Benefaction and Education

A 'Non-Religious' address for Robinson College 'Celebration of Benfactors'


Benefaction and Education


Given our current climate, being in receipt of benefits is not something widely celebrated.  Benefits are to be capped, not celebrated.  In fact the word ‘benefit’, sounds like a prefix to a host of social vices. If you google the word ‘benefit’, the predictive search suggestion lists: benefit fraud, benefit cheats, and benefit caps.  The idea of Friends with Benefits, is hardly a more virtuous notion.  But here we are, to celebrate the benefits that we receive as a college.


To function as an institution, we value, perhaps even rely upon, the benefits that we receive from others.  So, of course, it is natural and right to recognise formally, the generosity of our benefactors, and to do so can also serve to remind us what kind of institution we are, what kind of purpose we serve.  The position we occupy, within an economy of giving.


To what extent does the life of our college benefit the world beyond the college?  


Do we strive to be an educational sausage factory, producing highly trained individuals who will prove themselves efficient at achieving their personal goals?  Or is there another dynamic at work in an educational institution?  The readings chosen for this evening are selected to provoke these kinds of questions:


Those lines of Alexander Pope, highlight the art of learning as a whole.  A little learning can create the impression that we are equipped, enabled, fully prepared – whereas if we drink deeply from the Pieran Spring – that source of true knowledge for the ancient Greeks, the wellspring of art and science, treasured by the Muses, the place where Orpheus – the poet, musician and prophet was worshipped.  The Pieran Spring if we drink deeply from it – we find ourselves sobred and humbled about our place in the universe.  The Pieran Spring – made available on tap throughout the glorious facilities of Robinson College – produces a very different kind of formation than mere training.


Training and education are two very different things.  Training is what we do with soldiers to maximise their efficiency to fulfil the orders of their superiors.  As an educational establishment, we would hope that what we offer the world is something more valuable than mere training.


Education is far more concerned with liberty, with freedom – it’s Latin roots are existential.  Hence the idea of the Gift in that reading from Gibril Kahn, but perhaps fleshed out more fully in contemporary French philosophy.    


For Jacques Derrida, gifts are a real problem: Once we have received a gift, we are indebted to the giver – and quickly have to return a gift in order to relieve ourselves of the debt.  And so, stuck in this cycle of exchange – is it really possible to talk about a gift?  Even a simple ‘thank-you’ for instance, which both acknowledges the presence of a gift and also is a natural response to that gift, can be seen to annul the gift.  (You give to me, I say thank you – now we’re even). The gift then, is drawn into the cycle of giving and taking, where a good deed must be accompanied by a suitably just response. As the gift brings with it a protocal about how to respond, it becomes an imposition for the receiver. If the giver expects any form of reward, what they have given is no longer truly, a gift.


But this is not the only way of conceiving a gift.  Derrida goes on to liken a true gift to a counterfeit coin.  That is – one that enters the cycle of giving and receiving – one that comes into our economies of transaction and exchange, without ever properly fitting in or being assimilated by it.  That is – in a cycle of exchange, to an economy based upon ‘you-scratch-my-back, I-scratch-yours’, the gift brings disruption.


And it is perhaps – that disruptive character of the gift that is to be celebrated most of all.  To be in receipt of a genuine gift, is no easy thing – and can leave the world looking and feeling different.  


Sure, higher education can – as we are told – help you to ‘achieve your goals’ and ‘increase your earning potential.’  But really, that would be to ‘drink a little from the Pieran spring.’  The opportunities that stretch out before us in a place that this, are potentially far more world-changing and exciting.  


I’m sure we can all imagine Robinson Alumni who have brought disruption to our world… Glorious disruption, I mean. Be it in sciences, arts, or politics.  


[other examples here…]


For instance, I’ve met a graduate from here – who has settled into her career as a full time parent – who has made full use of her education and whose principle hope is, not that her children will be happy but that they will be good – which is likely to result in a more profound happiness than any happiness sought as an end in itself.   And what kind of immeasurable effect is she likely to have on the world?


If we function well as an educational institution, then this is a Pieran Spring – a place where we do not look down upon the world from the great heights we have achieved, but where we look up to see that, ‘new distant scenes of endless science rise,’ we look up to see that ‘Hills peep over hills, and Endless Alps arise.’


One would hope that those who have been educated here, have not simply graduated with a certificate of education, but have also drunk well at the Pieran Spring.  As such, they are likely to be a genuine gift to the rest of the world.  


And if our college achieves that, then perhaps we have both offered a genuine gift to the world, and honoured – in the fullest sense – the gifts we have received, that enable us to do that.