Learning by Doing
How my on- and off-campus Trinity experiences helped to shape my career—and my character
By Montieth Illingworth ’80
As a first-year student in September 1976, I didn’t step easily into the cocoon of college. I had taken a year off before starting at Trinity, sailed the oceans, worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and toured Europe’s great museums. It was a year of “peak experiences.” I had developed an existential perspective that meaning came by doing. By contrast, spending hours in the library stacks wasn’t an easy transition.
Even a month into classes, the world outside our quad kept its gravitational pull. Yes, the CN Tower had opened that summer, and the Parti Québécois won election challenging Trudeau’s vision of Canada, but the Russians were still doing nuclear tests, and it looked like Jimmy Carter would win the U.S. presidential election and finally close the book on the Nixon Era. And in 1976, all eyes were on a place called Soweto, where the black student uprising fought apartheid and brought global attention to a man named Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on an island for his opposition to and struggle against institutionalized racism.
The deeper I got into academics the more I realized I had to get back into the world. And yet I knew I also had to bring the world into academics. I needed to evolve my existential perspective: Academic study enabled me to experience new ideas; could I find new experiences and apply those ideas in meaningful ways?
By the winter term I had decided to go to Southern Africa. My plan was to first visit South Africa, then Rhodesia, where the guerilla war to unseat the white minority rule was reaching its bloodiest and most brutal phase. I wanted to see it, be in it, photograph it, tape-record it, write about it, experience it.
My Trinity professors were guardedly encouraging, in a sensible way (“be careful”) but I suspect no one thought I’d actually go. George Ignatieff was Provost at the time. His family had fled the Bolsheviks, and he had served in the Second World War. He understood, better than anyone on campus perhaps, the value of engaging in the world.
That summer of 1977, the body count and the atrocities on both sides were mounting. Two liberation armies, one based in neighboring Mozambique, the other in Zambia, gained strength. The white minority, which accounted for less than five per cent of the population, fought doggedly against the ambushes, landmines and bombings. My first stop was Johannesburg, South Africa, which was also the only entry point to Rhodesia. The country’s other borders with Zambia, Mozambique, and Botswana were all closed. I soon flew to Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital, and checked into a hostel. I figured out that the best way to find out about the war was to talk to the soldiers and found them in the bars at night. That led to some lively debates about white minority vs. black majority rule. From there it was then going into the nearby migrant worker dormitories where black males were required to live without their families, and wandered the shantytown slums, where families fleeing the war squatted illegally. The war was fiercest in the bush so that was where I headed next, to towns along the border with Mozambique. I stayed with white families, debating the war and the many perspectives on white minority versus black majority rule, and photographing black poverty. After Rhodesia, I headed to Lusaka, Zambia to find and interview the guerilla leaders there from the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). I wasn’t exactly welcomed. When they heard I was seeking them out I was kidnapped and interrogated in a ZAPU guerilla camp then later by the national police for being a suspected spy. I was eventually released (although I returned to the ZAPU camp to interview the guerilla leaders) I would later, back home, learn that the only reason I survived was because when the cable was sent by the Zambian police to the Canadian government to try and confirm my identity, the then-Consul General for Canada to New York, Barry Steers, happened to see it and intervened. He had known my mother when they were growing up together in London, Ontario.
Did I find new ideas, new experiences, new meaning that summer? More than I ever thought possible. The whole experience kick-started a career in journalism and writing, which continued into the mid-1990s. It started upon my return, when I wrote a diary-style feature on my time in Rhodesia for the Globe & Mail, which also published some of my photographs. In my remaining three years at Trinity I dove into the academic study of Rhodesian political economy, became an avid student of continental philosophy and economic history, helped start a student periodical, and joined the U of T Historical Society, which I led for one term. Ideas, for me, became just as powerful as doing. Those same Trinity profs who said “be careful” became trusted mentors. I made friends among my peers, people I see to this day and consider family. Going to Rhodesia helped make my Trinity experience peak in every way. But there was also another level of meaning for me that came from my off-campus experience. When you experience up close a whole society organized around exploiting another race, almost losing your own life in the process, something does change in you, forever. Post-college, we move into careers, start families, go to church, take vacations, celebrate milestones. Eventually, as the prior generation passes we move to the front pew. I didn’t make finding wars and wrestling with large-scale injustices my vocation. But I never lost this sense that the big challenge is not only living the right life but doing the right thing, whether it is trying to shine a light on some aspect of a global conflict or calling someone out for making a sexist, racist or anti-Semitic comment at a cocktail party. Life can be writ large and you can jump onto the stage in the full glare of history. More often than not it is the sum of our everyday moments and decisions. I was reminded of this recently by the election of Donald Trump and by the new anti-immigrant populism frothing up in the U.S. and Europe. It seems to me that just when the news media is at its weakest as a business model struggling to stay profitable, it must be at its most powerful and vigilant in its “Fourth Estate” role. Something seismic has shifted in the world. Big divides are back, intemperance among world leaders threatens, institutions are at risk, whole categories of people— refugees, women, minorities—could be victimized all over again. I believe that a new era of “meaning by doing” is here. Experiential learning for today’s generation of Trinity students is more important than ever.
Montieth M. Illingworth graduated from Trinity College in 1980 with an Honours BA in Philosophy and Economic History. He then attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism earning a Masters of Science in 1981. He stayed in the U.S. and went on to work as a journalist for a variety of national magazines and newspapers, and as a screenwriter and author (Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal, Birch Lane Press, 1991). In 1995 he changed careers and became a public relations executive. He began by advising governments in the U.S. and around the world on investment attraction marketing and media relations. His work since then has focused on a range of global advisory roles in communications and media relations. For the past decade, Montieth has been president of Montieth and Company, a New York and London-based communications consulting firm that delivers strategy, media and content solutions to organizations across industry sectors and global media markets. In 2016, inspired by his own Trinity experience, Montieth created an endowment fund at Trinity College to support international travel and experiential learning opportunities for students.
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