Story posted June 22, 2010
Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations
The search for a Phillips screwdriver sent me out of my office (a former pantry) to rummage around for one in the nooks and crannies of the kitchen at 85 Federal Street—the building that over the years served as the residence for Bowdoin presidents Samuel Harris, William DeWitt Hyde, Kenneth C. M. Sills, James Stacy Coles, Roger Howell, and Willard Enteman. In the back of one drawer was a small stack of 4” x 5 ½” sheets, with a printed schematic plan of the rear portion of the first floor of the house and the message “You will find your seat for dinner at Table ….” Six numbered round tables occupied the ballroom (designed by architect Felix Burton ’07 in 1925), with three rectangular tables on the sun porch, and a single rectangular table in the family dining room. I’m not sure when these seating guides were printed, but I assume that students, faculty, alumni, and distinguished guests of the College were the intended audience.
I have been told by alumni that students at Bowdoin in the Sills years (1918-52) could expect to be invited over for tea (and perhaps dinner) at the President’s House, where they would be greeted by name by Mrs. Sills. Edith Sills understood that requiring students to wear a coat and tie to class or to tea did not guarantee that they would be adept in social situations. What amounted to a brief refresher in social graces for some was a crash course in etiquette and social conversation for others. While the College has never been a finishing school, it was no doubt necessary to expend some effort to help students “…be at home in all lands and all ages.”
Each of us arrived on campus naïve—to varying degrees—about the social and intellectual world into which we had entered and about the people with whom we share that world. If it had been otherwise, then we would not have needed to go to college at all. As students proceed along their own learning curves they are, for better or worse, also involved in the learning curves of others. Diversity in language, culture, religion, the geographical area that is “home,” family situation, socioeconomic background, rural-suburban-urban experiences, dietary preferences and restrictions, the nature of secondary school education, and career plans provide opportunities both for learning and for challenging one’s assumptions and expectations. The range of experiences among the student body is perhaps as great now as it has ever been, which simultaneously creates more opportunities for learning and also more things about which to be uninformed. As Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Hodding Carter ’27 once said, “I am convinced that the most important gift I received from Bowdoin was not what I learned here but what I began to unlearn here. Unlearning is more difficult than learning, and is especially useful to those of us—we are legion—whose minds have been clouded and whose hearts have been hardened by old and accustomed prejudices.”
In the wake of World War II, Joseph Wheeler ’48, a student and returning veteran, proposed a way to bring international students to Bowdoin for a year, in an effort to promote greater understanding on campus and abroad. The College would waive tuition costs and each fraternity would absorb room and board costs; the students were responsible for their travel and other expenses. What became known as the Bowdoin Plan in 1947 was a tremendous success over the next 25 years, imitated by many colleges around the country. Each Bowdoin Plan student would have an immediate connection to a close-knit social group and each fraternity member would have the chance to know students from other countries on a personal level. Some international students came to Bowdoin for a single year, while others graduated from the College; we count them among our most loyal alumni. Like so many members of the Bowdoin family, they have had an impact on hearts and minds that is more far-reaching than they may realize.
When you next “find your seat for dinner”, I hope it will be in good company and that the experience will continue the lifelong process of learning and unlearning about ourselves and others.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations
“I am convinced that the most important gift I received from Bowdoin was not what I learned here but what I began to unlearn here. Unlearning is more difficult than learning, and is especially useful to those of us—we are legion—whose minds have been clouded and whose hearts have been hardened by old and accustomed prejudices.” —Hodding Carter '27