Although I no longer serve as Chancellor of the University of Calgary, I remain in touch with my undergraduate school and help out when I can. I was pleased when Professor Mark Migotti of the Department of Philosophy invited me back to campus recently to meet with his Arts and Science Honours Academy students.
The Arts and Science Honours Academy (ASHA) is a unique program at UCalgary. It brings together 100 high-achieving, inquisitive students in a curriculum that is blended across the arts and sciences. Half of the students are registered in the Faculty of Arts and the other half in Science. A cohort of 25 ASHA students move together through their four undergrad years and understandably form strong bonds with each other.
I am a big fan of cross-disciplinary education. Everything that I have accomplished as an astronaut has been done on the basis of collaboration – collaboration across disciplines, across cultures, across international borders. And many of society’s greatest innovations have been created when the arts, sciences and technology communities have collaborated (e.g. the Apple iPod, Pixar animated movies, the geodesic dome).
Prior to my arrival on campus, Professor Migotti introduced the first-year ASHA students to allegories as a communication tool. He presented Aesop Fables (e.g. The Tortoise and the Hare) and the fables of French writer Jean de la Fontaine (e.g. The Sculptor and the Statue of Jupiter) as classic examples of allegories. He then assigned a homework project to the students:
“Using the form of an allegory, address a contemporary, weighty issue in science or technology (e.g. climate change, muzzling of government scientists, genetic engineering). The composed stories should be brief and the writing style should appeal to a young reader.”
This was indeed a challenge, but well-suited to the creative talents of the ASHA students.
The Ant and the Grasshopper from the book ‘The Aesop for Children: with Pictures by Milo Winter’ (Rand, McNally & Co – 1919 – public domain)
When I visited campus a couple weeks ago, I spoke to the students about the power of allegories as a communication tool and expressed my perspectives on the book The Hockey Sweater/Le Chandail d’Hockey. This book is an iconic work of literature by author Roch Carrier and is an effective allegory about Canada’s two solitudes. It has done much to sensitize me and many other anglophones about the nature of the cultural and language divides in our country.
To complete their homework assignment, the ASHA students had worked in small groups. We used the remaining class time to listen to the seven groups’ allegories – examples of out-of-the-box thinking and teamwork. Here is one of the delightful student compositions entitled East Wind written by Maeve Corcoran, Ryley Demchuk and Emily Frede:
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The East Wind
Deep in the forest, there lived a clever little crow; he loved his life in the forest and he spent his days talking and laughing with all the other wonderful creatures he met. During the spring he helped teach the new baby robins to fly and cheered on the fawns who stumbled and tumbled over their own feet as they learned to take their first steps. In the summer he would listen to the loon calls and try to sing with them, although he wasn’t very good. One autumn day while he helped the squirrels hide their acorns, he came across his old friend, the great horned owl, looking much more troubled than usual.
“What’s wrong?” asked the little crow, who was very worried at such a sight.
“There’s a big wind coming from the east, when it comes it will take our homes with it, and once it gets here there will be no way to stop it.” The little crow was petrified when he heard this, he knew the great horned owl was very wise and never said things without first knowing them to be true. He asked the owl is there was anything that could be done to stop the east wind from coming to their forest.
“There is one way,” said the owl, “everyone in the forest must give up one thing they don’t need.” That doesn’t sound so bad, thought the little crow, the owl’s solution seemed like a small price to pay for the forest that had nurtured them for so many years.
“Why don’t you tell the other creatures?” asked the little crow.
“I did,” replied the owl, “I told them years ago, before you were even born, but they didn’t like what I had to say so they wouldn’t listen.”
Now the little crow was very confused, but he was also hopeful. He knew that if he told his friends what was happening, they’d do anything to save the home they loved so dearly, so he darted off to tell them the news.
He flew down to the creek where the deer were enjoying the cool water and told them what they needed to do. “That’s what the owl told us eight years ago,” said one of the older deer, “ I haven’t seen anything bad happen since then, so why should we believe it now?”
The little crow left the creek feeling quite discouraged, but he knew the wolves were much smarter than the deer, so he headed toward their cave next. “Have any of the other animals given something up?” asked the leader of the pack.
“Not yet,” the little crow replied.
“Then why should we make a sacrifice? There are not many wolves, it won’t make a difference unless all the animals help, and that will never happen.”
But the little crow wasn’t ready to believe the wolf quite yet, so he made one final flight up to the robin’s nest where the mother robin was busy feeding her newborn chicks. “Is the east wind coming today?” asked the mother robin when she heard the news.
“Probably not,” said the little crow, “But it will be here soon.”
“It’s just that I’m so busy right now,” replied the robin. “Come back when it’s almost here and maybe I’ll have time to help then.”
Frustrated, the little crow headed home for the night. When he got to his nest, he saw his favourite shiny pebble and thought about what the wise old owl had said, tomorrow he would bring it back to the river where it belonged.
But it was already too late. That was the night the east wind finally reached the forest. It ripped through the trees, destroying everything in its path. The robin’s nest was flung out of its tree – the sleeping chicks plummeted to their deaths, the creek overflowed and flooded the wolves’ cave – trapping everyone inside, and the underbush caught fire – incinerating any food the deer would’ve hoped to find.
The next day the animals of the forest gathered together, to cry injustice and ask the wise old owl what they could do to fix the home they had once loved. But the owl was nowhere to be found, that night he had seen the east wind coming and had flown away to find a new home, leaving the creatures of the forest to make peace with the disaster they had brought upon themselves.
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At the end of the reading, I asked Maeve, Ryley and Emily if the deeper meaning behind their story was the introduction of the National Energy Program in 1980 (perceived by many Albertans as a governmental plundering of western Canadian resources), and if their east wind was metaphorically meant to represent the Ottawa-based federal politicians.
No, they weren’t. To the co-authors, the foreboding east wind represents the advent of global warming. In fact, five of the seven student stories that we heard were commentaries on climate change … a clear indication to me that this environmental issue is of major concern to Millennials.
The Arts and Sciences Honours Academy is a pertinent program that nicely bridges two academic solitudes. At the University of Calgary, it is supported by professors and deans who ‘get’ the relevance and benefits of cross-disciplinary education. Many outside organizations, after all, function in such a collaborative manner. Thank you, Mark Migotti, for keeping me connected to the Academy. You and your broadminded students are making a difference.
The Hockey Sweater – Image: Tundra Books, Illustration by Sheldon Cohen