Story posted May 11, 2006
More than any other moment in our academic life together, we as a faculty look forward to Honors Day for the chance to publicly acknowledge your outstanding academic achievements, and to thank you for the pleasure of sharing in them. We have asked much of you, and you have not only risen to the task, but far exceeded our expectations. Through your intellectual curiosity, exceptional commitment, and hard work, you have become "honorable" -- deserving of our honor, respect, and esteem. You have honored us with your keen interest and enthusiasm for learning, your sharp minds, and your creative energy, and now the time has come for us to honor you. This is a great night for each of you and a great night for Bowdoin. Congratulations to you all! Chapeau! Félicitations!
For those of you who may not know this about me, I spend a good part of my time in the seventeenth century -- think Louis XIV, Versailles, lots of lace and ribbons, and flashy spectacle. Like Bowdoin, Louis the XIV, you may recall, had a certain affection for the symbol of the sun. Known as the "Sun King," he adorned his palace and his person with that celestial body's shining rays, and he would undoubtedly have looked highly upon the symbol's prominence among us. I imagine that King Louis would have enjoyed tonight's festivities, though he probably would have added a richly costumed parade, choreographed some exquisite dance interludes, and concluded the evening with a magnificent fireworks display. Now, if the seventeenth century comes to mind for me when thinking about honor it is not simply because, for academics, everything must, of course, have something to do with our area of study. For French aristocrats of the 1600s there was no single more important idea than that of honor. It was the supreme value of the elite. In choosing my title for this address today, "On Becoming Honorable," I am imitating the titles of the many seventeenth-century manuals for the courtier like The Way to Honor and On Honor and Pleasing at the Court. These how-to handbooks for success confirm the extent to which honor dictated everything in the period, from the way you spoke, dressed, danced, and did your hair to where you lived, the friends you had, and who and how you loved. The celebrated heroes of the great tragedies of Corneille sacrificed their lives, loves, and political position, all to maintain honor.
By now, I hope something is troubling you about the parallel I'm drawing between an Old Regime aristocratic vision of honor and what we're doing here tonight. Honor, in the seventeenth-century sense, is highly individualistic; it is all about me and how I am seen by others. It is about who is worthy enough to join the clan of the honorable few. We at Bowdoin don't like to think of ourselves as corresponding to an idea of honor that associates itself with elitism and privilege. But we must admit that, overall, college is a rather self-centered endeavor, a time when we make choices largely for our own enrichment, enjoyment, and advancement. What's more, here at Bowdoin, we do -- students and professors alike, whatever our backgrounds -- enjoy a great deal of privilege. We have a magnificent place in which to live and learn, extraordinary opportunities at our fingertips, and little inconvenience in our daily lives. And even today, as we make great strides toward building a more diverse student body, faculty, and curriculum, we still revel in the trappings of the elitist ideals that defined Bowdoin at its beginnings. To conclude our ceremony tonight, we will "raise songs to Bowdoin, praise her fame, and sound abroad her glorious name" in the traditional singing of the Alma Mater, and wish that we be "worthy" enough to join the ranks of the "proud company" of those who bring Bowdoin "fame by deeds well done." So in some sense, there is nothing new under the sun.
In the act of giving and receiving honors and in how we think about ourselves as an academic community, there is, then, a tinge of elitism. We at Bowdoin pride ourselves on excellence and distinction, and you have distinguished yourselves as exceptional among an already exceptional group of individuals. Please don't misunderstand. In raising the question of elitism I by no means diminish your accomplishments. You well deserve the honors you receive tonight; we are proud of you and all you have achieved. I wonder, though, how we might move from thinking about honor as distinction, with its emphasis on difference, to an understanding of honor and honoring that places the emphasis instead on recognition -- recognition of all that is honorable in each other, recognition of ourselves in others. Seventeenth-century drama inevitably pits honor against love, the preservation of individual honor against the survival of relationship. My hope is that the two need not be mutually exclusive, and that we can aspire to define the process of "becoming honorable" in broader terms.
For one answer, I turn to another of our foundational texts, laid down by Bowdoin's first President, the Reverend Joseph McKeen, in 1802. You have read and heard these words often, but I'd like to ask you to think about them with me for a moment, because they offer a key as to how we might envision honor and what it means to be honorable in a way that is neither individualistic, nor exclusionary. McKeen tells us: "It ought always to be remembered, that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society." We talk -- and do -- a lot about the "common good" at Bowdoin. For most of you, involvement in the many intersecting circles of community of which our college is a part has been central to your experience here, and will continue to be essential to who you are in the years to come. Reverend McKeen reminds us that the distinction of a Bowdoin education must not be used for individual benefit, but shared in community, so that, as he affirms, "no man should live to himself." Honor must not be reflexive, but instead look outward; not individual, but lived out in our relationships with others.
Becoming honorable starts with honoring others in our daily lives. We honor others when we take time to listen to their hardships and share in their celebrations. When we clean up after ourselves in our dorms and classrooms, rather than leaving a mess for someone else. When we help a stranger pick up papers that have been strewn to the wind. Honoring others means waving thank you to the motorist who has just stopped to let us cross the street. It means putting down our cell phone when we're making a purchase in the grocery store, recognizing the human being standing before us, and honoring our exchange with them.
But becoming honorable requires even more of us. One of the seniors currently profiled on our website for his engagement with the local community recently defined what it means to serve the Common Good. He said, simply, "I guess it means to be there." "Being there" means, of course, being there for others, as when we say to another in need, "I'm here for you." It implies a position of strength and solidity. But truly "being there" suggests that in our interactions with others we must also be receptive, ready not only to come to a person's aid but to be transformed by them. To be free enough of the trappings of individual status that separate us from others so that we might become truly "honorable": able to be honored by all that they are and all they can teach us. Becoming honorable, then, means making ourselves vulnerable. It means forging a common space of recognition, where we might both give and receive, honor and be honored.
As you will experience tonight, when your hands start to go numb from clapping and your mind begins to wander, honoring others takes time and effort. This evening, as we applaud your individual accomplishments and celebrate your amazing gifts, let us also strive for inclusion and relationship. And in all we do, may we be fully present in the acts of honoring and being honored, recognize our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths, and be forever becoming honorable.