Campus News

Remarks by President Robert H. Edwards delivered to the Brunswick Rotary Club
October 2, 1995

Story posted October 02, 1995

It's a pleasure to be here again at Rotary. You have before you a rather less somber fellow than the one who was here 2-3 years ago, brooding about the end of the ebullient 1980s, college deficits, staff reductions and the return of the Puritan mind in all its prudence and unease about Salvation. Things are substantially better: the budget has been in balance for 3 years, we are using each year from our endowment of $220 million (still modest as these things go) only 5 percent or less of its value, to ensure its future growth. And student applications are up about 30 percent from when I saw you last. We are also in the midst of a $40 million building program, which gives a nice stir and sense of progress to things.

This building program in fact is the background for what I'd thought to talk about for a few minutes today. As much as we like to think of ourselves in education as innovators, we are even more responders to changes going on around us. I was at a meeting last week where a group of Maine educators was reminded by a very clever women -- Pat Graham, a Harvard professor of education and the head of a foundation -- that over the last century American education broadly has gone through four discernable, and largely reactive, stages. The first period (1880-1920) was one when assimilation was most important -- stirring new immigrants into the great American melting pot. Succeeding it (1920-1950) was the age of the Progressives who believed that adjustment to the emergent democratic society, to the mores of the middle American "group" was the purpose of education -- health, cooperation, community, ethical standards and a sense of group democracy underlay the theory of what it was all about. From 1950 (or 1954, specifically, with the decision of Brown v. Board of Education on desegregation) the watchword became access -- equality of access, the importance of inclusivity in American education.

And then, without abandoning access, in the late 1970s something rather new appeared: a concentration on academic achievement. With A Nation at Risk there came the national conviction that educational standards were falling, that the United States, now a world debtor with a large foreign trade deficit, was losing out in world competition; and that, as A Nation at Risk put it, "if a foreign power had done to our education system what we have allowed to happen to it, we would have considered it an act of war." Achievement, not civics or assimilation, but unambiguously a new educational lexicon: the worlds "mastery," "structure and frameworks for learning," "outcomes" and "assessment." All these have been used in recent years to describe our educational aspirations.

Why? The answer given is that the condition of our economy, our material well being, are in jeopardy because of the condition of our work force and its declining productivity. For the 100 years until 1970 productivity grew annually at an average rate of 3.4 percent; from 1970 until the present it fell by a third and is now and has been for some time averaging 2.1 percent. A review of a new economic history (the End of Affluence, by Jeffrey Madrick) in the October 1 New York Times summarized one view of what happened.

"Why did this slowdown occur? The answer lies in mass production, which in the 19th century became America's second frontier. Other nations were equal to the United States, or even superior, in science, education and technology. But they lacked the huge quantities of raw materials necessary for mass production and a consumer base anywhere near the size of the American population to purchase all the output.And then the Japanese and the Europeans got another leg up mass production lost its overarching importance as a generator of wealth. It gave way to a system of flexible production, in which developing nations are also mastering. Instead of making one product or model -- a Ford Mustang, for example -- by the tens of thousands on a single assembly line, new electronic machinery made possible "batch" production. Using computers to change tooling, an assembly line can turn out small quantities of many different products than models."

In effect, a newly complex work place required a new sort of workman. To use new capital, one required more educated labor. So, over the last decade, the broad consensus arose in society that the schools must not only produce citizens and embody our national democratic ethic. They must do far more, because upon their success depends the future of communities and cities. Now, although as a nation we have a weakness for nostrums, there is something to this. Certainly the by-products of the "knowledge industry" that has arisen in recent years are quite dramatic. Charles Vest, the president of MIT, defending federal student aid before Congress, reported that 300,000 jobs around Boston are directly attributable to the scientific and technical innovation of entrepreneurship of MIT graduates and professors. What is, remarkably, the largest industry today in Pittsburgh, the symbol of American brawn and industrial strength? The University of Pittsburgh.

Having decided that achievement in school matters is, of course, only the beginning. Maine, like other states has been trying to figure out what it really wants students to achieve. Two current examples: the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA), which is now trying to measure in students their mastery of reasoning and complex mental processes, rather than computation or the memorization of things. The legislatively-sanctioned Task Force on Learning Results is seeking to define what it means by "learning results" -- and then how to convert these intellectual goals into curriculum: what actually happens in class and in the minds of teachers and students. We'll get there, through trial and error, to a "there" we don't now see, for there is much good will and intelligence among the teachers and education policy people in Maine.

But the eventual outcome of educational reform in Maine is not my point: the point is that concentration on academic, intellectual achievement is the spirit of the age. Biotechnology, the development of exotic materials, information technology -- these glamorous subjects are at the high end of these concerns today. But this peak of the pyramid rests on the base of our schools. The specter of this state becoming solely an economy of tourism with, as the prime minister of Jamaica once put it, "a nation of waiters for a citizenry," is too painful to contemplate.

And this is where I come back to Bowdoin and Brunswick. It is no accident that of our $40 million building program, one-half, $20 million, will be for a building for biology, chemistry and geology. Or that another $8 million will have to go for information technology; or that in the next two years Bowdoin must put $800,000 into completion of its fiber optic network so that every classroom and every student room has access to the Bowdoin information network and to the world-wide web. This is the nature of tertiary education.

But these investments also respond to the nature of the world and they have much to do with the preconditions of a productive work force. This is why I'm spending as much time as I am chairing the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance that is administering a five-year $10 million grant from the NSF to improve science and math education in Maine; and why I'm so pleased that the Beacon Center (a reform group of the Math and Science Alliance that involves both the Brunswick and Topsham schools) has its advisers housed at Bowdoin; it is also why I believe it is essential to modern American society for a college or university to be engaged not only with its community, with its community's future.

You may know that what is now the Community of Learners project, an outgrowth of the Math and Science Alliance Beacon Center, is leading a community effort -- with Bowdoin professors much involved -- to engage the future regarding the development and use of computer networks. This Community of Learners project will create a data communications network which will connect 14 local schools over coaxial cable provided by CASCO Cable to the Bowdoin College campus network, as a gateway to the Internet. Access to the Internet will allow users in the various schools to communicate with network users around the world. In addition, the connection provides access to the media-rich World Wide Web.

Present access to the Bowdoin network requires modems over telephone lines. This relatively slow service has been in place for about a year, but the higher speed network connection over CASCO's cable will be available on a limited basis in October and fully functional by the first of the year.

Bowdoin provides staff time to support this project, in addition to making available components of our fiber optic network. The cost for Bowdoin to connect to the Internet is $18,000 a year, but by using the College as a gateway, Community of Learners users can piggyback on our service at no charge. Already 5 sites -- 4 schools and the library, are on board; 100 local teachers were trained this summer in our Adams Hall.

One result of all this is the existence in Brunswick of a new phenomenon, brought into existence by people you know. It is called the National Infrastructure for Education team. This group held a weekend-long meeting on October 8 and 9 at the new high school to discuss these new developments with the citizenry at large.

This is only one example of the new, informal, non-hierarchal associations of interested people that are springing up to deal with this new technology. For example, every 6 weeks over the last two years I've given an informal lunch at Bowdoin to bring together the math and science Facilitators (a mathematics and a science specialist) from the Brunswick/Topsham Beacon Center, with 5-7 of our professors and lab assistants (physicists, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and geologists), and with our dean and, occasionally, teachers and parents and superintendents and business people. This informal group is the future -- the model -- I think, of a dynamic community. The conversation is intensely exciting, and there is a distinct feeling of a common embarkation on dramatic new educational seas that none of us have ever sailed before.

Some of the issues that came up at last week's lunch: what actual impact on learning will these computers have? What conceptually different actually goes on in the minds of students who use them? What assessments and measures do we have that will let us know what these changes are?

The answers are, we do not yet know, but this is a quote from a teacher at last week's lunch,

" As you watch children using computers, you notice that they are learning individually in a new way. They reach into -- explore -- an area of knowledge they seek out for themselves. They have an entirely new avenue to learning; there are more teaching choices for the teacher; and there are fresh chances for group learning, as students help one another surmount computer barriers in the classroom.The computers are also proving to be a door to places outside the classroom; students are now able to reach people anywhere in the country; this changes their assumptions about the nature of the outside world, and their personal ability to reach it, and to solve problems by seeking help beyond the classroom."

These stories -- the Community of Learners project, the Beacon Center, the informal lunches -- are a few small illustrations of the principal point of my remarks: a new sort of engagement can now exist between a college and its community. There, of course, continue many of the important, continuing, and traditional ties between Bowdoin and Brunswick. Bowdoin's annual payroll for our local area residents is just under $15 million; last year, 1994-95, the College purchased goods and services worth another $33 million. Students spend a minimum of another $3 million. The College paid $127,000 in real estate taxes -- $80,000 which were paid voluntarily on College-use property that has been left on the tax rolls, but is tax exemptible for a charitable institution. The Library has 10,000 local borrowers; the Museum had 24,000 visitors and ran 200 school visits last year, which the Arctic Museum had 14,000 visitors and as many school tours. And there continue to be the Summer Music Festival, the Bowdoin State Theater, and all our concerts and lectures throughout the year. As important as anything we do is the contribution of our students. They are major players -- quite indispensable, I'm told -- in local volunteer organizations from the Tedford Shelter and teaching programs to snow shoveling and work with the elderly. This is all vital stuff, and it has been going on for a long time and it always will. But I think Bowdoin's leadership and community role now lies beyond these traditional, financial and cultural contributions. It lies in this new area I've been describing -- where the new environment of learning and the future needs of the Brunswick-Topsham schools necessarily involve the College. It is, incidentally, this dimension of our engagement with the region that I found curiously under-emphasized in the Mount Auburn Report. It seemed to me to depict Bowdoin substantially as it was in the 1960s. I think we -- Brunswick and Bowdoin -- need to recognize that we are now working together toward a different future together in new ways.

In conclusion, I'd look some distance beyond even this exciting present that I've been trying to describe. Bowdoin will not always be the avenue through which the schools gain access to the Internet, because community demand will soon exceed our capacity. I think we are now beginning to see a need for something we might call the public utility of the future. Just as towns seeking to prosper, in the 19th and 20th centuries, needed electricity, roads, water and telephone, they will in future attract business, maintain strong schools, build vital social environments by creating access, instantly and an infinite variety, to information and data, and they will provide the means through which teachers, students and business people in the State, the nation and the world can be in touch.

This public utility will require money and investment in facilities; but it will also need the specialized minds of human beings who can help it chose the right technologies and build in the community an understanding of their use. My own feeling is that without such a public utility, and without the cooperation of Bowdoin professors, school teachers and townspeople, it is not out of the question that even this community could become an economic ox-bow. One does not have to look beyond our own mid-west to see how the restructuring of agriculture has left formerly prosperous towns in Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota largely lifeless. An institution of higher learning is going to be an ever more vital asset to vital municipality.

So I'm confident that Bowdoin and Brunswick will grow together. We can't do without you; and I hope that it will not seem presumptuous if I say that I'm not sure that you do without us. Thank you.

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