James S. Thomson (1937-1949) - Installation Address

Installation Address, 29 October 1937: "Education and Life"

I STAND before you today humbled and awed in mind by the sense of a great responsibility. I wish, first of all, to make acknowledgment of the confidence with which this University, acting through its Board of Governors, was persuaded to honour me when I was invited to become your President. The only adequate response I can make to such a trust is to regard the solemn promise with which I have bound myself in presence of you all, not as a mere formal prelude to my entrance into office, but as the inspiration, guide and conscience under which I must continuously discipline the manner and spirit of all my future life among you.

I confess that I am much encouraged by the presence of this great Convocation. With all my heart, I thank you for coming here today and for the evident goodwill with which you have received me. The Chancellor has installed me into office with a gracious dignity, and I am proud to receive this honour at his hands. Friends have come from far and near to express their good wishes in a personal and representative capacity. The people of Saskatchewan could surely not be more adequately represented here than by the first Minister of the Crown, who has made occasion amidst the exacting preoccupations of his office, to speak on their behalf. The honoured place which this University occupies among the Canadian institutions of learning finds a fitting expression in the presence here today of Presidents of sister Universities and Colleges, and especially, I appreciate the congratulatory addresses that have been delivered by them. The sons and daughters of the University have found a fitting voice in the speech of Mr. Hartnett, and the great company of students, who are by no means least interested in the proceedings of this ceremony, have expressed themselves in gracious terms through Mr. Rowles, the President of the Students' Representative Council. To you, one and all, I say simply but very sincerely, "Thank you."

This is a unique occasion for the University of Saskatchewan, and in its uniqueness, most properly, you count yourselves happy. During its thirty years of life, this University has had only one President. My predecessor, Dr. Walter C. Murray, came without ceremony, almost unannounced, to make a University where no University existed. I doubt if he was ever installed in office. But the trust that comes to me today is his bequest. His was a far-seeing vision, realised with patient persistence, translated into actuality with the practical genius of a wise master-builder, and we have only to stand on the University campus to recognise an outward embodiment of his manifold labours. All that I can ask of him, as his mantle passes on to my unworthy shoulders, is that he may let a double portion of his spirit be upon me.

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In an address, such as I have to deliver today, the audience has certain rights that may legitimately become definite expectations. You are entitled to demand a relevancy of discourse in which the speaker will disclose his mind on his general attitude towards the high office into which he has been installed. And yet, I think you can hardly expect any great measure of commitment to the future in the way either of policy or of programme. Today, I am setting my feet on new and untried paths. It would be rash and foolhardy to indulge in promises, or even in anticipations. I come among you essentially as a student, eager to learn and to be guided. I trust that in the years to come, I shall never be anything else; that I shall always preserve the open mind, hospitable to counsel from every worthy quarter, willing to be taught by new experience, and, if need be, to be rebuked in any false or foolish step.

I think you have the right to expect something in the nature of a public declaration of educational faith. An attempt to fulfil such an expectation leads on, in turn, to an indication of my general attitude towards life. Under the sobering influences of an occasion like this, there is surely a compulsion, laid upon me, alike of self respect and responsibility, to revise in my own mind where I stand on the great issues, and then, to let my fellow-men know what answers I may have found to the major questions that thrust themselves upon us. By the constraints of this occasion we are inevitably carried on to put these answers to the most searching of tests–Can they serve as beacon-lights to pilot the spirit of youth out to the vast uncharted waters of life? With such an end in view I propose as a subject for today's address: "Education and Life."

My own personal situation accords with what may be described vaguely as the spirit of our age. We have come to a time of new beginnings in human affairs. For the present, we seem to encounter nothing but frustration and perplexity. Our range of vision into the future is foreshortened. If we are to avoid an abject surrender to circumstance, we must carry through a far-reaching self-scrutiny in our whole way of grappling with life. If we cannot see far ahead, we can at least turn back and devote ourselves with sedulous care, unhindered by the blindness of prejudice or the obstinacy of dogmatism, to make some estimate of our accumulated store of wisdom and our powers of intelligent action; and then, out of these insights, let us take a heart of courage for the future. If we commit ourselves to such an enterprise, we shall soon learn that perhaps our situation today is not so singular as we sometimes imagine. There have always been times like this. Life has never been easy. I think we may well utter a prayer of hope that it may never be easy. Were there not seven years of drought in Egypt, and did not a young Joseph arise to bring the resources of intelligent anticipation to the situation?

Nevertheless, we must play our part in this, and not in any other time. We must not retreat from the urgency of the present into some aloof region of detachment wherein the issues have already been closed by the finality of time's judgment. The living present and the unknown future alone are our's. In choosing this topic, "Education and Life," I am breathing the very atmosphere of our age. It is the process and movement of existence that excites the mind today. Dynamic categories are dominating all our thought. Without doubt, the greatest single influence on the modern outlook comes from the methods and results of scientific investigation. Here, almost in the course of our generation, there has been a radical transformation, leading us to elusive views of existence that baffle the imagination to hold before the mind. Where a former generation spoke of inert matter, and even contemplated it at times as the very ground of all our being, today, we hear of incessant activity. Instead of the eternity of some primordial matter, we are being asked to think of a scheme of things, continuously recreated. "Dead matter" is a dead term of description belonging to the dead past. Similarly in the sciences that are specifically devoted to the study of life, the whole intellectual landscape has been changed by the discovery of the laws of orderly alteration and development. Likewise, in the humanistic studies, we seek for the interpretation of facts in terms of life. History is only real when the chronicle of events is contemplated as a great scene of human action, where we trace vital intercorrections and witness the entire nature of man projected on to the vast field of universal life. Literature and language keeps the past perpetually alive in the present, so that we overleap the barriers of time to feel and think and move as contemporaries with the days that have been.

As we observe the life of our times reaching out for new forms of self-expression in literature, art and music, again it is the same search for vitality that impresses us. Often these forms seem extravagant and eccentric, but essentially they are evidence of an effort after escape from the static interpretation of life in repose into an apprehension of existence in movement, process and change. On all hands, then, it is this sense of being in a universe that is alive and active, wherein the only response we can make is one of life to life, purposive activity within us reaching out intelligently to a vast purposive movement without us, that comes upon the mind. Deepest of all, and through it all, I see the only intelligent interpretation of this scheme of things as the outward manifestation of a living God, whose constancy of nature does not reside in the aloof, fixed rigidity of some eternal self-perfection, but in an activity, whose sublimity outreaches our highest thought, yet whose loving kindness is over all His works, and living with Whom is our only true life.

It is well to remind ourselves that "life" is an abstract noun. Life or "livingness" is a term of description that applies to a wide variety of behaviour, but the reality of life inheres in individual lives. That is the only known and knowable form in which life exists. For each of us, life is unique; it is a lonely adventure, a momentous trust, a personal responsibility. My life is my life and not your's; and I must make of it what I can. It is this singularity of each individual existence that we must keep steadily before us in all our thought of education and life. We may frame general principles and policies gathered out of our insights into the whole body of human knowledge, but our systems must relate themselves to individuals. There is something hard and ultimate in the individual that properly resents being cast into some common mould or dragooned into compliance with some theory of existence. Perhaps the whole art of education lies precisely here–to take the vast accumulated experience of our race, with its acquired skills in language, thought and technical ability, and to apply it in the momentous enterprise of helping individual human beings how to live.

Life is a lonely adventure, but while it must be self-conducted, it can never be pursued in isolation. The art of life is largely concerned with our relation to what lies beyond ourselves. That is why religion is of first and final importance for every completely intelligent mind. Now, it is with this art of self-management in relation to environment that education deals. How shall we enable men to go through this momentous, individual adventure we call life, and in their encounter with circumstance finally to be undefeated, cleansed from the vulgar and debasing ambitions whose range is measured by self-interest; with proper pride and self-respect, yet without arrogance, rather humble and reverent before the final mysteries; without cringing fear of any man, yet as a good comrade to fellow-travellers on the journey; instructed in the ways of goodness and loving things fair and noble; knowing also a place of repentance and amendment when we have yielded to the insinuations of folly and wickedness. What greater service can we render than to help youth, entrusted with this amazing gift of the most exquisite, delicate and sensitive thing in all existence–a human spirit–a gift with such possibilities of highest joy and deepest sorrow, to fulfil its promise by the temper of its reconciliation with life in all its complexity of relationship. Such is the measure of our opportunity in a great University.

Consider the different types of environment in which we must manage ourselves, for they will provide the clues to guide us in our search for a true education in terms of life. There is first of all our relation to things physical. To live well we must first live. "Brother body" travels with us all the way. In this province of Saskatchewan today, I hardly need to say that the ancient primaeval struggle with soil and weather is still with us in all its arduousness. Our encounter with the very elemental conditions of livelihood presents us with our gravest problems. It makes life hard among us, but do not let us pity ourselves too much. We are fortunate in that we are compelled to conduct our whole thinking about life in the presence of one of its basic relationships–our relation to the good earth. Now, it is the marvellous competence of the human mind to understand our physical conditions, and through their reduction to orderly laws, to win a mastery over them, that most impresses us today. The physical sciences and their application to agriculture, industry, engineering, medicine, occupies the forefront of our thought. There are many fields still to conquer, but we have already made such headway that the flush of victory begins to mount to our cheeks as we contemplate even the furthest ranges of the scientific adventure. Small wonder if the eager spirit of youth becomes exhilarated as it reaches out to the wide frontiers yet to be claimed within the territory of science, and the apparent certainty of the trails that lead to them. This great modern outgoing of the human spirit we call science must continue on its way and the Universities must continue to give it guidance and encouragement.

Nevertheless, the whole experience of our modern world is shouting at us that science is not enough. "Brother body" travels with us all the way, but so does brother-man and sister-woman. If we are impressed with the amazing success that has attended our struggle with physical nature, we are equally oppressed by our miserable failures in the sphere of human relationships. Here, the most urgent questions of life begin to rise up on our modern horizon. A distinguished man of science, F. R. Soddy, has expressed our situation tersely when he says "Man, who has struggled so long to exist, now exists to struggle." Our very competence in handling our physical environment has accentuated the evil effects of our social weakness. Here then, is the second great field of our human encounter with what is other than ourselves–our encounter with our fellow-men. The social sciences are making headway, but for the purpose I have in view, political and sociological studies are not enough. Rather, these social sciences must be continually instructed, checked, inspired and directed by a wide experience of human existence such as comes through no mere pre-occupation with the immediate present. Before we can learn to live adequately with human beings in our own time, we must also learn to live, as far as possible, with all human life that has ever been, through the media of history, literature, language. To these mental disciplines we must add training in the arts of reflective reconstruction and in the assignment of true values, such as only philosophy can give, and whereby we can criticise and assess methods, conclusions and expectations. There is a sense in which we hardly need to be concerned about scientific progress. That will go on almost by the power of its own momentum. But I am very sure that in this gravely urgent task of helping human beings to live together in national and social groupings, in the direction of their economic and political life, not less in the life of the home and in individual relations, we have an educational duty that we dare not neglect in our time.

Lastly, there is a third sphere of encounter that is always with us; and as it is the most permanent, it is also the most radical for the whole of education. We must learn to live with nature, physical and human; but we must also learn to live with ourselves. "Who hath greater combat" asks à Kempis "than he who laboureth to overcome himself?" How many a fine ship of promise has ended life's voyage in disaster because there was mutiny on board, or a devastating incapacity to stay the course. Therefore, alongside increase of knowledge, and the training of the intellectual faculties, there must be a place in all our education for a refinement and direction of the emotions. Here our Universities have been grievously blind. We have regarded such studies as art and music as an embroidery of decorative edging set around the durable materials of education. If we understood more deeply where the springs of life lie, I have little doubt that we should count no man truly educated unless, with access of knowledge and skill of mind, there was also a feeling for life's true values, such as comes through an exposure to the forms of beauty, and an effort on our part to produce them for ourselves. If we were to begin a consideration of education from this point of view, I have little doubt that we should end with some rather radical transformations. And why not? If our emotions are the driving energies of life, can we neglect them in any true education?

My plea then, is that we consider education in terms of life in all its relations. If this point of view is accepted, we must no longer think of education as it has been so frequently defined as "a preparation for life". Rather, education is simply a method of approach to the only inescapable duty of existence, the necessity to live. Higher education is simply higher living. We ought not to think of education as something we have done with or received. Perhaps our highest achievement in education is to create the appetite for more education and to set the student on the way to gratifying his desires for himself. On the other hand, if education and life are co-terminous, we are clearly invited to think of education as being for all and not for the few. I have been much impressed by the tradition of public service that has already grown up in this University. It involves no contamination of academic ideals for a University to go out to village, farm and ranch and there to gather the toiling folk of this world together not only to teach them how to be better farmers and housewives, but also how to be better men and women. They, too, have their legitimate aspirations after the cultivated life. In earlier years many of them have lacked opportunity of access to educational advantages. Today, there is a very proper desire to provide adult education for all, and my hope is that this University will lead such a movement in this province. As Browning says:

Because a man has a shop to mind
In time and place, since flesh mast live,
Need spirit lack all life behind,
All stray thoughts, fancies fugitive,
All loves except what trade can give

I Want to know a butcher paints,
A baker rhymes for his pursuit,
Candle-stick maker much acquaints
His said with song, or haply mate,
Blows oat his brains upon the flute!


I have endeavoured to set before you a sketch of what may be called a synoptic view of education. For life is one and indivisible. It resents mutilation and partition. If life and its interests be our guide, then clearly, our education must somehow exhibit the same vital unity as life itself. I suggest we have travelled far enough, if not too far, in educational specialisation. By division, we have conquered in many fields of knowledge, and we must always have a place for the intrepid adventurer who goes out into some lonely and unexplored region of the mind, and by a concentration upon his one task permanently enriches our intellectual heritage. But I suggest that as a prelude to the great tasks of reconstruction, we need to resurrect the old idea of a scholar as a man of wide interests and universal learning. Perhaps it is asking too much to suggest that he can have an intimate acquaintance with every branch of modern knowledge, but at least, he can be sufficiently educated to realise the significance of his searches and researches in relation to life as a whole. Times of intellectual and social revival have always been preceded by some such process of integration. Consider the relation of the great structure of mediaeval scholasticism to the Renaissance that came after it, or, perhaps less spectacular, the relation of eighteenth century encyclopaedists to the outbreak of vitality in literature, thought and science that ensued upon their labours. I am clear that there is a necessity somewhere today, to bring all the diversified results of manifold mental labours into some unified and systematic form. I want, not a static system, in which everything is arranged, neat and settled– I want something much more alive and real. To give it a name, I call it a Vital Scholasticism. To achieve this end, we need a generation of intellectual workers who will labor together as comrades in a great common enterprise, each pursuing his own peculiar investigations, and yet in conscious knowledge that he is in a fellowship of like-minded spirits, who are lifted out of all narrowness of aim and method by their commitment to the service of life. Such is my hope for this University. To this high service I summon you, as teachers and workers. In this great hour of human destiny, when every man must take his proper share in building, perhaps in saving civilisation, let us here and now dedicate ourselves in the free comradeship of those for whose love of truth is the very light of life, to a service of mankind, each bringing what excellence of knowledge we have to contribute to a common store. In such an enterprise I shall be proud if you will permit me to be your leader.

My final word is to the students of this University. You come here in the years of your youth, because it is in youth that the lines of life are laid down. You are beginning to take this delicate, sensitive, lovely thing we call life into your own hands. Do not spoil it by mere foolishness or perversity. In all your learning here, learn the art of living. For life takes a terrible revenge on those who treat it brutally, wantonly, or selfishly, and, once it is maimed or broken, it can never be the same again. Therefore, my son, my daughter, in all your learning, learn this–that the enduring rewards of life only come to those who have yielded themselves in dedication to something other than themselves: first, to service of their God and then, to the service of their fellow-men. All other rewards are in the end, empty trash, and turn to rottenness and decay. The world today has need of a dedicated youth, and where shall we seek them in this province if not in the University of Saskatchewan?