Convocation 2009: Voices from the Past

Story posted September 03, 2009

"Voices from the Past"
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster

Bowdoin College's 208th Convocation was held Wednesday, September 2, 2009, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following is the text of Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster's reading.

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Tim Foster

In 1972, the year President Mills earned his Bowdoin degree, Herbert Ross Brown retired as a member of the faculty. Brown had taught English at the College for 47 years. He was perhaps the best-known Bowdoin professor of the 20th century.

Brown served for 35 years as managing editor of the New England Quarterly, seeing 140 issues of the journal to press.

The historian William Fowler wrote of his first encounter with the journal's managing editor:

If someone had said to you, "Create for me a New England college campus," it would be Bowdoin.

If they said, "Create for me the office of an English professor," it would have been Herbert's office in a building there called Hubbard Hall.

We walked up these magnificent stairs and into a huge room cluttered with piles of books and papers, with framed documents and photographs of Emerson and Longfellow on the wall.

And there amidst all of this academic rubble, sitting in the corner with his back to us, surrounded by cigarette smoke and working on a manual typewriter, was Herbert Brown.

Brown's fellow editorial board member at New England Quarterly, Frederick Allis, described the professor's wit and irreverence:

Who but Herbert would remember Emerson's definition of a college faculty as "a community of repellent particles;" who but Herbert would say of the threat of publishing or perishing, "There is too much publishing and too little perishing."

Friends on the faculty, to be clear, these were Brown's words, not mine!

Brown's resonant voice was unmistakable on this campus and his reputation as a dedicated teacher was fully deserved and indisputable.

When plaster casts on both legs prevented him from leaving his house on College Street, students were summoned to his living room for their daily dose of Shakespeare. And when Professor Brown spoke, the College listened.

It used to be that chapel was a daily requirement of all students at Bowdoin.

Attendance was taken and fines meted out to those who didn't show up or who didn't conduct themselves properly. I'm thankful to be out of that business!

Future U.S. President Franklin Pierce of the Class of 1824 was once fined 25 for "improper position at public worship."

But on September 23, 1933, during the dark days of the Great Depression, there was no attendance problem. It was the start of another academic year, the chapel was packed, and this time the speaker was Herbert Ross Brown.

His goal that day was to channel the enthusiasm we all feel on days like this very day — when the grand promise of new beginnings envelops and motivates us all.

Here is what he said:

There are some events that recur year after year with unfailing regularity. They are inevitable as the passing of time. Yet age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety. This is true of the gold and crimson foliage of autumn and the fresh energy of the returning spring.

The opening of a college year is one of these times of exciting promise. Our resolves are heightened and our spirits cheered. Everything, even courses and members of the faculty, are seen in the light of glad, confident morning. Nothing seems impossible.

The unfortunate thing is that our enthusiasm is too often dulled by routine. The tasks, which beckoned like a radiant adventure in the first week of the new term, soon fade into the light of common day as the year wears on.

College life has, perhaps, no keener tragedy than this sad falling off of higher purpose.

We are thrilled by the invitation to study the causes of surprising natural laws and processes, but falter when we must get down to cases and work hard.

We are amused by literary gossip and anecdote, but somehow or other never get down to the books themselves.

We sit with starched attentiveness to hear the lecturer describe the aims and purposes of the course, but we wilt pitifully under the stress of the third assignment.

Skyrockets are spectacular enough and have their place, but they are poor illumination.

Students of genuine scholarly interests never rely on opening day enthusiasm, last minute rallies before examinations or the inspiration of an appointment with the Dean to do their best work. These are, after all, external things.

These students find in their own deep purpose, enthusiasm enough.

They know the work of the liberal college is exciting business — in Woodrow Wilson's fine phrase — a place where one is equipped to be a "master adventurer in the field of modern opportunity."

We may be quite confident of the future if we do our daily work well — the glittering generalities will take care of themselves. Our task is to examine critically the stuff out of which generalities are made.

It is in the body of work we will meet our real test. . . .Let us resolve to major in work. It is a sure means of personal salvation.

The words of Herbert Ross Brown — teacher, scholar, author and mentor.

Thank you for listening.

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