Sarah and James Bowdoin Day 2010 Address: Louis Menand

Story posted October 22, 2010

"What It's All About"
Louis Menand
Sarah and James Bowdoin Day 2010

Bowdoin College's 2010 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 22, 2010, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by Louis Menand, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University.

When you bring your car into the shop to be repaired, the difference between the car when you brought it in and the car when you picked it up is entirely due to the work done in the shop. We say that this difference, between the broken car and the fixed car, is a treatment effect. The car did not get better on its own.

Louis Menand200.jpg
Louis Menand

College is a little more complicated. People become educated. You can't really stop them. Between the ages of 18 and 22, most people undergo a developmental leap that is similar to the developmental leaps that they make between two and four, or 11 and 13. People don't get fussier or hairier between 18 and 22, but they do change intellectually. This is one reason why SAT scores do not predict college grades past the freshman year. What we can measure about people when they are 16 or 17 does not tell us much about what they're going to be capable of when they are 20 or 22.

Those of us who are professional educators believe, against some evidence to the contrary, that it is possible to intervene in this developmental process, or to participate in it, in ways that are helpful and constructive, rather than redundant, counterproductive or annoying. We believe that there are educational outcomes that are more or less desirable, and that there are methods of achieving those outcomes that are more or less effective. But we have a hard time explaining, in concrete terms, where and why the process of going to college makes a difference.

One reason for this is that, to a considerable extent, college education can be explained in terms of selection rather than in terms of treatment. Let's say that Bowdoin wants to give its students an education that will make them, at the end of the process, tolerant, open-minded and principled human beings. Bowdoin does not select, at the beginning of the process, applicants who are bigoted, dogmatic and wicked. Bowdoin selects applicants who already demonstrate, at a pretty high level, the traits that Bowdoin aspires to inculcate.

And people who apply to college select Bowdoin because they already have a lot of what Bowdoin wants to give them. All along the line of their educational career, they have continually been selected for already having the qualities that education is supposed to impart. How much of the intellectual and moral character of the Bowdoin graduate is a treatment effect and how much is a selection effect? We might put the question the other way around: Are there things Bowdoin could do that would actually make its students less principled, tolerant and open-minded than they would otherwise be? In other words, what's school got to do with it?

Liberal arts colleges are highly conscious of the difficulty of answering this question, and they have developed a method for dealing with it. They invite a stranger to a big ceremony, they dress him in a wizard's outfit and say flattering things about him, and then, when he is besotted by the reports of his own magnificence, they put him in front of a microphone and invite him to explain what they know perfectly well cannot be easily explained, which is what liberal education is all about. Today, I am the besotted stranger. The truth is, one is not besotted nearly enough in life, and I am very grateful to President Mills for the opportunity to be here and speak to you, and I am happy to assume the duty of failing to put into words what your education is all about.

Here's one way to think about it. You go over to your best friend's house for your first sleepover. Your best friend's mother asks if you would like a tuna fish salad sandwich. Your own mother makes tuna fish salad sandwiches for you all the time, so you say sure. When you bite into the sandwich, you realize that your best friend's mother's tuna fish salad tastes completely unlike the tuna fish salad your own mother makes. You never dreamed that it was possible for there to be more than one way to make tuna fish salad, or that the differences could be so profound. And what is it with the bread? It's brown, and there appear to be seeds in it. What is more unnerving is the clear evidence that your friend regards his mother's preparation as perfectly normal, and has obviously been eating it without skepticism all his life. Later on, you discover that the pillows in your friend's house are filled with foam rubber, instead of feathers. The toilet paper in the bathroom is pink. What sort of human beings are these? At two o'clock in the morning, you throw up, and your mother comes and takes you home. It is an introduction to the world of difference.

Later on, you go to grade school. There, you discover other children who are smarter than you. Also, even more difficult to believe, cuter than you. How can this be? Your parents always told you that you were the smartest and the cutest. On what other matters did they mislead you? Your personal belief that you are an incredibly fast runner is shattered at the first recess. It is suggested to you, and not necessarily in a friendly or constructive spirit, that your clothes are uncool. The thought that there might be a cool way to dress, as opposed to an uncool way to dress, had never occurred to you. The whole concept of coolness, a concept you now realize will dominate your life for many years to come, had simply not crossed your radar.

Eventually—for nothing can be done to prevent it—there is high school, and with high school comes the life-moment people refer to now as your "sexual orientation," appropriating a word that used to mean finding your way out of the wilderness but that now means something more like finding your way into the wilderness. What you had not really registered about sexuality before you got there is that it is not optional. You've got to have one. Sex is the class you cannot skip. What's worse is that the information is so bad. It takes most of us too long time to learn one of the most basic rules in life, which is, Never, ever believe anything anyone says about sex.

Also, oh yeah, four years of math, four years of science, fours years of a foreign language, the whole student leadership/community service thing, PSATs, SATs, SAT IIs, APs, and the college application essay, a hideously booby-trapped requirement that obliges you to boast about yourself while pretending to be a modest and other-directed person, which is a very mean thing to ask a 17-year-old to do. Then, you go to college, an existential condition captured by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger by the term "thrownness."

The first thing to say about it is that college is not that different from the bad sleep-over, the cool clothes crisis and the sexual orientation nightmare. It corresponds to a developmental phase in your life. That's just a biological fact. It is impossible to see when you are in the phase, just as it was once impossible to understand how human beings could sleep on pillows filled with foam rubber. But even people who are beyond college tend to assume too quickly that development is over after puberty.

It's not. Your mind happens to be in a body—more accurately, your mind is a function of a body. The mind is not a stationary receptacle that gradually gets filled up with knowledge. It is a growing, perpetually morphing thing. Never despair of it. Aptitudes switch off, like the aptitude for fluency in foreign languages, but new aptitudes switch on, like the aptitude for raising children, or managing an office, or writing a novel. You don't have any control over when and where hair begins to appear and disappear on your body, and you don't have much control over what your mind is ready for, either. This is why precocity is overrated.

People who teach college see it again and again: students make a leap between, roughly, their sophomore and junior years. Wet logs catch fire. You will see this if you go to law school or medical school or graduate school. You will encounter there very successful students who could not have gotten into Bowdoin. Some people don't catch fire even until graduate school, and beyond. You shoot your arrow over the horizon, and then you trudge up to see, many years later, which target you hit. It is a rule of life even more fundamental than the rule about sex talk: There are many paths upward. It's like rock-climbing. (Not that I've ever rock-climbed, but I did see Mission Impossible II). There is no one way up the mountain. If your route is blocked, don't waste much time complaining about it. Find another route. Or another mountain.

When people speak of education, they often talk about enlarging your horizons, and stuff like that. But a lot of education is really about making you feel smaller—forcing you to realize that you are not the measure of all things. Education is adult-supervised exposure to the fact that you're not everything. It is a process of making you shrink in relation to the rest of the world. One thing college compels you to realize, for example, is how many things you will never know. Look through the course catalogue and you will see vast areas of learning and activity that you will never even stick a toe into while you are here. This is humbling. It should be humbling. Humility is good.

Your professors probably keep bugging you by saying that it isn't information they are teaching you; they are teaching you how to think. Professors at liberal arts colleges are always saying this, and students are never thrilled to hear it. For one thing, why did you take all those notes on your laptop if the information isn't what's important? Is thinking on the exam? No. What's on the exam is information. And what were you doing before you got to college? Not thinking? It's all a little bit insulting.

What your professors are saying, though, is that one of the purposes of acquiring knowledge is to understand the limits of knowledge. They are trying to expand your mind in order to enable you to grasp its smallness. Your professors believe that this awareness is empowering, and so do I.

So how exactly does this stuff we're teaching you empower you? Let's begin by asking, what are the liberal arts and sciences? Most people who get college degrees in the United States do not get them in the liberal arts and sciences. They get them in fields like business and education where they are trained for specific careers. That is not the type of education you receive at Bowdoin.

At Bowdoin, all subjects that are taught disinterestedly—that is, without regard for economic, ideological or vocational considerations. Liberal arts professors are people who just try to figure out what's going on. We follow our inquiries wherever they may lead. And we get paid for it. If you enjoy using your mind, being a professor is an unbeatably great job.

But disinterestedness does not mean uselessness. Liberal education does teach useful things. It teaches basically three things. The first is methodology, protocols for inquiry. Liberal education teaches you how to assemble, interpret and evaluate data, how to turn information into knowledge. The methods college teaches for doing these things range from statistics in the sciences to hermeneutics in the humanities.

Second, a great deal of liberal education is historical—not only what is taught in history departments, but also most of what is taught in literature and the arts and some of what is taught in philosophy. Historical study gives you the back-story of present arrangements. It allows you to appreciate the contingent nature of those arrangements, and so to see possibilities for changing them if you someday may wish to, or to understand the reasons for not changing them if you wish not to. History helps you see, ideally, that there is no one way that things must be.

And third, a great deal of liberal education is theoretical or philosophical. We teach material in a way that helps you apprehend the structure of assumptions that underwrite our practices. We undertake to expose the logic of things.

All of these are types of knowledge. They may or may not make you better people. But they are things that you can learn. We can't measure whether you have become more tolerant or open-minded, but we can measure whether you have learned the methods, histories, and theories we have taught. We have ways of assessing this outcome. They're called exams.

Professional schools and graduate schools, which many of you may attend someday, since the students who get the top marks generally find it nice to stay in school a little longer, teach some methods of inquiry, but they do not teach their subjects historically or theoretically. This is because the purpose of professional education—and this includes doctoral education in the liberal arts and sciences—is to deliberalize you. It is to get you to think within the channels of a profession. The aim of law school, as every law professors will tell you, is to teach you how to think like a lawyer. The aim of graduate programs in English or sociology is to teach you how to think like an English professor or a sociology professor. Students entering Ph.D. programs are sometimes shocked by how different the experience from college. They are being socialized into a line of work. If they don't adhere to the canons of that profession, they won't get hired.

This gives a clue to the value-added potential of liberal education. What your professors mean by "thinking" is the ability to see around the corner of what is already out there, what is already known, what everyone takes for granted—the ability, really, to see that there is a corner at the end of our little street. That's something that most people are never able to see.

Why is having this ability important? Well, it may give you some advantages in the professional world to have a grasp of the back-story and the a prioris of the conditions you find yourself in—to have a disinterested idea of what is really going on.

But you have not learned the deeper lesson of liberal education if that is the only one you take away from it. Knowing how little we know of the street we're on, knowing how much there is out there that we don't know and may never know, protects us from our own certainties. More important, it protects other people from the effects of our certainties. There are always people around who are certain of their rightness, people who believe they're on a mission from God. The only people who should be on a mission from God are the Blues Brothers. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, Certitude is not the test of certainty.

It is a world of differences, and the differences go all the way down. We disrespect them at our peril. To use our little metaphor: there are many tuna fish salads; there is no tuna fish salad as such. It is amazing how hard it is for people, even well-educated people, to believe this. They mistake the home for the world. But there are many homes, many discourses, many ways of considering the case, and no one way accounts for the whole. One thing a liberal arts education wants to make you see is that people thought differently before us, and people will think differently after us. The ice we walk on is never not thin. This isn't a philosophical point. It's a practical point. Seeing the limitations in other people's way of understanding things makes us stronger. Seeing the limitations in our own way of understanding things makes us better people.

Academics is not the whole value of college, of course. When the Beatles were the most popular group in the world, between around 1964 and 1970, they used to spend all their time together. They didn't just tour together and record together; they lived next door to each other, they hung out in each other's houses, they even took their vacations together. When John was bored, he got in the Rolls and drove over to Ringo's. People asked them why they did this. The Beatles' answer was that they felt that the only person who could possibly understand what it was like to be a Beatle was another Beatle. The Beatles were practically the only people in the world who did not think that the supreme joy in life was to be touched by a Beatle.

Generations are like this. The reason it is so comfortable talking to people who are your own age, even if they are strangers, is because you have, almost automatically, so much shared experience. You listened to the same music, went to the same movies, read the same novels and watched the same television programs. You share a universe of assumptions and attitudes—a kind of moral code—that is different from your parents' and that will be different from your children's. Your parents are not going to love me for saying this, but when I was younger I never really cared about the criticisms of what I wrote or said when they were made by older people. What do older people know?

I did care about what the people in my generation thought, because we shared a life path. And this is especially true of the people you go to school with. If you are like me, you will learn as much in college from your classmates as you do from your professors. What's it all about? You know what it's all about. It's not just about you anymore. It's about other people. You need them, and they need you. We're here to do the best with what God gave us and, if we are fortunate, to make the world a little better than it was when we came into it. But the world is too big and various, and each of us is too small and, let's face it, monotonous, for any one person to do this on his or her own. But, my final Beatles reference, we can do it with a little help from our friends.

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