Remarks made by Rosalyn S,. Bernstein upon receiving an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Bowdoin's 192nd Commencement May 24, 1997
Story posted May 24, 1997
As I reflect on my 24 years of service on the Bowdoin governing board, I appreciate more than ever how privileged I have been to be a part of this fine college: to share in bowdoin's transformation from a small homogeneous men's college to a distinguished national and international institution, to a learning community striving for excellence, honoring its traditions, building on its strengths, addressing its problems, and enriched by its growing diversity.
As I think about the cooperative efforts of students, faculty, staff, and board to build a better community at bowdoin, I remember that for many well-educated women of my generation, married with children, living small cities or towns, building community became a vocation. Few professional career options were open for us then. Disciplined and focused volunteer service in a wide array of educational, philanthropic, arts, religious, health, social service, and governmental organizations was the primary expression of our talents and energies. As a majority of women today work at paid jobs and at their responsibilities as wives and mothers, so we worked each day at home responsibilities and at unpaid jobs, civic betterent, to improve the quality of life of our communities. Through this work, we learned how to cooperate and compromise, to build coalitions, to lobby legislatures, to raise money, to educate voters and change public opinion, and to muster wide support for the institutions and causes we believed would create a better and more just society. We didn't always understand the reality that the powerful cumulative effects of our individual efforts would strengthen the democratic ideals of interdependence, civic leadership, community and philanthropy which have marked the United States uniquely among all nations and defined the American character.
When Alexis de Toqueville visited America 166 years ago, he was struck by the vitality and robustness of American civic life in small cities and towns and the proliferation of volunteer-led, small-scale community organizations which existed nowhere else in the western world. He believed these were the bedrock of America's vigorous democracy.
Today, social scientists, philosophers, and ordinary people worry and debate the reasons for the sharp decline in people's connections with the life of their communities. Articles such as "Bowling Alone" and "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America" by Robert D. Putnam, scholarly projects such as the "Civic Engagement Project" at Harvard, and media events such as the president's volunteer summit in Philadelphia capture public attention. We worry about the destructive impact of large impersonal bureaucracies both public and private, about our sense of isolation from our neighbors, about the declining percentage of people who vote, about our individual ability to make a difference in our world.
For too long, voluntarism which spawned the great humane reforms in our society, has been treated condescendingly as "busy work" rather than as the foundation for a healthy society, the nurturer of human relationships, the teacher of civic responsibility, and the agent of constructive change.
As I reflect on my life, I now know that I would not have chosen differently. I was fortunate in my husband and children, lucky to live in a small city in a state small in a population where my efforts and those of others like me could make a difference, as each of you who graduate today has made a difference in the small community of Bowdoin, and as you can continue to make a difference in your future communities.
There are two sayings of the sages of my Jewish tradition which define my view of community responsibility. To save one life is to save the world and while you are not required to finish the work neither can you refrain from starting it.
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