Campus News

"Delivering the Goods": Mike Micciche's Baccalaureate Speech Part II

Story posted June 19, 2001

Delivering the Goods; or, So What’s a Bowdoin English Major Really Good For Anyway?
by Michael F. Micciche III

Part II (Click here for Part I)

What a Bowdoin education teaches us is not Organic Chemistry or Microeconomics or African-American Poetry, or even really any combination or blend of these things. As cheesy as it may sound, the most valuable lesson this school teaches us, the tour-de-force of a Bowdoin education, if you will, is that we learn how to learn. And what makes this place special, what sets us apart from other liberal arts colleges that may aspire towards the same lofty goal, is that with all the advantages of the warm and vibrant community of faculty, staff, students, alumni and the many friends of this College that share this beautiful area with us, hopefully, the majority of us have learned to love learning.

So, what exactly constitutes this “learning” business in the first place. After all, what we’re looking to do here is to overcome the trappings of academic abstraction. I’m not here today to make a sales pitch. (We’ll leave that to the folks in the admissions office.) We’ve all already been sold to. And we’ve all invested substantially in this place. What I’m in search of is our return on that investment. I’m in search of something real. Something concrete. Something deliverable.

Reading, listening to lectures, taking exams, battling with problem sets; are these activities, as central to our lives as they’ve been over the past four years, in fact central to the goals and purposes of a liberal arts education? In a sense, they are, but the beauty of studying in an environment like that which we enjoy at Bowdoin is that these things only have to occupy the outermost tip of the educational iceberg. We are encouraged, if not compelled, to take things much, much further.

Education is a selective experience. We can’t all read it all or know it all; there’s just far too much out there. Hence, people must specialize. What we are doing when we read or sit in class is essentially familiarizing ourselves with material that someone with a certain way of seeing the world and a certain degree of authority—be it a professor, an artist, or an editor of a textbook, has deemed to be a valuable and worthwhile viewpoint or nugget of information. They have communicated to us through their writing, painting, or teaching that this is something that is important to them. This is something worth knowing or worth thinking about.

What a Bowdoin education does then that is so valuable is that it encourages us and enables us to actively participate in this discourse-shaping conversation right from the start. Every time we embark on an independent study; speak up vigorously in a particularly heated class discussion; spend that extra hour working on that painting that unexpectedly consumed us; finally synthesize that product in the lab; or write a paper, any paper (or at least any paper that’s worth the paper that it’s printed on,) this is exactly what it is that we are or should be doing. We are taking a stand; claiming authority; letting the world know that we too are qualified to make these decisions; to decide what it is that we should study; what it is that we care about; and what it is that we should admire or revile. And why.

What we learn, in learning how to learn, is how to assert ourselves intellectually as individuals, and how to apply, almost automatically, the lessons that we learn inside the classrooms here, outside the classroom in all areas of our lives. The most important lessons, in my opinion, regardless of the discipline you may have chosen to study or the field you may be choosing to enter, are twofold: one, to always be thinking critically (by which, I mean, simply, having the courage and the conviction to ask questions of whatever it is that you are seeing) and two, to always have the confidence and the ability to express your thoughts and your views, both orally and in writing. I have a great deal of pity for anyone who emerges from this place either reticent and accepting of things as they come, or too arrogant to realize and appreciate that everything in this world, including our own work, is constantly subject to critique and always eligible for improvement. As the great novelist Jean Toomer remarked, “Let the doing be the exercise and not the exhibition.” Everything that we engage productively, whether our work or the work of others, should be looked at as a tool to help us work ourselves and our minds into better shape, not simply as an opportunity to flex our proverbial muscles as we stroll down the beach. No pain, no gain. Struggle with things. Challenge yourself.

Art hangs in museums not simply to dazzle us, but to influence us, to enlighten us, to change the way that we see the world by convincing us to appreciate or reject the way that someone else does or has. Every time you walk through such a museum, or put down a good book, or come out of a crowded film, opera, or lecture speechless, with nothing to say, nothing on your mind, you’re not only slighting yourself, but turning your back on your Bowdoin education. If anything, this is what we should take away alongside our hard-earned pieces of paper as each of us rides off this evening into our own respective and undoubtedly for many, great, futures: though we may have less factual apparatus backing us up; and though we may be less immediately prepared to undertake a trade than many of our not-so-liberally educated counterparts, what we will always have is the desire to learn; to question; to appreciate; and to assert our point of view.

Even more importantly, we all should know that we, the Bowdoin College graduating class of 2001, are qualified to contribute to, qualified to evaluate, and even qualified to initiate, the conversations in this world that truly matter. Qualified and all, though, our work is not yet done. For a true son of Bowdoin is always mindful of contributing to the Common Good. To that I say this: no matter how many little old ladies you help cross the street or hours you spend wielding a ladle in a soup kitchen, the best thing that any of us can do for the Common Good is to forever to be a teacher, subtly answering the question of what a liberal arts education is good for through example and indoctrination. The world will be a better place if we can all aspire to inspire others to engage us in the same way that this place has taught us to engage the world. Thank you and good luck.

Click here for Part I.

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