Joy Cushman, Class of 1999 "Lessons From A Northern Maine Farmer"
Story posted May 29, 1999
Senator Lawrence, Honorands, Mr. Thorne, President Edwards, members of the college, and guests.
Nearly seventeen years ago, a five-year-old, curly-haired, painfully shy young girl entered her first day of kindergarten in a small school in Caribou, Maine. I remember that day vividly: twinges of fear and excitement pulsing through my body, fear that the bright yellow bus would take me further from home than I had ever ventured alone before, and excitement that its destiny promised a fulfillment I may never have known in the company of paper dolls and mud pies. For all the confusion of new faces and experiences that day, I remember most my father's celebration of my initiation into this path toward the unknown, toward what he could only then imagine his daughter's life to be.
He took me to Burger King that evening, and over Cokes and fries, he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. "I don't know, Daddy," I responded, with the nonchalance of a child immersed in the fantasies of storybooks and daydreams. "Well, " he replied, "whatever you choose to be, you will need a college education to get there. " My father prophesied that by the time I graduated from high school, the job market would be fully determined by access to higher education. He also told me that as a small farmer in a Northern Maine economy on the decline, he would not have the financial resources to fund my college education; I would have to be responsible for getting myself into college and support myself once I arrived. My father taught me on that very first day of my educational career that an insatiable passion for knowledge is fundamental to self reliance, and that it alone would allow me the power to determine my future. On that autumn day in 1982, my father declared with the wisdom of Foucault and the experience of a Maine potato farmer that knowledge is power.
As students at Bowdoin, we have been officially initiated into the intellectual vocabulary of academic discourse from multiple perspectives. Through our many pursuits, we have come to understand ourselves as participants in an evolutionary narrative of families and species; as political actors on the stage of history; as subjects in a network of cultural meanings and complex identities; as poets, artists, musicians, theologians, philosophers, scientists, and historians; as individuals capable of critical thought and creative inspiration. We have come to understand our world as an infinite network of cultures and bodies, plants and animals, sounds and verses, words and theories. Terms like epistemology, ontology, pragmatism, hegemony, ideology, and discourse are no longer meaningless words in Webster's Dictionary; they have been inscribed in our consciousness, changing our visions of ourselves and our conceptions of our world. As Bowdoin students, we have learned to think critically, communicate effectively, and relate intellectually, leaving few things unchallenged and all things subject to the curiosities of our minds. This academic knowledge that we have consciously valued and pursued is the knowledge promised us in college viewbooks - the knowledge of books and lectures, libraries and scholars.
We have also had the opportunity on this campus to realize and experience another sort of knowledge that is more subtle in nature, and more relational in practice. This knowledge is the one from which my father spoke so long ago wisdom of sorts, gleaned from hard work, difficult times and challenging lives. Every day, we have had an infinite number of opportunities to learn from housekeepers and departmental coordinators, cooks and dish-washers, cashiers and mailroom clerks, Brunswick residents and Bowdoin employees. To choose to experience the knowledge these individuals embody is to open yourself to a world where theories are most relevant in practice. These individuals know what it means to grow up and live in a coastal Maine community. They know the challenge of making ends meet, and they know what hard work really means. The knowledge they share is as valuable as that acquired in classrooms and lecture halls; it is a knowledge that will test your intellectual theories and the boundaries of your comfort in multiple and meaningful ways.
As we gather here today on the other side of our educational paths, as we look into the unknown of our futures with the same fears and excitements of those first days of kindergarten, the truth my father shared with me is as incontrovertibly powerful and real as the day he first proclaimed it. Knowledge in all its forms is power the power to negotiate our own space in the world, the power to interact meaningfully with other human beings, the power to pursue further knowledge for the pure and intractable pleasure of it, the power to create the history of our culture and our world through every action we take.
As lifelong students, we must continually empower ourselves and those around us by sharing and applying the knowledge we learn from books and classrooms, and by valuing the knowledge we acquire through an interpersonal network of individual lives. We must translate our academic language into an active vocabulary of practical theories, values, and ideals that are responsive to the lived experience of those around us. If we settle within the boundaries of our comfort zones, we have failed to learn the truth of knowledge of the truth that it demands expression, contestation, refinement, and constant practical excitation. If we settle for what is comfortable we have denied ourselves the pleasure of discovering the unique and extraordinary knowledge embodied in each human being, no matter what their social status.
Because knowledge is power, I ask Bowdoin today to set the standard for the true democratization of our culture by making its wealth of knowledge even more accessible to all students. This would require generous contributions to the financial aid programs that support students whose families can sometimes not afford even a fraction of the price of higher education. lt would mean a commitment to valuing diverse forms of personal knowledge with the understanding that such knowledge is essential to a liberal arts program that promises to educate individuals who will use their education practically and wisely. And perhaps most of all, it means the continual integration of practical learning into the academic environment where students should learn not only the theoretical mechanisms of knowledge, but the powerful means for its application. Conceding that knowledge is power means attaching an elevator to the ivory tower; it means creating a transitional space where students from all walks of life may live in the balance of practical intellectualism and reflective experience.
To my friends and colleagues in the graduating class of 1999, I challenge us today to use the knowledge and power we have acquired at Bowdoin, including the knowledge acquired through interpersonal experiences, to make a difference not after our tenth reunion when the loans have been paid off and life is comfortable, but before this week is over. Call your Congress person to cast your vote on welfare reform or sanctions against countries in war; write a letter to your local newspaper; purchase food and goods that are better for you, your environment, and the workers who produce them; fight poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other acts of hatred at every turn. Choose to let the knowledge you have acquired inform every action you take from this moment forward. Appreciate the potential we have to participate in, contribute to, and learn from a community of unique human beings in every present moment. Make the next day, the next week, the next millennium one of responsible action, compassionate power, democratic diversity, and endless communication. If knowledge in all its forms is power, as a wise Maine farmer said so long ago, then we must pursue it indefinitely, share it generously, and use it wisely.
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