Two out of three ain’t bad?

One of the joys of working in the university sector is the diversity of people you get to meet. Universities have open doors and welcome all. Whether it’s a nervous, excitable teenager taking those first tentative steps into a hopefully bright new future; A mature student juggling their daily responsibilities with a renewed desire to advance themselves, perhaps into a new career or area of passionate interest; Visiting VIP’s like world renowned comedians, the prime minister of the day, or wannabe prime ministers.

“A University ought to be a place where all sorts of radical questions are raised and debated. Questioning is exhilarating.”, quoted our latest visiting VIP, Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his recent University Campus Suffolk (UCS) Academy Lecture.

Dr Williams and I are not two people who are likely to agree too readily on questions of faith. However, here was a speaker demonstrating the very epitome of what university discourse was about. Universities serve many socially good ideals, not least, however, is creating an environment where people of different viewpoints can explore sometimes radically opposing ideas and theories.

Dr Williams lecture, Theology and the Edge of Words, explored the interesting notion of why language keeps expanding. What is it that drives humankind towards inventing new words, metaphors and language structures to express and exchange ideas?

Whether it be the great philosophers of the day, discussions on a tube train or exchanges via social media, language is continually evolving. Why? It is not like we require this for our basic human survival. And yet, language keeps expanding as if searching for some new meaning on the edge of our current understanding.

It is in this constant exploration of the edge of words that Dr Williams proposes that theology has a space in which to influence society.

Space, or the silences in discussion, are Dr Williams suggests as important to the flow of conversation as the words we use. Silence during discourse offers the chance to reflect, pause for a thought and set off again. In my mind I consider the idea of silence in a discussion as like reaching a fork in a road. You get to decide where to go next.

And silence, those subtle short pauses, were used to great effect by Dr Williams throughout his lecture. Without the need for technological presentation aids, Dr Williams offered a brilliant observational case study for anyone interested in the art of public speaking. I have been privileged I think to observe at close hand one of the great orators of our time.

There may be much I might disagree with Dr Williams about. There is, however, a great deal university can help me learn from the opportunity to see and hear the like of Dr Williams at first hand. As we enter yet another round of economic challenges to the existence of our universities, we would do well to remember this and remind the politicians in temporary charge of our finances why universities have existed for many hundreds of years.

As former US President Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Universities exist as places that can offer that opportunity for open discourse.