Tending to the great experiment

November 11, 2005

Democracy is an evolving spirit that needs careful nurturing. And to do this, says Stephen J. Toope, Canada is dipping into its crucibles of imagination to spark debate and share ideas

There is much talk about the state of democracy in the Western world. Political scientists, philosophers, sociologists and journalists voice a growing sense of unease. Concern centres on perceptions of alienation and disillusionment; apathy and indifference towards politics and the democratic process; falling voter participation rates; and decreasing trust in governments, officials and public institutions.

Democracy is not a trophy to keep and admire from afar. It is us: a living, changing, evolving spirit. And it needs our care and attention. It must be constantly nurtured, renewed and revitalised. That is why the education of citizens matters so much. In Western democracies such as Canada and the UK, with rising participation rates in higher education, universities play a critical role in educating students for active citizenship. Yet disciplinary barriers and inter-university competition for resources and attention limit what individual universities can accomplish and curtail collaboration. We need neutral spaces for debate; spaces that cross institutional, disciplinary, professional and ideological boundaries; spaces where engaged scholars can interact with a variety of publics.

In our time, questions seem to race ahead of available answers. We search for what is right, for the just thing to do on a variety of fronts.

Solutions to the world's most complex problems cannot be found in scientific or technological innovation alone. Experts continue to apply brilliant specialised knowledge to advance information technology, aerospace, the natural sciences and medicine. But the problems facing contemporary societies are broad. The solutions must be transdisciplinary.

They will require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities. We must foster collaboration in integrating knowledge across different areas of expertise - politics, bioethics, geography, history, sociology, the law and international relations, to name but a few.

Within this context, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is making a difference by building a critical mass of Canada's greatest thinkers and scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and by linking them to important thinkers outside Canada and to policy-makers in business, the arts, the voluntary sector and the Government. The foundation awards fellowships, scholarships and mentorships to key groups of individuals: those who are the young and emerging leaders of tomorrow, as well as those who are already making a significant contribution to Canada and the world in their fields of endeavour. Names you will know and names you will undoubtedly come to know.

The insights produced when creative minds get to know one another and work together are valuable and inspirational. We can begin to address many of today's public policy issues only with the encouragement of intensive research and scholarship that crosses disciplines and ignites continuous lively debate and discussion. To this end, the foundation provides varied opportunities each year for its fellows, scholars and mentors to spend time together, both in person and through a vibrant online community. These interactions offer them a rare chance to collaborate, to share knowledge, insights and research findings, and to explore new ideas. The Foundation also fosters a unique dialogue between these creative individuals and a wide variety of policy-makers. This creates fertile ground for conversations between the worlds of learning and ideas, and of public affairs. Negotiating an increasingly complex global environment demands new approaches, a new type of global literacy. The challenges before us are not going to be overcome solely by scholarly elites, public policy-makers and government leaders, however capable and well intentioned they may be. We need to find new ways of engaging wider publics. Thoughtful continuing debate and dialogue are critically important to healthy democracies, and must involve a wide spectrum of concerned citizens - people who seek to contribute to the societies in which they live. Democracy is controversy and hard choices. It cannot be built and rebuilt without informed, enlightened and sensitive leadership based on imagination and ideas, mixed with a sense of what is possible and grounded in a commitment to the public good. Universities are crucibles for the imagination and for the testing of ideas in rigorous research. They can also set off the spark of community service. Canadian universities are committed to these ends and they fulfil them admirably. But universities exist as part of a larger society that borrows those ideas, applies that research and relies on inspired graduates. Canadians are trying to find new ways to build the connections between universities and the wider society, without falling into the trap of thinking that the only ideas that matter are the ones that can be sold into application tomorrow.

Just three years into its life, the foundation is building those vital connections with a network of close to a hundred extraordinary individuals who pursue diverse areas of study and work. These people share the belief that ideas matter and that ideas are most exciting when they are shared and debated, when they can contribute to the great continuing experiment of democracy.

Stephen J. Toope is president of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.


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