May 23, 2003
We come together at the end of each academic year for what, as I’ve learned a lot the last couple of days, is always a bittersweet occasion - the time when we prepare to say farewell to our seniors who have worked hard, learned and offered much, and who have grown into able campus leaders.
It is a time for celebrating all that has been accomplished and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on the proud traditions of this historic college.
For the first time, and maybe for a very good reason, we are conducting Baccalaureate on campus [in Morrell Gym], not across the street in Brunswick's First Parish Church. We outgrew our own chapel years ago. Some may regret this break from custom but it is a move that reflects the changing nature of this event. Originally a religious service appropriately conducted in a religious setting. Baccalaureate at Bowdoin has evolved into an inclusive ceremony of historical reflection and a celebration of the ideals of this great College.
So, I welcome each of you to this familiar ceremony in a new place - faculty, students, staff, alumni, and parents. You are all vital members of the Bowdoin community.
Now, as we reflect here on Bowdoin's proud traditions, let me take a few moments to underscore two bedrock principles of this College: our commitment to serving the Common Good and our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education.
We are justifiably proud of Bowdoin's history of graduating class after class of people who go on to be leaders in their communities. We all know about the famous and prominent leaders who earned their college degrees here, and we often marvel at how this small college in Maine can be so successful at graduating leaders. We have, at times, suggested that this leadership tradition is linked in some mysterious way to our independent Maine roots and the craggy, difficult Maine coast and terrain. As they say in Maine, rough weather makes good timber.
But there must be more to all this than geography and environment. In fact, I would venture to say that the bedrock principles of service to the Common Good and a commitment to liberal education are essentially at the heart of Bowdoin's leadership tradition.
This year world events have once again challenged each of us - as individuals, and as a community, nation and a College. Each of us has had to consider, both privately and collectively, issues of war, human rights, disease and terrorism. Our principles as a learning community demanded that we consider these important and difficult issues in educated, informed and respectful ways. These issues were aired in faculty forums, by student government, in public debates and during informal discussions on the quad and on the streets of Brunswick.
It is clear from these conversations and debates that there is a diversity of views on this campus about many issues. But there is no disagreement or confusion about the importance of respectful, rigorous and open discourse aimed at making all of us better informed citizens. Bowdoin is - first and foremost - a place for reflection and learning, and we can be proud of our willingness and ability to probe and evaluate our beliefs and ideas in an educated and open manner supported and enhanced by this College. Our commitment to serving the Common Good is more than just doing good works in our community (which we spend thousands of hours doing each year), it is considering in thoughtful and responsible ways what is right and proper for our communities, nation, world and College. It is this broad understanding of the Common Good that enhances dedication to community and guides our students along a path toward leadership.
Bowdoin's commitment to liberal education is also central to the creation of leaders in our society. Liberal education and the liberal arts are sometimes considered elusive concepts - frequently misunderstood and judged for what they are NOT. Bowdoin is not a vocational school. It is not a professional school. Now, to the relief of parents out there, Bowdoin is - I am confident to say based on historical experience and data - a place that prepares and enables its students to be employed. But our educational mission is much broader and more enduring than that.
At Bowdoin, we believe in education for education's sake. Our form of liberal education is grounded on the belief that students should - over a four year experience here - develop the confidence of mind and spirit that will allow and prepare them to consider in thoughtful and nuanced ways many of the important and varied issues they will face in life. That is not to say that Bowdoin provides an education based solely or merely on the development of skills, rather that we emphasize an accumulation of knowledge acquired with the judgment and reasoning necessary to consider, evaluate and understand important and difficult concepts and constructs thoughtfully and responsibly.
William J. Cronon described the qualities of a liberally educated person in a 1998 article in American Scholar as if he had spent time with the members of this Class of 2003. To paraphrase Cronon: Bowdoin students know how to listen and to hear. Our students read and understand. They have the ability to read critically and analytically. They can talk with anyone and write clearly, persuasively and movingly. Bowdoin students can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems - quantitatively and qualitatively. They understand how to get things done. They practice respect, humility, tolerance and self-criticism and they understand how to nurture and empower the people around them.
James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth College, implores college and university presidents to expound on the value of liberal education because, he says, "...in the end, the cause of liberal education - the cause of well-educated men and women - is one of America's best hopes for establishing a more humane democracy."
Writing in his recent book Liberal Education and the Public Interest, Freedman notes "...liberal education urges upon us a reflectiveness, a tentativeness, a humility, a hospitality to other points of view, a carefulness to be open to correction and new insight, that can mitigate the tendencies toward polarity, rigidity and intolerance."
"Liberal education," he continues, "impresses upon students [and upon all of us] that one of the most important words in the English language is 'perhaps'."
I suggest that this is not the perhaps of a confused or bewildered citizen - but rather the perhaps of a nuanced thoughtful and responsible citizen ready to consider the merits of all sides of an issue, but also prepared to consider how the issue should be decided based on the traditions of service to the Common Good and the lessons learned as a liberally educated person.
This, my friends, is the essence of Bowdoin College - a college dedicated to the tradition of liberal education - and to enabling an informed and able citizenry.
And so, I suggest that the mystery of how this small college in Maine creates so many leaders is really not mystery at all. For those with the inclination to lead - either born or developed - the traditions of Liberal Education and service to the Common Good are, perhaps, the catalysts of this remarkable legacy of leadership. For future generations, may Bowdoin's commitment to these traditions remain strong and resolute.
Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty. Thank you all for your dedication to our students and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you this Fall.
To our graduating seniors, I wish you all the best as you leave Brunswick to begin the next phase of your promising lives. Some of you may not yet know what you'll be doing next month or next year. But I know and your professors know that in earning a degree at Bowdoin you are well prepared for whatever comes next, and for what comes after that. The only certainty is that your lives will change and then change again. I stand before you as a college president who has morphed, many times - who used to be a corporate lawyer, and before that a biologist. No one, especially me, could have predicted such a course when I sat where you sit thirty-one years ago. And I am by no means alone. Bowdoin's alumni rolls are full of people who have moved successfully from one field of endeavor to another as the world has revealed new opportunities and offered new challenges. Each of you is prepared to succeed in the way that they have succeeded. We are proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you tomorrow on the quad - I hope! - in the morning.
Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with "The Offer of the College", those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:
"...to make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends."
To the Class of 2003 - you future poets, leaders, stateswomen and statesmen - to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come, I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.