Oxford and Cambridge Universities' Canadian Freshers
10 September 2020, 23h00 EDT (UTC-4)
My address at the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Toronto
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Toronto’s Oxonians and Cantabrigians asked me to say a few words to Canadian students who were about to begin their studies at Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is my address to them.
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I was very flattered when the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Toronto invited me to speak to you, the 2020 cohort of Canadian Freshers.
Those feelings were only slightly blunted when the Society explained that they were hoping to offer you the perspective of a “seasoned graduate”, the implication being that I have been well and truly marinated by the years that have passed since I was myself a student at Oxford.
I can not deny that I am more seasoned than fresh.
I read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Teddy Hall. PPE is, infamously, the degree most associated with people who think they should be running the world, but whose lives tend to prove that there is no limit to the human capacity for self-deception.
The foremost emotion I feel in being with you today is a sense of happy envy of the adventures you are all about to begin.
You will certainly be matriculating at an unusual moment in history. But Oxford and Cambridge carried on through the Black Death of 1347 and the Great Plague of 1665. The Pandemic of 2020 will be comparatively trivial, and will likely involve fewer people being burned at the stake.
For me, studying at Oxford completely changed the trajectory of my life. It opened up new possibilities that I had previously only glimpsed as a distant observer.
Today, I serve as head of the Mosaic Institute, which advances pluralism in societies and peace amongst nations. It operates through Track Two Diplomacy, and brings together people, communities, and states, to foster mutual understanding and to resolve conflicts.
In every international mission I have ever undertaken, I have found myself tripping over other Oxonians: in desperate conflict zones and in the deep ease of diplomatic institutions; in razed villages and in glittering metropolises; on the barricades and in palaces.
Studying at Oxford helped all of us believe that the world could be a more humane and more just place. It imparted to us a sense of responsibility to advance that dream. And it gave us the most extraordinary opportunities to work towards making that dream a reality.
I have three observations to offer you, as you start your own journeys at Oxford and Cambridge.
The first is that you will be immersed in an ocean of riches. The university buildings form part of the built heritage of the human race. The tuition is intensely intimate. The extracurricular activities are a marvel of diversity and depth. And I am embarrassed by how quickly I took it all for granted.
You should savour the moments. This density of opportunity will almost certainly never come your way again.
The second is that Britain can be a lonely place, especially if you are someone like me, who has had to work to overcome natural shyness. The English, in particular, tend to be sceptical of easy friendliness, seeing it as glib and superficial. They are often cutting, and sometimes cruel to one another.
But it is worth the effort to pierce their barriers, because the friendships you make with them will be all the deeper for it.
The third, is that you should do everything you can to maintain those friendships after university. The true wealth of Oxford and Cambridge lie neither in their architecture nor indeed in their classes, but instead, in the fact that they draw together truly exceptional people, including yourselves.
I have forgotten almost everything I was taught at Oxford, but I remember almost everything I learned, because that came from the conversations, the experiences, and the dreams I nurtured with my peers.
The ties that will bind you together run deeper than the foundations of the modern world. They have proven more enduring than the countless kingdoms, countries, and empires that have risen and fallen away during the nearly 1000 years since our universities first took root.
You will graduate into a world where societies everywhere are tearing themselves apart over questions of whom they recognise as friends and whom they reject as strangers.
In that context, the greatest gift Oxford gave to me is the knowledge that I am part of a fellowship that reaches across time and around the globe. It includes people who speak different languages, profess different faiths, come from different ethnic groups, abide in different nations, and have been on opposite sides of history and warfare.
Yet, as Oxonians, we understand that there are no strangers amongst us: only friends we have yet to meet.
I genuinely envy the journey you are all about to begin. I wish you well in adding to the stories of Oxford and Cambridge, and in adding Oxford and Cambridge to the stories of your lives.