Story posted March 01, 2009
Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations
There are times in our daily lives when seemingly unrelated ideas, experiences, and images come together in unexpected ways. A recent chain of associations was triggered by an illustration of Rip Van Winkle, rising bearded and bewildered from the pile of leaves that had accumulated on and around him over the course of his 20-year slumber. N.C.Wyeth H’45 created the luminous painting for a 1921 edition of Washington Irving’s short story about a man who shared a drink with the enchanted crew of Hendrick Hudson’s ship, The Half-Moon, and slept through the events of the American Revolution. Both Rip and the community that had thought him long dead were forced to come to terms with a present that required revisions to the accepted narrative of the past.
At any number of points in the history of the College a sudden jump forward of two decades might leave a Bowdoin time traveler disoriented, out of sync with social networks, societal rules, physical landscapes, and technology, and unaware of the consequences of recent historical events. A prolonged nap from 1930 to 1950 would have removed from direct experience the effects of the Great Depression and a world war on the nation and the College. If the alumnus awoke early enough in 1950 he could watch the Commencement exercises and marvel at how the G.I. Bill had redefined the size and character of the student body in irreversible ways. Sills Hall and Smith Auditorium were under construction on the old Delta, the site of baseball and hockey games in days gone by. It would have been a source of comfort for a pre-1930 alumnus to find that Kenneth C. M. Sills ’01 still occupied the President’s Office in Massachusetts Hall.
To fall asleep at Bowdoin in 1960 and wake up in 1980 would challenge a modern-day Rip Van Winkle to navigate a fully coeducational Bowdoin, a grading system of HH, H, P, and F (high honors, honors, pass, and fail), a curriculum without distribution requirements, the absence of Saturday classes and mandatory Chapel services, and a terrain that included Coles Tower, the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, Morrell Gymnasium, and the Visual Arts Center. Several trends in music, fashion, and phases of popular culture played out over this interval.
Dozing off in 1990 would have left an alumnus largely ignorant of the future impacts of personal computers and electronic communication on society and on higher education. E-mail, cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet have shortened the intervals that separate communications, and have made available a vast array of sources of information (and disinformation). The College House System, the McKeen Center for the Common Good, Smith Union, Thorne Hall, Osher and West dormitories, and Watson Arena mark social and physical changes in the campus since 1990. Who can say what may change before our hypothetical deep sleep ends in 2010?
In our own lives we often hold some things constant so that we are able to focus on movement or change in other aspects of our lives. The demands of a career, family relationships and responsibilities, financial pressures and uncertainties, or health issues may claim our immediate attention, crowding out an awareness of the ways in which the rest of the world is changing at the same time. Like Rip,we may be left with outdated knowledge, information that is tethered to a particular point in time. A former athlete in a pick-up game may discover that body weight, conditioning, flexibility, and stamina don’t match up to a self-image fueled by memories of the last game. Children – our own or someone else’s – mark the passage of time in their physical, emotional, and intellectual growth, growth that proceeds at a pace that challenges our ability to keep current. At holiday gatherings families may measure new realities against static perceptions, in the same way that pencil marks on a doorframe record the growth of siblings and cousins each year against the comparatively fixed heights of parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts.Although we may be surprised that the “constants” in our lives may have shifted while we were not watching,we don’t have to wait 20 years to make the necessary adjustments.
At any number of points in the history of the College a sudden jump forward of two decades might leave a Bowdoin time traveler disoriented, out of sync with social networks, societal rules, physical landscapes, and technology, and unaware of the consequences of recent historical events.