At convocation, talk of democracy and tolerance

As Convocation 2004 got underway on the Keele campus, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen discussed the state of democracy and asserted that the western world cannot lay claim to its development. Philanthropist, former chancellor and cherished York friend Avie Bennett talked of the essential importance of teaching tolerance, the need for liberal arts education, and his role at York University. 

By the end of today, close to 7,000 graduates from all 10 faculties will have crossed the stage to receive their diplomas and York will have conferred honorary degrees on eight distinguished and unusual individuals. Here are highlights of the first two honorary doctorate recipients’ speeches at the two Faculty of Arts ceremonies earlier this week. 

Amartya Sen
A world-renowned economist, theorist and academic, Amartya Sen is best known for his studies in welfare economics. His research over the past 25 years has redefined the concepts of well-being, poverty, equity, and development. In 1998, he received the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work. In 1990, Sen received both the Giovanni Agnelli International Prize for his research on ethics of modern society, and the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Award for his work on understanding and preventing world hunger.

Right: Amartya Sen

In opening his address to the class of 2004, Sen chuckled and said: “I congratulate you three times, first for completing the hard work, secondly for getting just recognition for your hard work and third, I congratulate you for providing such a wonderful and jolly event for your parents and professors and thousands of other people.”

He then led the graduating class through a master class on ancient Roman and Greek history, Muslim and Buddhist philosophy and at the same time debunked Western assumptions about the origin and purpose of modern democracy and the lack of purposeful discussion in today’s democratic, “under-informed” governments.

There is a sense in the Western world today that democracy originated and is the property of the West, mused Sen. “Democracy is not just about ballots and votes, but also about public deliberation and reasoning. It is often called government by discussion.

“This is a good moment to remember the richness of global ideas and to practise them across the boundaries of culture which connect us together. It is important to connect us in the commitment to continue the public discourse on democracy,” said Sen. He then urged graduates to continue to study and to actively pursue and lead public dialogue and decision-making..

“There is a strong need to expand global dialogue to increase democracy at the global level, I will end now by congratulating all of you for what you have achieved. I invite you to continue this discussion of democracy.”

Avie Bennett
Philanthropist Avie J. Bennett was first appointed chancellor of York University in 1998. He was reappointed to a second three-year term in May 2001 (ending when his successor, Peter Cory, was installed at the Glendon convocation on June 12). Named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1997 and promoted to the Order’s highest rank of Companion in 2004, Bennett was also appointed to the Order of Ontario in 1996.

Left: Avie Bennett

“I am proud and deeply humbled to be receiving this honorary degree from York University and the Faculty of Arts. I must tell you that I am especially pleased that I am receiving this degree in the company of arts graduates. The protection of the vibrancy of liberal arts education in Ontario universities is a cause to which I have devoted considerable energy over the past six years, a cause I believe in even more strongly today than I did when I began,” said Bennett.

“Furthermore, this degree holds additional special meaning for me, because, for the past six years, I have been chancellor of this University; during that time I have personally greeted and applauded more than 32,000 graduates of York University. I have always been struck by the astonishing diversity of York’s student body, by the variety of backgrounds – economic, geographic, racial, religious – that have met my eyes everywhere here.”

Bennett spoke about the hardships his father, Archie Bennett, had endured as the son of an immigrant Jewish pedlar and the intolerance he faced, intolerance that his son Avie experienced as a university student. He expressed deep concern for attitudes which continue today and his hope for the future because of the diversity of today’s university students.

“We still have much work to do to ensure that opportunity is not dependent upon race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, but upon ability. As I look at the class of 2004 here today, I am sure that the hope for achieving that goal is in capable hands,” he said.

Right:  Avie Bennett (left) and York Chancellor Peter deCarteret Cory

“I believe that all of you receiving your degrees with me today will not only be excellent employees, you will also be excellent friends, partners, parents, neighbours; I hope you will be better community members and more generous volunteers because of your York experience. You have the tools now to become full and effective citizens of Canadian society, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that citizenship entails.”

Bennett ended his speech with this sentiment: “I said at the beginning of my remarks that I share many emotions with you: joy and pride, of course, but also, a slight tinges of sadness. This is a great day of new beginnings, but it is also a day of ending, and a day of saying goodbye to the classmates, professors and other staff who have been with you for this part of the journey.

“I will miss the colleagues with whom I have worked closely in my time as chancellor, but I will always be proud to have been a part of this great University.”