Legal scholar strums Phil Ochs’ anthem of engagement at convocation

During his convocation address to graduates of Osgoode Hall Law School on Friday, Canadian legal scholar Roderick Macdonald broke the tradition of a convocation speech by breaking into song.

Macdonald, who is one of Canada’s most renowned public law scholars and a leading authority on Quebec civil law, was at York University to receive an honorary degree during Spring Convocation ceremonies. Following a thoughtful and eloquent speech, he donned a guitar and sang in a mellow tenor the lyrics to When I’m Gone, a 1960s anthem of engagement written by American protest singer Phil Ochs.

Roderick MacdonaldLeft: Roderick Macdonald

Prior to his performance, which garnered Macdonald a standing ovation from graduands, the two-time York graduate began his address with the easy familiarity of a folk singer. In effect, he delivered a master class on the meaning of life, urging graduates to retain their youthful sense of wonderment, eschew acclaim and remember what is really important.

He asked them to consider the questions, “what do I want to do when I grow up?” and “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Both questions have merit, he said, because whatever one’s chronological age, everyone can resist the sirens of a conventional life. “Youth is a precious moment of idealism, of discovery and of challenging orthodoxies,” he said. “This afternoon, as you reflect upon your futures, I beg you not to forget that you are not compelled to give up your sense of enchantment and wonderment at the world just because you are going to undertake a professional career.”

What one makes of a life is truly the most important aspect of living, Macdonald told graduands. “The measure of a person is not where you start, or even where you end up. It is found in what you make of your life; what you do with the opportunities that you have been given and those that you have striven to create for yourselves,” he said.

As well, recognition is not the focus of a life well lived, said Macdonald, and acclaim is a transient marker and not a true indicator of success. “Our virtue is revealed in recognizing the influence that others have had upon us and in the record of what we have stood for, as remembered in the virtuous lives of those who live on when we are gone,” he said, noting that a career in law is a way of being alive.

Then, strumming a gentle song, he sang: “There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone; And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone; You won’t find me singing out this song when I’m gone; So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”

York’s 2011 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Macdonald’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website.