Baccalaureate Invocation delivered by President Robert H. Edwards May 23, 1997
Story posted May 23, 1997
The warmest of welcomes to you all, parents and friends, to this great weekend. Second only to the births of these marvelous young people, this is surely the occasion in their lives at which you most rejoice -- and about which you feel possibly comparable relief. We shall truly miss them.
And a welcome to you seniors -- and a personal word or two before we meet on the steps of the Museum tomorrow morning, in the great public ritual of graduation. First, my thanks to you. In your four years you've seen your College change: holes in the ground, chaotic building sites, new structures and spaces and the upheaval and change in residential life. Many, many of you helped hold the center, to prevent fraying or decaying of the spirit of the College. The Orient: Meg and Emily and Paul; the Student Governance and Leadership - Hiram and others; the Inter-fraternity Council -- Nat and your colleagues; the Student Judicial Board -- Natalie and yours; fraternity leadership -- again, many. Our student workers who help run the place -- and especially Julia. Then there are the new organizations you created to bring us joy: I've heard that in your time here 80 student organizations became 115. Particularly I thank you for your new expressions in music -- Henry -- and in dance and improvised theater. You have all been extraordinary. The College has held together, because many of you continued your spirited contribution to Bowdoin's life on successful athletic teams and a host of other organizations -- and also because you reasoned your way beyond personal or group desires and loyalties, to a broader and longer view. This is a tough journey for anyone.
What, in fact, has been going on -- at a broader level -- in this College? I met over lunch several times this spring with a group of 6-8 mostly seniors. As we argued and speculated, over there at the Cleaveland House, in this college in Maine, I came to realize that we were conjuring with one of the great historic tensions that define and shape, not only all educational institutions, but also larger communities and even the nation itself. This tension requires us to create a balance between the spontaneous, inventive, wonderful growth and freedom of the individual, on the one hand; and, on the other, the nurturing, collective community that can give meaning, safety, nuance and richness of being to the solitary soul. The trick is the balance: to sustain personal creativity and individuality -- without the downside of solitude and selfishness; to provide the variety and sustaining framework of community -- without the downside of conformity, airlessness and a tyrannous majority.
The readjustment of this tension at Bowdoin is what has been going on -- and you have been more a part of it, as have your teaching faculty, than you may know. One of my lunch companions commented: "Bowdoin has very high expectations, but very few guideposts." So, in a way, has American society today, as we emphasize the high-performance individual in sport, finance and the professions. I believe we here, almost intuitively, have been adjusting that balance -- not seeking to diminish personal expectations and freedom but to give them more context; seeking not to suppress the individual but to connect him and her to a more coherent collegial frame of reference.
You'll immediately recognize three instances of this shift. The Smith Union, created to provide an inviting central space for the entire College, to create a counter-pull to the social drift of students to the periphery and into small pools of identity. The new Science Center, designed to bring chemistry and biology, heretofore on opposite sides of the campus, together around a central atrium in the same building -- because biology and chemistry at the genetic and molecular level have no clear boundaries, they blur into one another and feed on each other's discoveries - they need to talk. Certainly the toughest is the change from fraternities, associations for a minority of our students, to a broader model of residential life, drawn from the most successful aspects of fraternities -- small sub-groupings, comfortable social space, self-governance but a model that will serve all students.
Ultimately, whatever organization you eventually choose -- corporate, professional, charitable or political -- you'll be tinkering with this same balance between individual opportunity and community strength. Ultimately it will be your job as a citizen of this complicated country, whose stability and effectiveness matters a great deal to the world, to help get it right. And your ideas and actions, at whatever level, are going to matter.
A few years ago the editor of the London Times was asked, "what is the hardest thing about being editor of the Times?" His answer was: "having to have an opinion about everything." One consequence of your Bowdoin education is that you are going to be called upon to have opinions -- to express ideas and opinions beyond your particular occupation. You'll be looked to for discernment, judgment, breadth of vision and also humor, which is a sign of intellectual health and proportion. Citizens today are supposed to be angry, apathetic and disillusioned. There's no room for that for graduates of Bowdoin. As creative individuals and creators of communities you'll find expressing reasoned opinions and tinkering with the balance wheel of individuality and community far more rewarding.
This, I think, is the responsibility that your participation in the modest confusions of the past four years, beyond the work that you have been doing in the classroom, has been helping you prepare for.
Again, I thank you for your help on this ship; it's readied you, I'm confident, for larger vessels and more turbulent seas.
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