Panel Discussion on International Education and Science Collaboration (South Africa)
Cape Town, South Africa, Monday, May 20, 2013
I’m thrilled to be in South Africa among so many colleagues. I consider you all peers, having spent some 45 years myself as a university professor, dean and president. So even though I have a new role now, I’ll always remain a teacher at heart.
Before I go any further, let me offer generous thanks to those who worked so hard to put today’s discussion together. For this, I applaud the men and women of the University of Cape Town, with particular gratitude to the officials here at the university who have welcomed me and my Canadian colleagues so warmly.
I find great comfort being here in your beautiful school. I share the thoughts of John Masefield, for many years the poet laureate of Great Britain. Masefield wrote, “There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university—a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see.”
The spirit of seeking to know and helping others see the truth brings us all here today.
We’ve gathered together to discuss the prospects of co‑operation between Canada and South Africa in higher education and in applied research and development in the fields of physics and space.
That’s the formal description. What we’re really doing here today is furthering something I call the diplomacy of knowledge. The diplomacy of knowledge is simply our ability and willingness to work together across disciplines and borders to uncover, share and refine knowledge.
Students of history know that civilization’s greatest advances often came not wholly from within certain disciplines but at the intersections of different disciplines. Actions we take as educators, therefore, should be designed to promote close contact among teachers, researchers and students from across many disciplines.
The diplomacy of knowledge also requires us to take action across borders. While such diplomacy operates on many geographic levels—local, regional and national—it’s particularly potent when we cross international borders and cultivate interactions among teachers, researchers, students and schools in different countries.
Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant metaphor of a burning candle is still, I think, the best way to illustrate this concept and its power. The candle aflame symbolizes not only enlightenment but also the transmission of learning from one person or group of people to another. When you light your candle from the flame of mine, my light is not diminished. Just the opposite. The light from both our candles shines an even more powerful light on all about us.
This panel discussion is an ideal expression of the diplomacy of knowledge. Canadian and South African panellists from several disciplines are bringing their particular insights and experiences to bear, uncovering the best ways for scientists and students in both our countries to create academic and research partnerships.
Development and nourishment of the Square Kilometre Array is one key test of our readiness and talent to practise the diplomacy of knowledge—especially to those of us in our universities.
Another example is the collaboration between South Africa and Canada on the establishment and nurturing of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)-Next Einstein Initiative (NEI). The impetus came from Neil Turok, a man born in South Africa who now lives in Canada, who convinced others to help establish the AIMS centre in Cape Town in 2003, to be followed by NEI in 2008. The goal is to collaborate to build a critical mass of scientific and technical talent across Africa. Why can’t the next Einstein come from Africa? And why not?
But my core point is that in this new era, research is no longer performed solely within the walls of large institutions or corporations. Interactions between diverse actors across a diverse range of knowledge and cultures have increased the relevance of outcomes to users.
I think I can say with confidence that Canadians frequently make excellent partners when it comes to working together across disciplines and borders. We have several qualities in our favour.
We believe deeply in the intrinsic value of learning from one another and sharing knowledge widely. We come by this belief of necessity; the very survival of the first European settlers in Canada was wholly dependent on their willingness to learn from the local Aboriginal peoples.
Our early experiences shaped later Canadians’ approach to learning. The most vivid expression of that approach is our own education system. Education in Canada has always been a great social and economic uplifter and equalizer.
That didn’t just happen by chance. No nation has worked harder than Canada to make quality education widely and freely accessible. By doing so, we’ve made it possible for generations of Canadians to overcome barriers that exist in all countries—racism, poverty, class immobility—and thereby achieve their true potential as individuals.
We also encourage new Canadians to retain and celebrate those aspects of their heritages that don’t conflict with the time-honoured values that have made our country such a success. This balanced approach enriches Canadian culture by incorporating the best that others bring.
That approach has also made Canada a land not only of two official languages but also of many unofficial languages. While learning a new language or adapting to the changes that a multicultural society brings about may have posed some difficulties for Canadians of my generation, not so for Canadians of my children’s and grandchildren’s generations.
Our young people live and embrace this reality in their classrooms every day. Canada’s students are the very embodiment of the diplomacy of knowledge.
Canadians also tend to be worthy partners when it comes to working together across disciplines and borders to advance our shared understanding of space. We have come to this quality, too, in the wake of our shared experience.
Our country’s vast land mass and sparse population have prompted generations of Canadian engineers, entrepreneurs and scholars to think deeply about the challenges of communicating and travelling across sweeping distances.
Sandford Fleming hit upon the idea of standard time to make communications of all kinds more consistent and reliable.
Mike Lazaridis created the BlackBerry wireless mobile device, generations of which link millions upon millions of people in countries throughout the world.
And Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the global village enabled all the world’s citizens to understand the condition and consequences of the new world we’ve built through our use of modern information and communications technologies.
From a variety of disciplines, these innovative Canadians have made it possible for not only their countrymen but also people throughout the world to conquer great expanses of land and sea and sky.
As technologies have advanced, the ambitions of Canadians have reached beyond our world and into space.
Intrepid Canadian astronauts have inspired their fellow citizens with their courage, daring and relentless efforts to share what they have learned in orbit with those of us who remain earthbound.
Closer to home, Canadian astrophysicists have used their incredibly ingenious minds to advance humankind’s understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.
All the reasons I’ve mentioned convince me that Canadian scientists are perfect partners for their South African peers in physics and space exploration. And they will be, for they must be.
Even more, our schools must forge alliances so that our teachers, researchers and students can work, study, share and learn together—regardless of their disciplines. Only then can our countries unleash the true power of the diplomacy of knowledge.
Let’s use this panel discussion to start building these vital partnerships. Our two countries have already laid some valuable groundwork. Four Canadian universities have struck partnerships with schools, foundations and campaigns in South Africa. One of these South African partners is this wonderful place of learning, discovery and innovation.
Yet we have only begun to scratch the surface of what we can share and achieve together.
As we go about forging new partnerships, we might all recall something Nelson Mandela said. Mr. Mandela wasn’t just a leader and role model for the people of South Africa. He has inspired Canadians of every age with his resilience, humility and historic success helping South Africans bind the wounds of a nation while understanding and celebrating the humanity we all share. He said simply that “a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
Like Mr. Mandela, I believe in the formidable power of keen minds and kind hearts. We have them in Canada. You have them here in South Africa. We have them especially in our universities, living and growing in our researchers, scientists and students.
Let’s make the most of them. Let’s put our good heads and hearts together and uncover new insights about the vast expanses of space. Let’s also put our good heads and hearts together and create the smart and caring world we all dream of right here on Earth.