Campus News

Baccalaureate 2010 Address: Nathan Isaacson '10

Story posted May 28, 2010

"Whither a Small College and Maine"
By Nathan Isaacson '10
DeAlva Stanwood Alexander First Prize Winner
May 28, 2010

Forty years ago, my father delivered the commencement address to the all-male Bowdoin graduating class of 1970. He spoke at a time when the country was at the height of the Vietnam War and embroiled in national campus protests.

Nathan Isaacson150.jpg
Nathan Isaacson '10

Although Bowdoin has undergone many momentous changes since my father entered as a 17-year-old freshman from central Maine, my purpose in telling you about his experience is to convey the depth of my roots at Bowdoin and in the State of Maine. My family has lived in the Pine Tree State for over 100 years, and the latter half of that century has been greatly influenced by this college. Indeed, Bowdoin and the State of Maine have been two of the strongest institutional influences in my life. I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on the history of the unique relationship between the College and this state, and to express some concerns over the challenges that relationship may encounter in the decades ahead.

Bowdoin and Maine began their formal histories only 26 years apart. In 1794, Governor Samuel Adams of Massachusetts issued a charter for the establishment of a college in Maine, which was then only a district of the Commonwealth. To borrow from Louis C. Hatch's book, The History of Bowdoin College:

Bowdoin College is not the creation of a multi-millionaire, like Johns Hopkins or Leland Stanford University, nor does it, like Harvard, chiefly owe its being to the desire of the clergy and influential members of the church to secure a continual succession of learned ministers. Bowdoin was founded because a remote and sparsely settled but not unprogressive district demanded that its sons might ?have the benefit of a college education without undertaking a long ?and expensive journey to Massachusetts ... Like the states of Germany in the Middle Ages and our own new states in the 19th century, Maine felt that it was derogatory to her dignity for her children to seek education out-side her borders.

From its founding, Bowdoin has been inextricably, almost umbilically, linked to Maine. No similar American institution of higher education, which is so small in size, has had such a profound impact on the state where it is located. Historians often write about Bowdoin's past in terms of its famous alumni, especially those who were from Maine, such as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was born in Portland, and Civil War military hero, Joshua Chamberlain, who was raised in Brewer, Maine, and later became both Governor of the State and President of the College.

These historic figures can overshadow the more fundamental, even essential, ties between the State and its best-known college. As my quote from Lewis Hatch implies, there is a distinct spirit to Maine, which the founders of Bowdoin sought to capture and embrace in their venture to establish the state's first college. Maine's character, perhaps more so than any other state, is defined by its values and traditions. It is a place where humility, commitment to family and community, hard work and earnestness are prized, in a world that often views these traits as quaint and even outdated. These foundational values continue to be instilled and cultivated at Bowdoin, and over the years they have become an ingrained, albeit implicit, aspect of a Bowdoin education. Whether conscious of it, or not, all of our experiences at Bowdoin have been marked by the special qualities that characterize life in Maine; and, in some dimension, elements of our personalities, attitudes, and even our spirits have been molded not just by Bowdoin, but by Maine as well.

In a state that shares a longer border with Canada than with the rest of the United States, Maine often goes unnoticed by the rest of the country. Bowdoin, however, has been an immense source of pride and prestige for Maine. Particularly in recent decades, Bowdoin's national, and even international, reputation has risen far beyond what its founders could have anticipated. What was once a school for the sons of Maine's leading families, and later for the scions of the New England elite, has grown to be one of the nation's most select and respected colleges. Bowdoin now takes its pick of the best and brightest from Calais, Maine, to Seoul, South Korea. Bowdoin has prospered — in no small part due to the sagacity of its visionary leaders, the generosity of its loyal alumni and the talents of its distinguished faculty.

Maine, unfortunately, has not followed Bowdoin's trajectory. There was once a time when Maine's prosperity and vitality rivaled any state in the union. In the early days of statehood, Maine boasted a robust and independent economy. Granite from Maine quarries, lumber from Maine woods and potatoes from Maine farms were shipped to distant markets. In the 1800s, Bangor held the distinction of being the world's largest lumber port, and Maine shipyards built more tonnage than any other state. However, in this era of globalization, in which Bowdoin has been a beneficiary, Maine has largely been left by the wayside. Perhaps, Maine's own storied values are to blame for its economic decline.

We live in an age of attenuated attachments. A bank in Hong Kong may hold your mortgage, a factory in Bangladesh may make your clothes and an operator in India may answer your service questions. In the global village, the Internet creates new communities of anonymous individuals communicating through social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. By contrast, in Maine, and at Bowdoin, community still means real people, where relationships are built on trust, shared experiences and common values. But these seem to count for little in a high-tech world without borders. Maine is now largely a colonial outpost, at least from an economic perspective. Almost all of the banks and businesses once headquartered in Maine (with the important exception of L.L. Bean) have been acquired by out-of-state, often foreign, corporations. Decisions regarding the State's economic fate are more likely made in New York, Houston, Brussels and Madrid, than they are in Portland, Augusta or Bangor. As the Maine economy has eroded, its population has aged. Maine has the oldest population in the United States, and is getting comparatively older every year. As Maine's economy constricts, opportunities for young people become more scarce.

My intention is not to tell a depressing or nostalgic story about the decline of the once great State of Maine and the passing of its golden age. The very qualities of Maine citizens, that may have forced the State to the commercial periphery, can also be the values that will lead to an economic revival. Mainers have a hearty fortitude and resilience, which enable them to weather all storms. I harbor an unwavering optimism for my state and believe that it will find its way in the 21st century, albeit in a new form. Maine does not need to be an economic powerhouse, nor do we want to transform Portland into Boston, or abandon our gritty and independent spirit to compete in the modern world. What Maine does need is the enterprise, innovation and resolve that led our Yankee forebears to build ships, navigate the seas and found a great college.

There once was a time when it would have been ridiculous to question the relationship between Bowdoin and Maine, but that is no longer the case. As Maine has struggled, Bowdoin has thrived, and their respective paths are in danger of diverging. What was once a clearly symbiotic relationship has become somewhat lopsided. The temptation may be strong for Bowdoin, and for us as future alumni of the College, to disregard the challenges confronting Maine and engage the larger world with its prospects of personal accomplishments and prosperity. However, in doing so, Bowdoin runs the risk of severing its roots, or, as we say in Maine, breaking loose from its mooring, and losing something precious in the process.

There has been a disturbing trend in higher education toward homogenization. NESCAC schools increasingly look like each other, in their physical facilities, academic programs and even charitable activities. Bowdoin's identity, however, is defined by the fact that it calls Maine home. Bowdoin must avoid becoming a metaphorical island within Maine, isolated and possibly self-satisfied in its national rankings, but insulated from the state to which it owes its legacy. If Maine becomes simply a pretty place to vacation, largely irrelevant to the national economy and contemporary world issues, Bowdoin will be the less for it.

Let me be clear, I am not calling for Bowdoin to rush to Maine's rescue. Maine does not need saving, even if it needs help, nor do I think that burden should fall on Bowdoin's shoulders. The resourcefulness of Mainers must be the wellspring for Maine's economic revitalization. What I am calling for, however, is a reaffirmation of, and appreciation for, the relationship between the College and the State, a relationship that may find itself in a moment of peril. From Maine, Bowdoin draws its spirit and principles. In turn, Bowdoin provides Maine with a model of excellence and a tradition of leadership. Harkening back to Lewis Hatch's reflections on Bowdoin's founding, providing leadership to Maine is part of Bowdoin's mission. Unlike an obligation, however, a mission is a loftier goal and an aspiration. Maine is a small state where individuals can make an enormous difference, and historically Bowdoin has provided the State with great men and women to guide it.

To my classmates, I ask you to recognize that you have not just spent four years at Bowdoin, but four years in Maine as well. You have been beneficiaries of this state's unparalleled beauty, but you have equally benefitted from its unique human values, and these will remain with you, if you allow them. No matter where you were born, a part of your soul now belongs to both Bowdoin and Maine, and together they have helped shape who you are and who you will become.

I harbor an abiding love for this state and a passion to return some day to raise the fifth generation of Isaacson Mainers. On the eve of our entering life after Bowdoin, my aim is to help focus our reflections on the bonds between us and Bowdoin and Maine, both of which are now a part of your heritage. Do not leave them untended, or they will wither away. You are now alumni of the College, and, in no small degree, fellow Mainers. This is an association I hope you savor, relish, and nurture, and I hope that it will enrich and strengthen your ties to Bowdoin.

In closing, we should not minimize the significance of a small college and a small state. In 1901, Bowdoin awarded an honorary degree to Maine-born author, Sarah Orne Jewett, who was the first woman to receive a degree from an all-male college in the United States, and whose father was a graduate of the College, Class of 1834. Jewett wrote: "A harbor, even if it is a little harbor, is a good thing. It takes something from the world and has something to give in return." Let this image be an inspiration for Bowdoin and for Maine.

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