Attitude by Margaret Atwood
The University Of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Central message of the article .. In so many ways, even after nearly four decades of this speech by Margaret Atwood, the deficiencies of the curriculum, the uncertainties that new graduates face, and the possible panacea for the trauma of a hard landing in the real world remain valid to day. It is widely acknowledged that the curriculum is not in sync with the demands of real life. The universities offer little help to their passing-out graduates in seamlessly transitioning to the harsh competitive world. Ill-prepared, and ill-trained, the students find it daunting to take up gainful jobs, or follow their passions while earning a minimal income. The sense of void, and the feeling being unwanted by the society can break a fresh graduate. The world appears to be unresponsive, indifferent, and utterly un-accommodating. The young men and women can’t do anything to change the reality. So, it is futile to break your head against a stone wall. The best survival technic would, therefore, be to change your attitude to reality and accept its harshness un-grudgingly. After this re-calibration of mind is done, stoicism will develop. It will enable the young man or woman to discover ways to make a living, or follow their passion. Gradually, life will unfold its benign self, and the hardships will fade away. This principle of accepting reality and changing one’s attitude to it is the mantra for all fresh graduates coming out in any stream , from any university.
I am of course overjoyed to be here today in the role of ceremonial object. There is more than the usual amount of satisfaction in receiving an honorary degree from the university that helped to form one’s erstwhile callow and ignorant mind into the thing of dubious splendor that it is today; whose professors put up with so many overdue term papers, and struggled to read one’s handwriting, of which ‘interesting’ is the best that has been said; at which one failed to learn Anglo-Saxon and somehow missed Bibliography entirely, a severe error which I trust no one present here today has committed; and at which one underwent excruciating agonies not only of soul but of body, later traced to having drunk too much coffee in the bowels of Wymilwood.
Explanation … Margaret Atwood was invited to speak on the occasion of commemoration ceremony for graduate students in the University of Toronto, Canada. At the beginning of her address, she recalled the academic pressure that virtually proved to be back-breaking. Loads and loads of homework drove her to drink excessive caffeine in the Wymilwood cafe. Far from helping her, it brought her more misery. She recounts with horror how she had to memorize the complete bibliography in course of studying Anglo-Saxon literature. On the whole, the life in the university was too traumatic to endure.
It is to Victoria College that I can attribute the fact that Bell Canada, Oxford University Press and McClelland and Stewart all failed to hire me in the summer of ‘63, on the grounds that I was a) overqualified and b) couldn’t type, thus producing in me that state of joblessness, angst and cosmic depression which everyone knows is indispensable for novelists and poets, although nobody has ever claimed the same for geologists, dentists or chartered accountants. It is also due to Victoria College, incarnated in the person of Northrop Frye, that I didn’t run away to England to become a waitress, live in a garret, write masterpieces and get tuberculosis. He thought I might have more spare time for creation if I ran away to Boston, lived in a stupor, wrote footnotes and got anxiety attacks, that is, if I went to Graduate School, and he was right. So, for all the benefits conferred upon me by my Alma Mater, where they taught me that the truth would make me free but failed to warn me of the kind of trouble I’d get into by trying to tell it – I remain duly grateful.
Explanation.. She studied in Victoria College. In the fag end of her studies, she applied for a job in three companies — Bell Canada, Oxford University Press, and McClelland and Stewart. Sadly for her, none of the three employers fit her suitable for a job. They disqualified her saying that she was over-qualified for the job, or she didn’t know typing. The failure to land a job made her dejected and despondent. Her self confidence was shattered, and she began to feel symptoms of depression. But, she realized that most novelists go through such agony before they write a stellar book. Displaying some dry humor, she wonders why such a period of angst is a prerequisite for the writing profession, and not for other professions like that of a dentist, geologist, or chartered accountant.
During the time she was afflicted by depression, and anxiety, she decided to draw inspiration from Northrop Frye, the renowned Canadian novelist and literary critic. He was then in Victoria College. She didn’t escape to England and take up mundane jobs like that of a waitress, live in a single room cottage and write a masterpiece, and finally get tuberculosis. One can discern her sense of humor in this line.
Nothrop Frye suggested to her to go to Boston, and enroll in a graduate school there. This way, she could get enough free time to do her small-time literary work. But, that was hardly an inspiring idea for her. Ruefully, she states that Victoria College had given her the right education, but hadn’t prepared her for the risks of landing in a void after formally ending her studies.
But everything has its price. No sooner had I tossed off a graceful reply to the letter inviting me to be present the same day, than I began to realize the exorbitance of what was expected of me. I was going to have to come up with something to say,“You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.”to a graduating class in 1983, year of the Ph.D. taxi driver, when young people have unemployment the way they used to have ugly blackheads; something presumably useful, wise, filled with resonance and overview, helpful, encouraging and optimistic. After all, you are being launched – though ever since I experienced the process, I’ve wondered why “convocation” is the name for it. “Ejection” would be better. Even in the best of times, it’s more or less like being pushed over a cliff, and these are not the best of times. In case you haven’t figured it out already, I’m here to tell you that it’s an armpit out there. As for your university degree, there are definitely going to be days when you will feel that you’ve been given a refrigerator and sent to the middle of a jungle, where there are no three-pronged grounded plugholes.
Explanation … Margaret Atwood finished her Ph.D. She was asked to be present for the Convocation in which she was to be awarded the Doctorate degree. That was an exhilarating moment, but after that, what she could do? There was no clue for the life after Ph. D. In dry humor, she says that the Convocation day is in fact the Ejection Day. This is because the student had nothing to do in the campus and had to leave.
She knew the reality. She was facing a large uncertain, unsympathetic, and uncooperative world. She knew she couldn’t change the world, but she could change herself to suit the world. She decided to try.
She knew the predicament other students like her were facing. No job meant no peace and no happiness. The trauma robbed them of a sense of dignity and self-possession.
She too felt such trauma and void. But, she refused to be cowed down by the hard times she was facing. She decided to turn the table on such distress. She planned to put the helplessness to good use, by doing something novel and creative. The challenge she had to face was daunting. It was like being sent to a forest with a refrigerator. There is no power supply in the village, and so, no matter how one tried, the fridge can’t be used. So, landing the large cold dark world armed with a doctorate was pointless, because the world doesn’t on-board a university graduate automatically. One has to attune the world to listen to you and take notice of you. That was the challenge.
Not only that, the year will come when you will wake up in the middle of the night and realize that the people you went to school with are in positions of power, and may soon actually be running things. If there’s anything more calculated to thick men’s blood with cold, it’s that. After all, you know how much they didn’t know then, and, given yourself as an example, you can’t assume they know a great deal more now. “We’re all doomed,” you will think. (For example: Brian Mulroney is only a year older than I am.) You may feel that the only thing to do when you’ve reached this stage is to take up nail-biting, mantras, or jogging, all of which would be recognized by animal behavior specialists as substitution activities, like scratching, which are resorted to in moments of unresolved conflict. But we’ll get around to some positive thinking in a moment.
Explanation …. What was more frustrating for a graduate student is to think how their schoolmate was doing so well in life in other jobs, despite being of the same level of intellect. Such thoughts makes one feel more miserable. To escape such depressing thoughts, one could do jogging, nail-biting etc. Specialists call such activities as ‘substitution activities’. Having said all these, Margaret Atwood decides to change her track to something positive.
“What shall I tell them!” I thought, breaking out into a cold sweat, as I tossed and turned night after night. (Lest you leap to indulge in Calvinistic guilt at the idea of having been the proximate cause of my discomfort, let me hasten to add that I was on a boat. The tossing and turning was par for the course, and the cold sweat can be cured by Gravol). For a while I toyed with the idea of paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut, who told one graduating class, “Everything is going to become unbelievably worse and will never get better again,” and walked off the stage. But that’s the American style: boom or bust. A Canadian would be more apt to say, “things may be pretty mediocre but let’s at least try to hold the line.”
Then I thought that maybe I could say a few words on the subject of a liberal arts education, and how it prepares you for life. But sober reflection led me to the conclusion that this topic too was a washout; for, as you will soon discover, a liberal arts education doesn’t exactly prepare you for life. A preparation-for-life curriculum would not consist of courses on Victorian Thought and French Romanticism, but of things like How to Cope With Marital Breakdown, Getting More for your Footwear Dollar, Dealing With Stress, and How To Keep Your Fingernails from Breaking Off by Always Filing Them Towards the Center; in other words, it would read like the contents page of Homemakers Magazine, which is why Homemakers Magazine is so widely read, even by me. Or, for boys, Forbes or The Economist , and Improving Your Place in the Power Hierarchy by Choosing the Right Suit. (Dark blue with a faint white pinstripe, not too far apart, in case you’re interested.)
Or maybe, I thought, I should expose glaring errors in the educational system, or compile a list of things I was taught which are palpably not true. For instance, in high school I made the mistake of taking Home Economics instead of Typing – we thought, in those days, that if you took the commercial course most of your eyebrows would come off and would have to be drawn on with a pencil for the rest of your life – where I was told that every meal should consist of a brown thing, a white thing, a yellow thing and a green thing; that it was not right to lick the spoon while cooking; and that the inside of a dress seam was as important as the outside. All three of these ideas are false and should be discarded immediately by anyone who still holds them.
Explanation …. Margaret Atwood recalls a dream she saw. In it, she finds herself on a boat that sways from side to side as it moves on. The author finds the situation very unsettling. She feels like vomiting, but has Gravol (the nausea depressant) handy with her. She gets up, and toys with the idea of paraphrasing the works of Kurt Vonnegut. On one occasion, he had forewarned his students saying that incredibly hard times were going to come. Saying this, he had walked off the stage. That was a typical American approach – boom and bust. On the other hand, Canadians are more resilient. They wouldn’t rush to make a judgment during hard times. They would prefer to wait it out.
After a while, she thought of choosing Liberal education and its use in our lives as the theme of her speech. But, she soon realized that Liberal Education was also a sterile subject. It never prepares the student to face post-campus life. Topics like Victorian Thought and French Romanticism form part of the curriculum of liberal education. She wondered what could the relevance of such knowledge that are rooted in so distant a corner of history.
‘Liberal education must deal with skills that are needed in our daily lives,’ she reasoned. Day-to-day problems such as How to Cope With Marital Breakdown, Getting More for your Footwear Dollar, Dealing With Stress, and How To Keep Your Fingernails from Breaking Off by Always Filing Them Towards the Center etc. should be taught to the students. Good humouredly, she mentioned the Homemaker’s magazine, which she said she reads. The topics of Liberal Education should look similar to the Content page of this magazine. The boys could read magazines like Forbes, The Economist etc. to augment their knowledge needed to boost their careers. Again, she becomes a little humorous, and talks about the skill needed for selecting the best office suit.
After a while, she thought about talking about the inadequacies and fallacies built into the school curriculum. She could tell her audience how during her school days she was advised not to prefer Home Economics over Commercial topics like Typing. It was said that girls who opted for typing jobs risked losing their eyebrow hairs. Later, she realized it was pure nonsense.
Another idea that was taught was an ideal meal should have a brown item, a white item, a green item and a yellow item. It was also told that a cook must not lick the spoon while testing food. In the same way, it was taught that the inside cloth of a dress is as important as the outside one. All these suggestions are fallacious and should be discarded.
Nor did anyone have the foresight to inform me that the best thing I could do for myself as a writer would be back and wrist exercises. No one has yet done a study of this, but they will, and when they start excavating and measuring the spines and arm bones of the skeletons of famous writers of the past I am sure they will find that those who wrote the longest novels, such as Dickens and Melville, also had the thickest wrists. The real reason that Emily Dickinson stuck to lyric poems with relatively few stanzas is that she had spindly fingers. You may scoff, but future research will prove me right.
Explanation …Another dry humor from the author. She says no one told her about the great benefit of being an author. It was the back and wrist exercise that a writer does while writing. She light-heartedly claims that great authors like Dickens and Melville had strong wrists. Exhuming their graves would prove that the skeletons showed thick and wide wrists. On the other hand, Emily Dickinson wrote short poems because she had tender wrists.
But I then thought, I shouldn’t talk about writing. Few of this graduating class will wish to be writers, and those that do should by no means be encouraged. Weave a circle round them thrice, and close your eyes holy dread, because who needs the competition? What with the proliferation of Creative Writing courses, a mushroom of recent growth all but unknown in my youth, we will soon have a state of affairs in which everybody writes and nobody reads, the exact reverse of the way things were when I was composing dolorous verses in a rented cupboard on Charles Street in the early sixties.
Explanation .. Margaret Atwood then weighed the idea of speaking about writing, but gave it up. She knew very few among the students will opt for writing as a career. Encouraging students to adopt writing as a profession is not a wise thing to do, she thought. The competition among new upcoming writers is fierce, so pushing students to this arena is not fair. She knew there are far too many centers that offer Creative Writing courses. At this rate, there would be more writers than readers!. In her young days, no of readers was very big compared to that of writers. She remembered how she used to write pensive poems in her small rented room in Charles Street.
Or maybe, I thought, I should relate to them a little known fact of shocking import, which they will remember vividly when they have all but forgotten the rest of this speech. For example: nobody ever tells you, but did you know that when you have a baby your hair falls out? Not all of it, and not all at once, but it does fall out. It has something to do with a zinc imbalance. The good news is that it does grow back in. This only applies to girls. With boys, it falls out whether you have a baby or not, and it never grows back in; but even then there is hope. In a pinch, you can resort to quotation, a commodity which a liberal arts education teaches you to treat with respect, and I offer the following: “God only made a few perfect heads, and the rest lie covered with hair.”
Explanation .. Again the speaker wants to drive home her point using a trivial example. She told how it was believed that a woman rearing a baby loses hair apparently due to zinc imbalance, but the hair grows again the same place. In case of men, hair falls, but does not grow again. With some sarcasm, she cites a quotation liberal education teacher often cite. It is, “God only made a few perfect heads, and the rest lie covered with hair.” In effect, it implies that bald people are in fact gifted, and lesser ones have plenty of hair on their head.
Which illustrates the following point: when faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it. As I learned during my liberal arts education, any symbol can have, in the imaginative context, two versions, a positive and a negative. Blood can either be the gift of life or what comes out of you when you cut your wrists in the bathtub. Or, somewhat less drastically, if you spill your milk you’re left with a glass which is either half empty or half full.
Explanation …Now, Margaret Atwood comes to the gist of her speech, that sounds like a sermon. She says, adversity comes, but it also holds a small door ajar. When the reality hits you very hard, let the doom not overwhelm you. Change yourself to condition it to the challenges of reality. It may be a daunting task at the beginning, but you will soon find that the harsh reality does not gnaw at you anymore. The change in your attitude will make the harsh reality much more bearable.
She recounts her experience when she was a student of liberal arts. Any symbol can have two diametrically opposite interpretations – one positive, and another negative. She cites the case of blood. It can be the life-sustaining gift of God, or it can be something that oozes out of your injury. Another example – When milk is spilled, the glass can be made to stand erect again. The glass, now, can be described as either half empty or half full.
Which brings us to the hidden agenda of this speech. What you are being ejected into today is a world that is both half empty and half full. On the one hand, the biosphere is rotting away. The raindrops that keep falling on your head are also killing the fish, the trees, the animals, and, if they keep being as acid as they are now, they’ll eventually do away with things a lot closer to home, such as crops, front lawns and your digestive tract. Nature is no longer what surrounds us, we surround it, and the switch has not been for the better. On the other hand, unlike the ancient Egyptians, we as a civilization know what mistakes we are making and we also have the technology to stop making them; all that is lacking is the will.
Explanation .. Now, she expounds what she has all along been trying to tell the students. When they pass out of the university, they will confront the world that may appear hostile. But, it is certain that some opportunity, somewhere, will be hiding.
As an example, she talks about the raindrops that fall on our head. It nourishes us in many ways. The same rain drops can be acidic in nature. Such rain is destructive in its nature. It kills the flora and fauna on earth. Acid rain destroys crops and all other forms of vegetation. When unchecked, such acid rain can enter our body and blight it irreversibly. Acid rain is a symptom of aggressive exploitation of Nature’s resources. The greed and ruthlessness of the modern man makes him blind to such dangers. The ancient Egyptians knew how to conserve Nature, but the modern man ignores the damage he does to the environment.
Another example: on the one hand, we ourselves live daily with the threat of annihilation. We’re just a computer button and a few minutes away from it, and the gap between us and it is narrowing every day. We secretly think in terms not of “If the Bomb Drops” but of “When the Bomb Drops”, and it’s understandable if we sometimes let ourselves slide into a mental state of powerlessness and consequent apathy. On the other hand, the catastrophe that threatens us as a species, and most other species as well, is not unpredictable and uncontrollable, like the eruption of the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. If it occurs, we can die with the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the death of the world was a man-made and therefore preventable event, and that the failure to prevent it was a failure of human will.
Explanation … We live in an age fraught with various threats of mass extinction. The nuclear or biological war can be triggered in minutes, thanks to the pervasive computer networks. With each passing day, the reaction time between a trigger and the cataclysm that follows is becoming shorter and shorter. With such threat hanging on us so perilously, we feel resigned to our fate. We assume that we have nothing to reverse the danger, so we watch helplessly. If such a catastrophe really comes to pass, we will just throw up our hands in despair, because we will realize that we did nothing to preempt it.
This is the kind of world we find ourselves in, and it’s not pleasant. Faced with facts this depressing, the question of the economy – or how many of us in this country can afford two cars doesn’t really loom too large, but you’d never know it from reading the papers. Things are in fact a lot worse elsewhere, where expectations center not on cars and houses and jobs but on the next elusive meal. That’s part of the down side. The up side, here and now, is that this is still more or less a democracy; you don’t get shot or tortured yet for expressing an opinion, and politicians, motivated as they may be by greed and the lust for power, are nevertheless or because of this, still swayed by public opinion. The issues raised in any election are issues perceived by those who want power to be of importance to those in a position to confer it upon them. In other words, if enough people show by the issues they raise and by the way they’re willing to vote that they want changes made, then change becomes possible. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality.
Try it and see.
Explanation .. We live in a world bedeviled by so many odd things. We are aware of the economic problems our country faces, and its crippling effect on our well-being. Unfortunately, the newspapers don’t discuss such things. However, looking not very far off, we will discover that there are lands where people don’t get bare enough food to eat. This is the darker side of our collective existence. There is still some redeeming feature in this scenario. Democracy prevails in so many lands. People can air their views without any fear of reprisal by the rulers. Politicians are sensitive to public opinion, because returning to power is so important for them. Public grievances are freely given vent to during election campaigns.
If people in sufficiently large numbers highlight their issues, and demand succor in a well-thought way, there is no way elected politicians will be able to ignore them.
Lastly, the speaker reiterates her stand that we may not be able to change the reality, but by calibrating our attitude, we can alter reality. She asks us to try it.
- What lessons Margaret Atwood’s famous speech holds for the young men and women just finishing their studies in India?
- Do you feel this speech offers any solution to the hordes of Africans heading towards Europe and America using perilous sea routes? Discuss the matter from your own standpoint.
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