Sarah & James Bowdoin Day Address: Adam Baber '05
Story posted October 01, 2004
"Toward a More Reckless Education"
Adam R. Baber '05
October 1, 2004
Bowdoin College's 2004 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 1, 2004, in Morell Gymnasium. Following is the text of the student address by Adam R. Baber '05.
Most things that cost $160,000 are highly breakable and ought to be handled with care, but it's time to stop pretending that a liberal arts education is one of them. At a time when the world looks increasingly toward its younger generation for insight and ideas, we are becoming too careful with our education.
This afternoon I want to briefly address three tendencies that are compelling us to be too careful, rather than bold, with our education. These are our preoccupation with stress, our fixation on careerism, and our overarching concern for "sensitivity."
First, stress. It's a common refrain these days: "I'm so stressed out," "I have so much to do," "I'm so busy this semester, I have no time." While there are serious ramifications to true "stress," I wonder if we have applied the term a bit too liberally and more than a bit too negatively.
Why are we so troubled by the stress of college life? A fully engaged college education is naturally overwhelming. We take on a lot during these four years, but we have an awful habit of complaining about all of the work and responsibility soon after we've assumed all of that work and responsibility.
Some have suggested that the answer to all of this unwanted stress is that we "take a walk," or "get a massage." Colleges have started bending over backwards to provide ample opportunities for students to relax, have access to counseling on demand, and yummy ice cream late at night.
But college isn't supposed to be all nice and cozy. A liberal arts education ought to be about exploring big, timeless issues with a great deal of hard work and deep thought. Shrinking from the pressure of college life only to wallow in self-pity dilutes the significance of motivation and accomplishment that is at the heart of higher education.
But there is another problem with "stress." In the Orient last semester I wrote on behalf of the editorial staff that, in misinterpreting normal rites of passage for unwelcome "stress," we throw a critical sense of perspective out the window. We may feel overloaded with the pressures of exams, papers, social situations, and career prospects, but in the grand scheme of things, we are certainly among the less burdened. For four years every basic need is provided for - food, shelter, and ample opportunities for intellectual and personal growth, to say nothing of the ultimate and invaluable end result, a diploma. Many young adults not in college lead lives whose "stress" factor makes our tough workload seem like a stroll across the Quad. Men and women our age often find themselves in dead-end jobs with few prospects. In parts of the world, people our age have reached half their life expectancy. And thousands our age are in the line of fire in Iraq.
We should not view the daily stress of college life as an impediment to happiness or success but rather as a means to something greater - a confidence to meet challenges head-on and live a meaningful life. The hardiness we develop will be indispensable after graduation.
Indeed, what we will do after graduation is always a hot topic for conversation, but the weight we place on it forces us, again, to be too careful.
It seems like tough work to choose a career, and once we do we'll need to break into it somehow.
So on come the career seminars, the small group sessions, the test-taking strategy conferences, the resume-building exercises, the flurry of recommendations. While most of us are grateful for these opportunities, they have the cumulative effect of making us very, very careful about what classes we take, what groups we belong to, and how we budget our time. We ask the wrong questions: we ask, "what will make me look employable?" or "what will help me get to law school, or medical school?" instead of the more fundamental question extending from and through the liberal arts: what will enhance the life of my mind? Asking such a question may lead us to take risks at first glance incompatible with our future plans - but in doing so we may find answers that change those same plans for the better.
Many note that we are operating in a system that rewards the sort of resume-building vigor so often on display. I myself am guilty of making concessions to this system. But our participation in today's marketplace need not be a zero-sum game. The job market fluctuates from year to year, but liberal learning offers a refreshing constant: an ongoing, indeed timeless, conversation about the big questions of life. Contributing to this conversation is a job for which we have already been hired.
Finally, to the issue of sensitivity. It's rare that any conversation of substance on a controversial issue isn't prefaced by someone in a quiet, sober voice announcing the overriding goal of the conversation: that everyone be respectful and feel respected. Our fear of offending pushes comfort to the top of everyone's list of priorities - debate is fine, so long as everyone remains comfortable and feels respected.
But what is the real purpose of discussion: to make everyone feel good or to promote the exploration of ideas? I suspect we all strive for the latter, but our commitment to being sensitive and the premium we place on respect makes it very difficult to be honest at times. We are told to check our prejudices and preconceptions at the door - but that sometimes leaves us with nothing from which to grow.
Worthwhile learning requires bold ideas and tough debate, not the echo of timid platitudes. It is a pity, though, that we allow so much of our dialogue to be governed by our inhibitions and concern rather than our desire for earnest deliberation. But that is what we get with today's culture of sensitivity.
More chillingly, however, is that being "sensitive" can quickly spill over into being disingenuous. Too often the thick veneer of concern for others with which we coat our dialogue seems to matter more than our concern for the truth. We must always remember that, while a laudable goal, respect for diversity is a means to greater things, not an end in itself. We must not allow our debate to be stuck in neutral, unable to move past the question of who's doing the debating in the first place.
As we progress through our education, we should pause from time to time to ask ourselves some tough questions: how am I being prepared for the rest of my life? Am I being genuinely strengthened to meet the challenges that lie beyond graduation? Do my choices contribute to advancing knowledge and understanding, or do they merely advance my resume? Do I really say what I mean and really mean what I say, or am I carefully watching my words in an effort to conform to convention?
These are difficult questions, but they must be asked. Perhaps in doing so we will finally realize that the stakes are far too high to handle our education with such caution. We can afford to be more reckless in our education because it will bend with our risk-taking and reward our bold questions. In the end, the potential riches of a liberal arts education far surpass the daily stress we endure. They exist before and beyond our professional aspirations. And they must not be sacrificed to a bloated conscience.
Let us resist the urge to tread lightly in this uncharted territory, these "liberal arts." An assessment of our time shows that our generation will inherit a world that demands new ideas and thoughtful leaders.
As that inheritance draws near, I ask: Are we ready?
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