Story posted October 31, 2008
"The Point of Bowdoin"
Bowdoin College's 2008 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 31, 2008, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by student speaker Sam Waterbury '11.
Hello and welcome. I am very honored to be speaking at this year's Sarah and James Bowdoin Day. Standing before you right now is a very humbling experience. This is in part due to my stage fright, but mostly because the Bowdoin community is such an impressive academic entity. To put it simply, we're so smart. I recognize that this is somewhat of a ridiculous comment. "Of course we're smart, we go to Bowdoin."
It is common knowledge that Bowdoin is a prestigious institution and getting accepted here is no easy feat. Still, I am not standing up here rattling off Admissions' statistics or bragging about how we stand in various college rankings. I refrain from this not only because it is unnecessary and pretentious, but also because, as I'm a current student here, those things don't matter to me. I don't need to hear about how smart the students are to be persuaded that I want to come here. I go here. I am here. I know that there's more to Bowdoin than just getting in. That is not the "point" of Bowdoin.
Perhaps it's strange of me to think of college as having a "point" or purpose. It's very possible that college is just an experience that can be had in the same way that we can experience watching a sunset. I'm sure that I am not the first person to question the use of higher learning. Parents frequently worry about what the "point" of Bowdoin is and whether it's worth the large tuition bill. Now, I don't know if you know this about me, but I love Bowdoin, so please trust me and listen to me when I say that there is a point to Bowdoin. There is good reason to be here. But I think that the best way to explain what the "point" of Bowdoin is is to first explain what the "point" of Bowdoin isn't.
Parents and professors will be happy to hear that I do not consider the point of college to be a four-year weekend. It is not an endless party through which we dazedly stumble, barely conscious of who we're with or what we're doing. Despite Hollywood's popular depiction as such, Hedonism is not the only philosophy that we learn at college. In fact I believe that most find it to be the emptiest and quickly abandon it.
I also don't believe that networking is the point of college. It's true that this is an excellent place to meet brilliant people. And yes, the friendships formed here are some that will last our entire lives. But I've already established that there is more to Bowdoin than being a member of this exclusive society. There is more to get from the school than a group of contacts whose strings you can later pull for favors. This too sounds like an empty life to me.
It may be difficult to believe, but I also do not think that the point of Bowdoin is to fill our heads with knowledge. We can't learn everything. We're not computers. It's not possible. So any desire to do so results in a life as futile as that of Tantalus of Greek mythology. It would be an existence full of yearning, but with the fruit of our desire eternally out of reach. Even if we restricted our desire to wanting to learn everything about one subject, we wouldn't achieve it. In fact, we're less likely to reach that goal here at Bowdoin than we would be at institutions that focus on single subjects. Therefore the point of Bowdoin cannot be to glean as much information as possible on any one subject. If that were the case, there would be no course requirements and thereby no liberal arts background. But I'm not saying that there is no value in the liberal arts education or that there is no point to learning.
In fact, I think that the point of Bowdoin, the reason why we're here, is to learn. I know that it sounds like a contradiction, but it isn't. What I said before was that the goal of learning everything is unattainable and that focusing our learning on a single subject is limiting and at odds with Bowdoin's liberal arts mentality. When I talk about learning being the reason to be in school, I am not talking merely about the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge is valuable, but only as it is a byproduct of learning.
When I talk about learning, I'm talking about developing an appreciation for the finer pleasures that life has to offer, the finest of all being learning itself, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. I see learning as the act of attaining sophistication in our understanding of and taste for music, art, literature, science, mathematics and language. With this new discerning palate, understanding and appreciation I believe that we will then develop a love of the liberal arts education that Bowdoin offers. When I say that the point of Bowdoin is for us to learn, I mean that it is for us to learn to love learning.
Edward Albee spoke here last month and one point that he made that I'd like to echo is the importance of being responsible for furthering ones own education. Yes, we have all taken the steps of enrolling here and signing up for classes, but we must not let our education end with graduation. Instead we must continue to push ourselves, whether it is to attend graduate school or even just to investigate small academic queries that we come upon from time to time. It is important that we feel comfortable engaging in the act of learning even if there is no teacher to guide us.
One thing that I love about Bowdoin is how much of an effort it makes toward getting us academically independent and self-confident. The college offers independent studies for credit in every department, which are open to all students. I am currently doing an independent study in music, studying the music of Stephen Sondheim. The experience is unlike anything else that I've ever done. I work alone, pushing myself along, and meeting weekly with my advisor, Professor Shende, who discusses with me what I've found and explores other possible explanations of the music that I have not yet considered.
I am learning so much, about Sondheim, about the structure of music in general, and about how to pursue my own quirky academic interests. In addition to music, my independent study is making me realize how special learning is to me and how much I enjoy it. I suppose that that is what brings us all together here at Bowdoin, the love of learning.
Today we celebrate the academic excellence achieved by the students in this room, individuals who have vivaciously expressed their passion for pursuing their education. But important and special as this day is, and I do feel that it is important to note students of merit and to continue the tradition of honoring the intellect that this school practices, Sarah and James Bowdoin Day seems to me a tad unnecessary. For in a way, we are regularly brought together to celebrate academic excellence. We do it every day in the classroom, in the library and on the quad. Bowdoin brings us together to study and to learn, and if you ask me, there is no better way to celebrate academic excellence than to strive for it yourself. That is the point of Bowdoin, to work to develop a love of learning.