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“Tell the truth”

The Governor General on education and transitions
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His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston. Courtesy Sgt. Ronald Duschene, Rideau Hall.
His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston. Courtesy Sgt. Ronald Duschene, Rideau Hall.

Senior university students dread being asked about their plans for the future.   

David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada, sensed this trepidation as he addressed students from across the country at the annual Loran Scholar’s Forum on February 5. Johnston spent an hour warmly discussing education and students’ transitions to the “real world”: in particular, the importance of seeking out diverse educational and professional experiences to find meaning and a sense of lifelong learning in one’s career.

“I’ve had great experiences with student papers,” Johnston says, joking that he was once treated to an impromptu interview while giving blood in Montreal.   

“I guess it is possible to get blood from an old stone.” 

Interdisciplinary studies 

Educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Queen’s, His Excellency David Johnston served as principal of McGill University and president at the University of Waterloo after many years as a legal scholar — a career path which has influenced his strong views on education and the role of universities in Canadian society.   

“What you’re looking for an education to give you is the ability to think. And when I say ‘think’ I mean think broad and deep. We may be in the danger of trying to focus too much on the deep at the expense of the broad and ideally what you want is both,” Johnston says. 

It is an insight relevant to U of T, where students often roll their eyes in disdain at breadth requirements. Johnston sees mandatory courses outside of one’s field of study as integral to a student’s long-term ability to draw connections and meaning from their education.   

“One hundred years ago when I was an undergraduate… if you majored in international relations or government as I did, you had to take one to two courses outside of social science. That would be a natural sciences course or two or humanities courses or two,” he recalls. 

Johnston says that he once took a humanities course taught by Krister Stendahl, who later became the bishop of Sweden. He says that Stendahl took a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching the Bible. He remembers the experience as being “quite wonderful.” 

Other undergraduate courses left a visceral impression on Johnston’s life; specifically, the course that was taught by Nobel Laureate George Wald. “I remember he came in one morning –– there were 1,000 kids in the class, there would have been 2,000 but that was the largest classroom. And he said, ‘this is a very fateful day for me: 50 years ago on this day I almost took my own life,’” Johnston says. “That certainly got us sitting up.” 

According to Johnston, Wald was very bright and precocious, doing his PhD around the age of 21. “I was 23 on a post-doc and I was working on a particular mechanism, as set of interactions in the brain with respects to vision. For six months I could get nowhere. I was just hitting my head against a wall,” he remembers Wald saying. 

Johnston describes a bout of depression Wald experienced one evening. “I left my apartment because I was afraid of doing something dangerous,” he says. Wald went to the lab where he was working and the sight of his experiment triggered a panic attack. “As soon as I saw [my experiment] I had a panic attack thinking: ‘I’ve got to go back,’” Johnston quotes.   

While Wald was in the lab, another experiment caught his eye. “My eyes strayed to an experiment from a different sub-discipline… and all of a sudden I looked at my experiment and the question which was killing me from a different angle and that was the beginning of my solution,” Johnston says, channelling Wald once more.   

For the Governor General, Wald’s lecture was a moment of epiphany — a moment when “the light went on.”   

“[Inter-disciplinary experience] begins by permitting you to triangulate and look at problems from a different angle. You begin to appreciate the importance of bringing other points of view and using those other emphases.”

Diversifying education

Johnston says that it is imperative for Canada to build on Wald’s philosophy of the value of diverse perspectives. Johnston believes that such a perspective can challenge complacency in Canadian higher education and society at large.

When asked about post-secondary education reforms, Johnston said that students from different parts of Canada and around the world should make up a student body.

“We have a very attractive public education and it should be open to the world much more than it is now,” he says. 

Johnston goes on to say that only three per cent of Canadian students study abroad at some time in their academic career, a rate that he feels should be at 100 per cent. 

Johnston formed this opinion through raising his five daughters, each of whom pursued educational exchanges.   

“First, the curiosity which a child naturally has is enhanced [by the opportunity to study abroad]. Second, their tolerance, in the best sense of that word, is enhanced; they don’t just accept that you’re different — they are interested in why and appreciate that you’re different. Third, their judgment becomes better, because they don’t accept one side of the story, the first version. They look for other explanations. And fourthly they become more empathetic; they have a greater capacity to walk in somebody else’s shoes, feel a sense of empathy for a person. And those are very important experiences in terms of education,” says Johnston about the benefits of going on exchange.

What about the future? 

Such an analytical view of undergraduate experiences may be daunting for students planning their future, questioning in broad terms how to spend their lives after university. Putting himself in an undergraduate’s shoes, Johnston recalls feeling similarly when choosing between law school and a promising hockey career.    

“At the time I [thought of] two things: one is what interested me and I guess that that’s quite self centred, and the second was where could one have an impact. I suppose that’s self-centred too in the sense that you’re looking for your own satisfaction but it comes out of trying to feel that you’ve made some kind of difference,” he says. 

Johnston says that his most formative post-graduation experiences were the mistakes — an important perspective for students at universities such as U of T, where the pressure to demonstrate success in a linear sense can be enormous.

“Often in interviews I ask people ‘tell me about one of your great mistakes and then what you learned from it.’ People say ‘oh I can’t tell you that, you’ll think I’m a loser.’ To break the ice a bit I say, if you put that question to me, ‘you got a few days so I can tell you all of them?’ You learn — you try to learn — from your mistakes and you try to learn how to spot erroneous paths. And you also learn that if you make a mistake, don’t hide it,” he says. 

When it comes to that fateful question: “what are your plans for the future?” Johnston acknowledges that students needn’t obsess over the right answer. 

His advice for students is the same thing that he tells his children: “Tell the truth — always tell the truth for two reasons: one is its the moral thing to do but secondly, if you don’t tell the truth you forget what you’ve said and the tale comes out different.”

Correction (February 8, 2016, 2:37 pm): A previous version of this article implied that it was Johnston and not Wald who experienced a bout of depression. The article has been amended to clarify.