Campus News

Welcoming remarks delivered by President Robert H. Edwards on Parents' Weekend 1996
August 25, 1996

Story posted August 25, 1996

Welcome to Bowdoin on this long-awaited day. It is a wonderful time: the beginning of the academic year, with a hint of autumn in the air. In France, where I lived for some years before Bowdoin, this time in the fall is in fact considered the beginning of the New Year. It is la rentree - the return -- to Paris, to school, to life. So we welcome you to Maine, to Bowdoin and to our own part of American's rentree - the quickening of the heartbeat of the country, and the return of this campus to its normal spirit and commotion.

I'll say a word about what we do here, as will my colleagues. But first let me reflect a moment on the miracle that we are all here, in a free country, at peace, constitutionally governed, in a strong economy -- albeit one with some tremulousness -- and that your offspring begin their great adventure on this beautiful campus.

We are, all of us, inheritors of this remarkable place, of the work of our predecessors: more than 200 years of it, from the day when Joseph McKeen, Bowdoin's first president stood on his platform in a pine forest to bring the College into existence, through the days of Joshua Chamberlain who picked up the pieces as president of Bowdoin after the Civil War, and through two more wars and two more terrible conflicts to the present.

No one of a certain age can see talented, optimistic young people enter college without thinking of the world we have known and the one they will know and work in for 50 years. Think of two current international realities: a confident, resurgent China, looking like a powerful, national state on the old model of Germany or America; and some quite different entities -- what a scholar has called "virtual states," in which land and natural resources define national power and identity far less than trade agreements, capital plans, and, most of all, the intellectual power of their citizens.

Just as importantly we look at our own country's future. This will be a graduating class in 2000 that will enter an American work force in which, as the London Economist tells us, barely half those entering will be of European origin. Think of the competence, tolerance, imagination and good will that will be required of the leaders of this tumultuous democracy, if we are to be both productive and merciful and humane.

This is the broad frame in which I see our task at Bowdoin. From its founding, the College has never imagined itself apart from a vision of America.

Here are some words from Joseph McKeen when he summoned Bowdoin to life in 1794, here in the district of Maine of the State of Massachusetts

"while the wilderness is literally blooming like the rose, and the late howling desert, by the patient hand of industry, is becoming a fruitful field it is pleasing to the friends of science, religion and good order to observe a growing disposition in the inhabitants to promote education; without which the project of the future state of society must be painful to the reflecting and feeling mind."
"The prospect of the future state of society: This College is to stand for something, have a mission, beyond itself. He then goes on: "Colleges, he says, are founded and endowed for the common good, not for the private advantage of those who come to them, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society."
Let me say a word to you, who in a few hours will leave your offspring in our hands, about how we wrestle today with Joseph McKeen's elusive business of the common good -- benefitting society. In 1943, anticipating the condition of America after the Second World War, President Conant of Harvard commissioned a group of leading Harvard scholars to write a report on the concept of "general education" in America. The report, published about 50 years ago, was a wise, perceptive document, the product of 12 very lively white males. In spirit, however, it seems remote -- far nearer the world of Joseph McKeen that I just quoted -- 150 years earlier -- than it is in the spirit of today's age. General Education in a Free Society, the report is called, and it presents the same unquestioning, organic view of American democracy that McKeen embraced: it assumed a largely unified -- even knowable -- field of knowledge, a largely homogeneous population whose principal divisions were between those pouring into the cities and those left on the farm and in villages, a substantially Christian and European background, and an unquestioned belief that the purpose of education is moral -- to produce a good, as well as an effective, competent person.

In the last 50 years many of those ideas have, for both good and ill, became impossible for us to assume. We have had an explosion and differentiation of knowledge, and it has profoundly affected society. People could tell you what workers at U.S. Steel did; relatively few can understand what the people at Microsoft really do. We have, as a society, discovered the black and female members of our society that President Conant's scholars -- along with everyone else -- somehow missed 50 years ago. Immigration has brought us waves of immigrants from East and South Asia, who are doing what those from Eastern Europe did 50 years ago; working appallingly hard to educate their able offspring. We have mosques, as well as churches and synagogues. We are an American people of many backgrounds. And yet we still assume as a society that the purpose of education is moral: that we, in educating, hone good character, as well as form minds, to send into the world a serious person and not a clever, foolish light weight. A college must still stand for something -- at the very least, for honesty, fairness, respect a person's physical and intellectual integrity; it must not forget the past as it embraces the future. Never again must we confuse character and human quality with being "like us".

Now, that education is "moral" is not an idea with which the academy has been entirely comfortable for the past 25 years or so. For about a generation it has been the logical purity and inherent quality of an academic discipline -- the model held out brilliantly by the natural sciences -- that colleges and universities have seen as something worth grasping in itself -- not because of what it may tell you about the world, or life, or good and evil. Even literature and art have tended to be carefully abstracted and analyzed -- a formalism that has enabled these areas of knowledge to stand in the academic pantheon more easily, autonomous and strong in theory, along side, say physics and biology.

This change in the academic organization of knowledge and its systematic development by generations of Ph.Ds, has tended to increase in recent decades the distance between what undergraduates call "academics" and the other aspects of their academic experience -- their social and residential life. And this specialization and separation has fueled the public perception, encouraged by parts of the press, that the professoriate now consists largely of self-concerned, narrow professionals obsessed with research and unconcerned with students. Professors have been privileged to know in recent years some of the obloquy with which lawyers and doctors have long been familiar.

We at Bowdoin -- faculty, as well as deans and president -- are, in fact, seriously concerned about this split between intellectual and social life. We believe you cannot turn back the clock to the comfortable organic assumptions about America and American colleges of 50 years ago. But we also believe that if a split between academic and social life persists, a student will fail to receive what a residential college exists to offer: separate realms of experience, but realms that infect and suffuse one another -- intellectual friendships beyond the classroom, athletics whose purpose is first development of leadership and self-discipline, not victory; residential life that is a part of a healthy social and intellectual experience.

Your students arrive at Bowdoin in a year when this subject has particular salience, and it is important I give you some background for what may be a bit bewildering for a time for our class of 2000.

The more visible changes on campus that will affect the lives of your students in their years here speak for themselves: a new science complex, a year and $20 million from now will place biology and chemistry in proximity to one another in admirable new laboratories; two new student residences, which reflect certain ideas and standards about residential life; landscape improvements that tie the new campus center and residential and dining spaces together into the surrounding community; in future, renovations to library, theatre and chapel.

What is more important, but invisible, is a new Commission on Residential Life, led by Trustees and including faculty, students and administrators, that will scrutinize the character of our residential academic community and the split I've mentioned between "academics" and "everything else." We established it, following a year-long examination of social and residential life by a campus group of faculty and students and deans, connected with our decennial accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that will happen this fall. Our campus reaccreditation group put the problem succinctly, if with restraint in their report this summer.

Bowdoin's residential community does not appear to encourage as much as it might the incorporation of the life of the mind, the spirit of inquiry, the appreciation of the arts and attention to public affairs into the daily lives and personal concerns of students and into their interactions with one another. Nor do the organization and traditions of residential life at Bowdoin fully support engagement in a rich, playful social life consistent with responsible use of alcohol.

You will perhaps hear, in the next months -- with varying attributions to the College and me of guile and disingenuousness -- that this is all an elaborate charade to conceal a full-court press against Bowdoin's remaining fraternities. The future place, if any, of fraternities will certainly be examined. But everyone -- whether on our campus reaccreditation group or on the Commission on Residential Life, or the deans or I -- understands that we are conjuring with issues far more fundamental than fraternities. The issue is how, with all the knowledge and imagination we can command, we can design and build and organize and staff and govern and self-govern residential life so that it fostered the personal growth in mind and character that you and we seek for your offspring. If we can create such a community of free, able young people -- tolerant, optimistic, subscribing to common goals -- we believe we shall create a model of great value to them as they enter the complex reality of America.

Dean Beitz will now say a few words about the curriculum and the theory and direction of academic program. I have thought to give you an angle of vision into an area of intense self-examination that will touch Bowdoin's core and that your offspring will help us to define in their four years here. This, I hope, is the beginning of a discourse that we shall be conducting across the four years that they will be with us.

I've not gone into a virtuous account of Bowdoin's economies, budget austerities, and self-denials, in acknowledgment of and respect for the sacrifices you are making. Only partly is this because I have an offspring who next week becomes a freshman at a place even more expensive than we are, which has deflected all my secretions of sympathy into self-pity. It is also because, in the Bowdoin Magazine that you will be receiving in October, my annual report is an essay on college costs and value which seeks to shed some light on this fearful subject. I hope it is of some interest.

Now, I present you Dean Beitz, Dean for Academic Affairs, political philosopher, Ph.D. from Princeton, a migrant from Swarthmore where he was chair of political science, and the man whom I enjoy describing, in that wonderful phrase of Joseph Conrad, as the "brooding omnipresence" of the academic program and its faculty.

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