remember laughing hysterically at it. The pointlessness of the insult, coupled with its undeniable poetic rhetoric reminded not to take things quite so seriously. You can learn from it, even where it is empty – but only if you’ve got an ear to listen in the right way.

Curiosity fuels our desire for knowledge, but there is a real temptation – and I’ve felt it myself – to replace curiosity with ambition. Achievement and knowledge will at times bring you honour, love, and reputation. Enjoy these happy benefits but don’t lose sight of the real goal – to grow in virtue, to better the world, and to better ourselves. That’s my first piece of advice: be of good humour, and don’t let the purity of curiosity give way to lust for adulation.

My second piece of advice is in the same mould. Be playful with your knowledge. Universities have been built in large part on the careful, critical deconstruction of ideas, testing them for the validity, their precision, and their usefulness. This guarantor of intellectual rigour is important, but equally important is to be creative. Find a way to imaginatively express your own voice, mind, and heart in what you do. Every creation story begins with a God who creates from nothing – and if we were created in God’s image, then it seems we have a Divine mandate to be creative.

So, once again – don’t be too serious! Amongst your diligent referencing and research, do something brave, something silly, do something with your ideas that reflects, and hopefully perfects, you as an individual.

By way of closing, I ask only one small favour. I suspect there was another reason I was invited to speak today, and that’s because after over 8 years at this University, I’ll be leaving at the end of the month. The University of Notre Dame has been my home away from home as I have moved from adolescence into (alleged) adulthood. I am very fond of her, and always will be. Please take good care of her – I promise she’ll do the same for you.

Thank you.

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