1916 Fredericton Encaenia

Alumni Oration

Delivered by: Meahan, A.W.

"The Alumni Oration: Rev. A. W. Meahen, D.D." University Monthly 35, 8 (June 1916): 9-13. (UA Case 67a, Box 1)

The world over, alumni by their unselfish and personal endeavors are accomplishing a work in matters educational greater than they know. Membership, therefore, among the alumni of the University of New Brunswick makes known the fact that you have retained a deep interest in the education of the youth of our province, and consequently a broader, if not deeper, concern in the moral, intellectual, and I might add physical well being of Canadians in general.

In thus exerting your influence, varied as it is, you are worthy both of commendation and imitation; and because I feel assured that you would welcome the thought of still further improvement along such lines. I am convinced that you will bear with me in reviewing what must oftentimes, during the last two years, been your own thoughts as well as mine, upon a subject matter very close to us all. The question must have come home to you with repeated insistence, "Will those bright minds, the products of our brightest standards of educational system, who have gone forth to do battle for the Empire, return to Canada from the European conflict, made or marred for a splendid Canadian citizenship?"

For myself, the answer to that question is more than a hope, greater than a speculation, and there is but one answer. From what we know of those who have gone out from University and College; from what we know of the ideals which actuated them in their going; from what we know of the lessons of the war which their trained minds cannot but assimilate and digest, we may with assurance reply, Yes; they will return made not marred for a better Canadian citizenship and Canada will be greater because they have lived.

To quote a writer of the day; "One might well have supposed that we were independent of the heir to the Austrian throne. We in Canada did not even know his name. But one day in the year 1914 they killed him, and Europe fell to pieces." Since that time our thoughts with difficulty dissociate themselves from the events which followed in such startling rapidity, till in August England declared war in defence of the neutral laws of nations, in protection of the weak against the strong. The Empire at war, Canada declared herself at war; and then we in this country were privileged to witness a spectacle such as the world has rarely seen. For a moment all industrial activity seemed to halt. There was only one business; the flower of Canadian youth and manly intelligence gave themselves without hesitation or reluctance in defence of such an appealing cause. In homes of affluence and intellectuality, in homes frugal and unpretentious, kindly family ties were severed at the call to arms. The workman's tools were left upon the bench; the student's books closed upon the table. Every rank and file of the social order was threatened with depletion until a land of peaceful prosperity was changed to an armed camp. Not Shakespeare's soldiers these, "Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth." There is no frenzy of excited minds here; but the cool deliberateness born of an upright cause and a courage gained by habit and education, and not enforced by law. Here "clay and clay did not differ in dignity." It was anew democracy that shot into existence so that today we find employers and employed, master and man standing side by side in the sodden trenches of Flanders.

Ours is a citizen soldier of the highest type. This man has carried into the barrack-room the culture of the home and the learning of the schools. Young as he may be in years, his cultivation of mind has prevented his becoming a mere machine of war, but rather has made him a man, whose loyalty engendered amid surroundings of peaceful pursuits, has urged him for the moment to suffer privation and cold and hunger—even death itself—for the cause he has espoused. Viewed in this light we must with just pride look to him for the highest measure of success in the field. But our range of vision must stretch farther than that. One day the world-war will be over. The last shot will be fired, the last trench vacated. Then out from mud and noise of the shambles will come those glorious sons of Canada eager to return to the land they have so fittingly honored. Who can picture what that home-coming is to be? with victory—to many a bereaved home so dearly won—perched upon their banners; but no doubt exists with us as to the security of that victory or the wonderfulness of that scene.

We have watched the progress of their arms, now what of their power for the general good in this young and growing country? What inspiration to nobility of character in the youth of succeeding generations of their fellows will they excite? Let us examine. Because they number in their ranks every avocation that falls to the lot of man, their return will act as a new leaven to purge out such social, political and religious decadence as may already in its youth have beset our land. They have had time to think and they have had something big to think about. The man in the trenches has been sobered in these tense times. He has left all behind him. The voice of the world is dead in his ears, in any one moment all may be over forever. He must think, and he must think aright, and "the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts." His civil life has only been interrupted, it has not been abandoned. As he lies in watchful waiting, as he marches from post to post, as he suffers in hospital wards, his thoughts must often turn, by comparison at least, to the life's work which is awaiting him at home. He beholds that work from new angles, strange and searching lights are reflected upon it. He has grown up suddenly. A noted divine has put him to the test when he says "The war is teaching a lesson deeper than all things because it combines and contains them all. It is either God, and the Law of God with all the difficulties which that possession implies, but with the absolute certainty of moral security and eternal hope, or else the deceits of guilty conscience, the fading intoxication of ill-gotten wealth, the butterfly happiness of agnostic science; one or the other, but not both." We know what choice the man in the trench has made. We hear it in his speech. It has dropped from his pen as he writes the loved ones at home. It lies hidden in the phrases, "If I am spared, if God spares me." The language of a man whose soul has been simplified and purified in the havoc of death and carnage about him. He becomes true. He becomes a moral member of society and his home-coming will become a powerful force for good. I repeat, therefore, that from a religious point of view we may look to them for a splendid Canadian citizenship.

But we may not stop here in considering the effects of the war upon our intelligent Canadian youth. It has been already stated that a wonderful democracy had sprung into existance at the call to arms. Social cant and class distinctions have all gone down before the test of war. The old professional army has almost vanished. Even in the established army there has come a change in officers and men. The old stiffness has fallen away. The soldier of other days had the shortcomings and virtues of his class, today we find him very often socially and intellectually the peer of his officers. They tell us that in one company two sappers were found to be undergraduates of one of our best universities. A hospital orderly when asked said that before the war he had been an organist; a driver in the artillery had been a noted elocutionist, and thus to the end of the chapter. Two years ago these men were living the life of the cities, and the rural life of selfish idleness or illpaid toil. For more than a year they have lived a man's life in the open, and they have imbibed the spirit of that life. Conventions which have hedged them in at home have melted. The bonds of red-tape have been severed, and they have come face to face with things as they are. A transformation is taking place within the confines of the British Empire. We may be unable as yet to define it, but we feel that it is there. The Canadian at the front realizes for the first time a clear vision of himself as a living part in that Empire. It is a new experience, and like all new experiences it is compelling a readjustment of thought. Out there he is getting the broader view, the grand lessons in self-government which will fit him for the part he is soon to play in the duties of state control and policy. A healthy enthusiasm will be infused, for political catchwords of the past have lost their meaning and are no longer powerful to mislead a generation of men strengthened by his great "Pentecost of calamity." As they have fought like brothers in a common cause, and for a country they deemed worth fighting for, so will the fraternity of the trenches be as earnest in the future of their efforts for the good and proper government of that country. I repeat, however, that from a religious, political and social point of view, those bright minds, the highest product of our educational system, must because noblesse oblige return to their beloved land to lay the foundation for a more splendid Canadian citizenship.

All—all will be men who have suffered, who have witnessed death in all the grimness that human ingenuity could invent, who have seen strong men crazed and strong human bodies broken, who have visited maybe for the first time in their young lives countries centuries old in what the world is pleased to call civilization, who have met and conversed with peoples other and different nationalities whose minds will have contrasted the possibilities of their own country with the achievements of older lands, who have lost the cock-sureness of inexperience and insularity in the breadth of discipline, whose knowledge of what war really is will make for the betterment if hasty international diplomacy, whose spirit of religion and fear of God—the beginning of real wisdom—will be intensified by the sight of noble deeds performed amid ever-present death, who will have seen that material progress alone is not the end of created man, who have found out before it is too late that mentions superiority alone does not necessarily beget honor among nations any more than it breeds respect between individuals. In a word, the return of these splendid men ought to be for us an assurance that every generation in its turn will be found saying:
"Let us build a Canada for which these men lying in their scattered and unnamed graves over the face of God's green earth would have been proud, aye, proud to die."

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