John Fraser argues for more reverence

Reverence gets short shrift in this day and age when the predominant concern is for human rights, said John Fraser after receiving a York honorary doctorate last Friday.

As master of  Massey College, an independent college on the campus of the University of Toronto, the former journalist said he has come to have "an immense reverence for what is done in this place, my place and all the other places like this." He was referring to York, Massey College and all other universities.

Right: John Fraser

But, Fraser told his audience of graduating students, he hesitated to use the word reverence "as it has fallen out of use in secular times when the predominant concern has been human rights."

"I don’t dispute the importance of individual and group rights in the evolution of our political and social lives," he said. "But I do think that, in particular in the concentrated struggles for rights, we have sometimes lost our ability to look beyond the jot and tittle of legality to recognize and evoke an unspoken reverence for very basic things, such as for the relationship between teacher and student, between friends and colleagues, for the spirit of volunteerism and wisdom of the elderly, for the courage of the community organizer, the temerity of the contrarian, the quiet patience of a researcher or even, heaven forbid, the stamina of a university administrator. These are all things that, pushed, we recognize as undoubtedly worthy, but that no longer arouse general deference let alone the kind of reverence that used to define social attitudes to experience, selflessness and sharing.

"I believe this is a loss and that it is worthwhile struggling to correct the imbalance caused by this loss," concluded Fraser.

Fraser is one of Canada’s most eminent public intellectuals, a distinguished journalist and author. He was dance critic, China correspondent and national editor at The Globe and Mail, editor of Saturday Night magazine, winner of three national journalism awards, and author of eight books, including bestseller China: Portrait of a People. As master of the independent Massey College, he has fostered a lively intellectual community of fellows by establishing programs such as the York-Massey Fellowships, a "hugely successful" sabbatical scholarship program. Remembered for his role in aiding Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s defection and known for his human rights activism, Fraser has also made Massey College a haven for foreign scholars at risk of persecution in their home countries.

For Fraser, Massey College is a place where good people can share their aspirations and connect in an environment of mutual respect and admiration. "It is the epitome in my understanding of mutual reverence."

To hear Fraser’s acceptance speech, click on York’s Convocation Webcast site.