The Class of 2019 celebrates at St. Mary’s University in Calgary. Photo by Sergei Belski

Gerry Turcotte: ‘Soft’ approach triumphs

By 
  • May 30, 2019

I always look forward to the spring. It is when our university celebrates convocation, and while this is usually an all-consuming, logistically complex event, come the day this is feel-good all the way. 

To see the faces of the graduates and their families, and the sheer excitement at this important milestone, really is humbling. And shaking hundreds of sweaty palms as they receive their degree reminds me that the students are not blasé about this moment either. They are nervous because they care.

The famed cartoonist Garry Trudeau once said that the purpose of convocation speeches was to ensure that no graduate was sent out into the world unless they were properly sedated. The reality, though, is that virtually all the speeches, from my own to the student valedictorian, reminded our graduates that they need to go out into the world ready to make a difference. 

Rather than sedative, we provided stimulants: a confirmation that our students have agency and that the antidote to the divisiveness and combativeness of the present age is dialogue and action, hope and goodwill. 

Another major message was that, as graduates of a liberal arts university, they needed to reject labeling that they are masters of the soft skills. There is something insidious about labeling the difficult skills of negotiation, encounter, problem-solving and community-building, as soft. Largely because this often positions these skills as “nice to have” or peripheral to the work done in the real world. 

There is nothing soft about an ability to think creatively and outside the box by drawing on complex philosophies, theologies, theories and outstanding scholarship. On the contrary, these are the hardest skills. Our students will never transform a child’s life in the classroom with an equation. They won’t create dialogue for divided groups with a formula. And they certainly won’t solve crisis by building a wall. 

Only a depth of understanding — the really hard skills that a rigorous liberal arts education provides — will equip them to make a difference. Indeed, it is only diplomacy and communication and a generous faith that can connect a divided world. 

I am reminded of this on a regular basis by two contemporary thinkers, Pope Francis and the late Jean Vanier. Both of these giants urged us, through example, to embrace tenderness and to move towards the peripheries, not as tourists but as permanent residents. 

For Pope Francis his message has been clear, including in a recent, and surprising, TED talk, when he called for a “revolution of tenderness” and made the point that “tenderness is not weakness.” He went on to say tenderness “is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly.”

For Vanier, this tenderness is not charity on our part, by any stretch of the imagination. As he tells us in Our Life Together, “We discover how we can be healed by those who are the most vulnerable. It’s not a question of going out and doing good to them; rather, receiving the gift of their presence transforms us.” 

For both men, like Jesus whom they follow, the act of self-humbling is a sacred act of true courage. We are used to the trope from Hollywood where the hero stitches his own wounds, or absorbs a volley of bullets, only to stand victorious, and we act as though this is something wonderful.

But true courage is in turning the other cheek, of placing dialogue ahead of conflict. How many of us have struggled in our daily road rage to hold back the visceral and to pause long enough to understand the aggressions of another? It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. 

To go one step further and enter the world of the wounded, of the injured, and to live there as a soul-mate is surely the most complex thing of all. 

It really is instructive to see how so many of these behaviours — of understanding, of self-humbling, of compromise — are labeled by society as weakness and soft skills. But it is even more inspiring to see how giants prove so conclusively that the opposite is true. 

Hopefully that is a message that new graduates can legitimately take out into the world as they prepare to change it for the better.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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