Spring convocation: Armed and ready to join the battleground of ideas

(Edmonton) Palagummi Sainath remembers that, as he finished his bachelor of arts degree in 1977 at a university in Delhi, India, student communities around the world were bubbling over with an upsurge of protest ideas.

“These were ideas of justice, of freedom redefined, and of the rights of ordinary people. And that's what I believe our student days prepare us for, involve us in—the battleground of ideas,” said Sainath, who received an honorary doctor of letters degree before speaking to the 2011 class of bachelor of arts students June 8 and bachelor of education students June 9. “This University of Alberta, at its inception, took the view that higher education and knowledge were keys not merely to economic betterment but to social justice. “That knowledge should have ‘the uplifting of the whole people’ as ‘its final goal,’ in the words of your first President Henry Marshall Tory. I think that idea of social and economic justice has never been more alive, more relevant, than it is in this decade, in today's world.”

Sainath put his education to work as a writer and journalist whose stories and photographs have brought the world’s attention to issues of poverty and injustice. As rural affairs editor of The Hindu since 2004, he has trained journalists in the poorest regions of India’s countryside.

Despite a growing awareness of poverty the world over, Sainath says glaring inequalities and growing deprivation have marked the past two decades. Today, he said, more than 46 per cent of children in India are malnourished, despite the country’s economic growth. Jobless growth and widening rich-poor gaps have surfaced in an alarming fashion in even the most prosperous of nations, he said, pointing to the troubles being felt in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even in North America.

And while the challenges are far greater and the road bumpier than when Sainath first graduated, he says the opportunities ahead are more exciting and change, although slow, is possible as long as you “see yourself as part of, rooted in, the communities you wish to serve.”

“‘There is no force on Earth mightier than an idea whose time has come,” said Sainath, paraphrasing famed French artist and philosopher Victor Hugo. “And I believe that social justice and the ‘uplifting of the whole people’—articulated in this university's origins—are among those ideas whose time has come. With that has come your turn to go out into that great arena of ideas that is, or should be, the everyday world.”

To read a full transcript of Sainath's convocation address, click here.

To watch the entire June 8 convocation ceremony, click here.