Phyllis Pray Bober, Doctor of Humane Letters, Recipient of Honorary Degree
Saturday, May 27, 2000
Story posted May 27, 2000
I can't tell you how happy and proud it makes me to share your rite of passage. You've spent four years since graduating high school to earn a Bowdoin degree; but it has taken me 63 years after high school to gain a Bowdoin degree. When I got out of Cape Elizabeth High School in 1937, I would have loved to attend Bowdoin, because I already knew it. Because I wanted to study archaeology, the College's strengths in classics and the Warren collection of Greek vases powerfully attracted me. Alas it was going to take decades before Bowdoin admitted women. My B.A. is from Wellesley, not Bowdoin.
But enough of frustration long past. Let me congratulate you for having achieved a fine liberal rather than a servile (or literal) education. Na•ve American pragmatism and misguided vocationalism so often leads parents and students to settle for academic training to fill a slot in society instead of pursuit of the Liberal Arts at an institution like Bowdoin where the have always been cultivated So I salute your parents who obviously didn't ask "What's the USE of a liberal arts education?" They've not required the admonition set forth many years ago by Dennis Brogan: "What America needs is not a good five-cent cigar [you see how long ago he did speak], but for every citizen to be born with a B.A. degree; then she could get about the business of educating them!"
You have chosen to cultivate the essential values of learning: clarified thought, logical argument, and the ability to present your conclusions persuasively, even engagingly. In these times of vast informational and technological change, you will not be rushed into mere ad hoc problem-solving, but will be armed with diverse gifts of analysis that lead to the understanding of complexity. Time was when the liberal arts and sciences -- the latter then under the rubrics of philosophy and natural history -- represented educational goals people were willing to fight for. I think, for example, of thirteenth-century Paris, where hundreds of students were martyred when they agitated for a Liberal Arts curriculum at the University instead of professional training in what then meant Philosophy and Theology for the clergy.
Nowadays it becomes ever more important for citizens to be able to distinguish information-- instantly accessible information at that -- from knowledge. Among those like myself who work with antiquarian writing by humanists and other scholars of the Renaissance, there has long been a perception that we are progressively losing more true Knowledge that we are gaining. Data and factoids are proliferating faster than anyone's capacity to comprehend their full context and complexity. The interpretation of human history that is so necessary to understand ourselves is marred by a tendency for each generation to abstract the records of its predecessors in writing any fresh assessments in a given field. Funding for basic science and comparable research in the humanities is too often hostage to support for perceived needs and technological development. At a point in history when there are endless possibilities for fruitful collaboration between popular and so-called elite culture, their marriage seems to result too frequently in offspring that are cerebrally and emotionally impaired - a "dumbing down" of our cultural life.
I rejoice that you are coming forth with minds honed to analysis and the intellectual gifts to make the critical distinction between information and knowledge, between authority and the free and reasoned evaluation of ideas. Equally do I rejoice in the inestimable contribution of your being versatile - not tunnel visioned -- versatile in the passions you will turn upon the needs and problems of our world, while insisting on rationality accompanied by acceptance of human limitations, on freedom accompanied by a respect for historical tradition. These are merely a few of the advantages with which a liberal arts education has armed you. It's fortunate the Bowdoin has helped you to become multi-variable persons-many of the careers that fortuity will offer you have not even been invented yet! In humanistic Italian good wishes, let me say AUGURI and thank you!
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