Commencement Address: Homa Mojtabai '01
Story posted May 25, 2002
For other speeches and news click below:
Barry Mills Speech
Tara Talbot Speech
On Recalling the Offer
by Homa Mojtabai '01
Ms. Herman, Honorands, Mr. Kurtz, President Mills, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Bowdoin Community, and Friends: it is with a great deal of pleasure that I stand here with you on the day of our graduation from Bowdoin. Our time here has come to an end and we are about to be set free to find our way in a world far less secure and welcoming than that which we have enjoyed here at our small school in Maine. We find ourselves in a nation where the whisper of a threat can shut down banks and send us running for cover. It appears the world itself is exploding in violence, or maybe it just seems that way to us, because we have for so long enjoyed the security and prosperity of this nation.
We have gathered together to celebrate our accomplishments and the end of our years at Bowdoin; however, I find myself compelled to temper my happiness with perspective on what it is we have gained here, and in what direction we are headed. My own Bowdoin adventure began five years ago and included four years of college and one year off for travel. Studying abroad in Chile allowed me the time and distance necessary to reflect on Bowdoin and appreciate what this institution has to offer. I find myself mostly in agreement with William DeWitt Hyde, Bowdoin's seventh president, who published his essay the Offer of the College in 1906. Hyde describes the benefits of higher education in general, and Bowdoin in particular, in the development of those lucky enough to study here. I remember first reading the passage as a prospective student, and wondering if any place could be so perfect.
Although I arrived at Bowdoin skeptical of Hyde's promise of everlasting friendships, intense personal and academic growth, and the natural beauty of Maine, it did not take me long to find all of these things here. I came to believe that I had the offer of the college figured out and that I needed nothing more than the memories of good times with friends and some great courses in exchange for these years of my life. However, after completing my coursework in December, and spending these past few months away from Bowdoin, I have found myself reevaluating, yet again, the offer of the college, and realizing that it extends beyond the ties of friendship and academic resources, beyond even the confines of Brunswick, Maine. The concept of a Civil Society, employed by social scientists, is useful in illustrating the widespread importance of Bowdoin's offer. A Civil Society is one in which independent educational, religious, and cultural institutions mediate the relationship between the individual and the democratic state. It is the responsibility of these institutions to educate citizens capable of partaking in the democratic process. A critical part of this civic education includes developing the capacity for tolerance. Hyde stressed the importance of tolerance when he wrote of the opportunities "to gain a standard for the appreciation of other men's work and the criticism of your own" and "to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends." Hyde is talking about the creation of an informed community of individuals, who understand how to examine their own opinions and the opinions of their fellow citizens critically. I need only look out into the faces of the Class of 2002 to find evidence of how successfully Bowdoin has upheld its responsibility to impart tolerance, curiosity and reason upon its students.
At the same time, we must recognize that the vast majority of the population does not have access to a Bowdoin education, or anything even remotely like it. At an elite school like Bowdoin, in a community where a world-class education seems to fall out of the sky into our laps, it is easy to overlook the faults in our civil society- such as this disparity in the quality of education available to our youth - and believe them to be exaggerations.
If we could ever forget the tumult of the outside world here on our idyllic campus in Maine, we can do so no longer. The events of September 11th pierced the Bowdoin Bubble, sending shockwaves through our campus and our community. Whether or not we are ready for the whole world, the whole world has come to us and it has demanded that we take notice and act upon our resolve, whatever that resolve may be. But September 11th, and its aftermath, is only the most visible wound in our fractured civil society. I look around, and I see a crisis in unregulated corporate globalization, which has resulted in the gap between the rich and the poor being transformed into a desperate chasm. I see houses of worship harboring not humanity and compassion, but intolerance and abuse of power. There is a bloodbath in a holy land, and it is being executed in the name of religion. Mercy and tolerance seem to have been forgotten in a frenzy of land acquisition and border disputes. Most distressing of all, I feel us being overtaken by the creeping silence of complicity. Terrorism, fear, and the suffering they elicit have been turned into political weapons wielded in the battle for votes, power and good publicity. Any law, any cause or issue is sacrosanct if it includes the phrase, "war on terrorism." Those of us who would question the policies of our government are labeled as unpatriotic, when we are simply practicing democracy.
It is ironic that ours was not the first nation to have its democratic tradition tested on a September 11th. On that same day, almost thirty years ago, the democratically elected government of Chile, lead by President Salvador Allende, was toppled in a coup. General Augusto Pinochet and the military junta that seized power with him moved quickly to wipe out, literally execute, over two thousand of Allende's supporters; a number that rivals the loss of life from the World Trade Center. Allende himself was among the first victims of the dicatorship. The main targets were students, university professors and political activists, people who devote their lives to safeguarding the Civil Society. Journalism was another persecuted profession, and the Chilean media outlets were quickly overtaken by the dictatorship, creating an atmosphere of silent fear and complicity. It took almost twenty years for Chile to rid itself of Pinochet and reestablish a democratic government; and to this day the country's national psyche bears the scars of this era of fear and struggle.
Let us look then to Chile, and to other democracies that have stumbled, as a warning: what can happen in one corner of the earth can happen in another. There is nothing in our American water, or in the air we breathe, that sets us apart and makes us inherently immune to such disaster. There is, however, a difference in the way we approach education, especially higher education. I know that in Chile, I confused my friends every time I attempted to explain to them how it could be that I was studying both Spanish and Computer Science while having no intention of becoming either a language teacher or a programmer. For me the explanation was clear: I knew that in addition to the subject matter I studied at Bowdoin, I was learning a life skill even more important than the training offered by any pre-professional course of study - that thanks to the education offered by Bowdoin, I am one more young person who has learned how to formulate my own opinion, and understand the viewpoint of another. I know that every individual who graduates from Bowdoin has been similarly prepared. It is this education, that sets apart and strengthens the unique civil society that is the United States.
There is no doubt that the friendships we have nurtured here will continue to be a source of great comfort and strength as we seek our way in the world; ultimately, however we must all walk the paths we choose alone. The emotional and financial support of our friends and family can leave our lives at anytime, and the only companion on our journey that we are guaranteed is our ability to reason. Even if we forget the specific theorems, languages, formulas or papers we have studied, spoken, memorized or written, those long, forlorn hours spent in the bowels of H & L have not been in vain, because the single most important gift Bowdoin has offered us is the ability to be astute, critical thinkers. As Hyde promised, we have learned to judge honestly, and with reason, the thoughts and works we produce ourselves, and those we learn from others.
Although we will soon have our degrees in hand, our work as scholars and earnest students remains unfinished. If we are to be the true patriots, defenders of freedom, and lovers of liberty, then we must begin by making every day a conscious exercise in what we have learned here: tolerance towards different beliefs and a love of educated discourse. Remember that the holiest of words are those spoken to us by our reason and judgment, and not what we find in a book or in the news. Remember also that our struggle to further the common good, and to heal our civil society, is the only real war that, we, as patriots, must fight, and that we cannot declare victory until every single nation is free, and every civil society healed. I will not wish us luck in accomplishing this Herculean task, because Bowdoin has already offered us the only tool we need: our education. I will only ask that we accept this offer, and make good on it.
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