World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics’ World Congress
Keynote Address at the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics’ World Congress
Halifax, Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Thank you for inviting me to be here today as you bring to a close this important congress of colleges and polytechnics.
Let me begin by asking a simple question. Of course, being educators and deep thinkers yourselves, you know that the simple questions are often the most difficult to answer!
My question is: What do we hope to achieve by gathering here in Halifax?
I will venture an answer in the best way I know how: with a story.
This story takes place a continent away—in Brazil—where I recently travelled on an official visit as governor general.
It would be an understatement to say it was a fascinating visit. Those of you who have been to Brazil know it to be a wonderfully dynamic and diverse country. This has always been the case, but it seems that today, Brazilians have a renewed energy and sense of purpose.
As a nation, Brazil is on an impressive trajectory. It is viewed as a political, economic and cultural leader throughout the Americas and further abroad. Sao Paulo is a thriving hub of innovation and productivity, and for the first time ever, the Olympics will be held in South America, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
More significantly, Brazil has made tremendous strides in reducing poverty and income inequality in the past decade.
These are remarkable developments, but the reason I am so optimistic about Brazil’s future is the growing importance Brazilians place on learning.
I’m not talking about learning for the few, but rather learning for everybody. Some years ago, Brazil arrived at a crossroads—a critical point, when decisions with far-reaching consequences needed to be made.
At this crossroads, Brazilians made a conscious choice about the kind of society they wanted to create.
They recognized that the well-being of nations and peoples in our increasingly complex, globalized world will depend on the ability to develop and advance our learning.
They realized that knowledge, rather than military might or gross domestic product, will be the passport to success in the 21st century.
They saw that learning and innovation are fundamental to building smarter, more prosperous and caring communities.
Knowing this, Brazil chose to embrace education, and to build a learning society based on equality of opportunity and excellence.
They are reaching out to the world in doing so—including to Canada, which is in many ways an ideal partner in learning, given our historic commitment to equality and to excellence in education, as well as our diverse, multicultural society.
Now that I have provided the context, let me share with you the story I promised a moment ago.
It’s the story of two very courageous and determined indigenous women I was introduced to in Brasilia, the impressive capital city of Brazil.
These two women came to Brasilia from northeastern Brazil to speak of their participation in the Mulheres Mil program—also known as the “1,000 Women” project. You may be familiar with this partnership, which is based on a model developed by Red River College to adapt training programs to the specific cultural needs of Aboriginal women in Manitoba.
Soon, a number of colleges under the umbrella of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges were providing expertise to the Brazilian ministry of education, with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency. The Brazilians had sought out Canadian colleges as leaders in reaching marginalized and underrepresented populations—and the Mulheres Mil program was born.
Having had the privilege of meeting two of the participants in this remarkable program in person, I can tell you: they have a certain fire in their eyes.
It is a look I recognized. Having spent much of my life and career as a teacher and university administrator, I have had the good fortune of meeting many passionate and dedicated students over the years.
In their eyes was the look of those who are hungry for skills and knowledge, who know the power of learning, and who are determined to make the most of their education.
And that is exactly what they are doing. Both of these women are mothers who are determined to earn a living and create a better life for their children through learning.
When I heard them speak, it occurred to me that we had just witnessed the most powerful force for good in the world—a mother’s love for her children.
As one of them plainly told me about the impact of the Mulheres Mil program:
“It saved our lives.”
Imagine how you would feel if you were the first in your family to graduate, or to learn how to read. Think of how that might change your life and your outlook.
Northrop Frye once wrote:
“Wherever illiteracy is a problem, it’s as fundamental a problem as getting enough to eat or a place to sleep.”
One of the Mulheres Mil participants—previously illiterate but now able to read—described illiteracy as being like blindness—and now she can see!
Working together, Canadians and Brazilians are giving underprivileged women in the north and northeast of Brazil the chance to improve their skills and learning. And what’s so key is that these women are already transmitting their passion for learning to their own children, and seeking to ensure their education.
And in the wonderful reciprocity that learning so often inspires, some of them even want to become teachers!
The net effect of this innovative program is to increase the store of that most precious of human resources: hope.
The kind of hope that transcends language and cultural barriers, and that is the common need of all peoples.
Human development, let us remember, is at its core about expanding the choices available to people so that they may lead lives they value. And education—while providing no guarantees—is nevertheless the primary means by which we can increase our choices and thrive as human beings.
Surely, programs such as Mulheres Mil are the path to building a learning society that is both smarter and more caring.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff certainly thinks so. Recognizing the remarkable success of the 1,000 Women project, President Rousseff recently announced that this program will be rolled out on a national scale, with the goal of reaching 100,000 women by 2014.
Here we have a wonderful example of our ability to build a better world through creativity, collaboration and compassion. The lesson we can draw is to start small—in this case, at the community college level—and scale upwards to make an ever-greater impact.
Indeed, as I discussed with President Rousseff: why stop at 100,000 women? Why not strive to help the many millions who are still living in poverty in Brazil and around the world—including those who are marginalized and disaffected here in Canada?
We can, and we must, do more.
I want to commend the Association of Canadian Community Colleges for its leadership, as well as the many individuals and institutions that are part of the Mulheres Mil success story.
And I know there are many more successes playing out in communities across Canada and abroad, in which Canadian colleges and polytechnics are building skills, capacity and learning.
At the opening of my address I asked the question, “What are we trying to achieve?” The answer lies in the hope that learning can bring to peoples’ lives.
We are also here to learn from each other and from our diverse experiences in education. With this in mind, I want to challenge you to continue your learning as educators, innovators and leaders of our colleges and polytechnics.
As you know, our greatest potential lies in what we have yet to learn.
As learning institutions, colleges and polytechnics must constantly ask themselves: what lessons do we learn from our experience of teaching? To take our earlier example, what can we learn from those 1,000 women? What can we learn about the circumstances in which they live, and what can they teach us about resilience, innovation and creativity? Because I can assure you that living in poverty requires all three in abundance.
As educator Ernest Boyer wrote, the process of discovering and applying knowledge is dynamic—much like the shifting line between teacher and student. I quote:
“New intellectual understandings can arise out of the very act of application—whether in medical diagnosis, serving clients in psychotherapy, shaping public policy, creating an architectural design, or working with public schools. In activities such as these, theory and practice vitally interact, and one renews the other.”
In today’s world, the learning—and the teaching—never end. Nor should they.
Colleges and polytechnics occupy a unique position at the nexus of our schools, our workplaces, our communities and our world. Your institutions are rooted in the local, but as this congress attests, your thinking is global.
You combine theory and practice, and as I like to say, the most practical thing in the world is a good general theory, when constantly tested and refined against reality.
I want to thank you for coming together to discuss these matters of learning and innovation, and for inspiring the world through the hope you create.