Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Oxford yesterday after 24 years, where she received an honorary Doctorate and spoke in a language of high idealism. One of the things she did in her speech was to emphasize what it means to be able to attend university in a free society:
The most important thing for me about Oxford was not what I learnt there in terms of set texts and set books we had to read, but in terms of a respect for the best in human civilisation.
And the best in human civilisation comes from all parts of the world. It is not limited to Oxford; it is not limited to Burma; it is not limited to any other country. But the fact that in Oxford I had learned to respect all that is the best in human civilisation helped me to cope with what was not quite the best.
Because what is not yet quite the best may still, one day, become the best; it may be improved. It gave me a confidence in humankind. It gave me a confidence in the innate wisdom of human beings – not given to all of us, but given to enough of us for the rest of the world to share, and to make use of it for others.
I have often thought that the saddest thing about Burma over the last few decades has been the lack of campus life for our university students. Campus life means a life in which young people can create their own world – or make the world their own. They have the freedom and the facilities to do so. Our young people in Burma have not had this freedom for the last few decades. University life has been shattered because of a perceived need to keep students in order. That's not possible: everybody knows that students can't be kept in order! So we shouldn't spend our time on such a futile and really undesirable mission. I would like to see university life restored to Burma in all its glory. And I would be so grateful if my old university, the University of Oxford, could help to bring this about once again.
I would like our young people to know what it is to feel that the world belongs to them and they belong to the world. To be able to stand at the threshold of full adulthood in full confidence that they will be able to do their best for the world and in the belief that the world also wants to do the best for them.
She also had some more... er, knobbly reflections, but they somehow fitted right in:
I remember small things. I remember so often going in a bus, with my very dear friend Ann Pasternak-Slater, sitting side by side, in a bus on the Banbury Road, our four denim-clad knees next to each other; and Ann looked down, and said: 'It's not fair, even knees are different.' And it was true. I'm not sure quite which way it was, but one set of knees was pointed, and one set of knees was round. These were the sort of things we noticed as students, and talked about, and built a whole philosophy on this little fact that we had different sets of knees, our knees were shaped differently.
The world was shaped differently. But we were not afraid of it. The differences meant that we were all the stronger. We learned how to cope with the different problems that we would have to face.