President's Speeches and Remarks
Saturday, May 31, 2003
Good afternoon. It is an honor and my pleasure to represent Bowdoin College at these ceremonies and to say a few words about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on behalf of the College.
First, let me congratulate Dick Morrell and Cam Niven and the other members of the Joshua Chamberlain Memorial Committee for the vision realized by this dedication ceremony. You have done a magnificent job!
The reflected glow of Chamberlain’s rediscovered life continues to honor and promote interest in Bowdoin today. Every year I meet students whose initial interest in Bowdoin grew out of their admiration for Chamberlain. Our reputation has grown around the world because of Chamberlain. Last year I was at an event in Los Angeles and was introduced to a group of 250 people as president of Bowdoin. After the introduction, and to my surprise, a fellow from Melbourne, Australia came up and told me how excited he was to meet the president of Bowdoin because this is the home of Chamberlain – his hero. Bowdoin’s reputation is strong. Chamberlain’s legacy is renown.
The record of Joshua Chamberlain’s acts of heroism and leadership on the battlefield is familiar to us all, and there are people here today much better equipped than I to comment on his remarkable contributions to the Union, to Maine and to Brunswick. What I’d like to do is take a moment to reflect on his contributions to the College, especially because Bowdoin can trace much of its modern identity to the controversial Chamberlain presidency.
This elegant statue is a tangible symbol of the long-overdue respect and admiration this community holds for its favorite son. But it is a symbol that Chamberlain himself might not have expected, especially with the involvement and encouragement of anyone connected with the College.
Writing to a friend years after his resignation as president, Chamberlain described his twelve-year Bowdoin presidency as “thankless and wasteful.” Hardly the feelings of a man who felt appreciated, but also hardly the feelings of anyone assembled here today!
It is, of course, a cliché to say that Chamberlain was a college leader ahead of his time. But the record reflects nothing less.
In addition to his famous – and largely disastrous – attempt to institute military drill for Bowdoin students, Chamberlain as president set out to reform the College in ways that shook the floorboards over there in Massachusetts Hall.
Chamberlain took a college steeped in the traditions of a classical curriculum and urged it to consider practical and technical education. In his inaugural address he pushed the College to “…accept immediately the challenge of the times,” by placing a new emphasis on science and by replacing Greek and Latin with French and German. In the same speech, Chamberlain had the audacity to suggest that women too should “…have part in [the] high calling” represented by a Bowdoin education – an “innovation” that would take another century to materialize.
As president, Chamberlain set out to reform the strict and outdated student code of discipline. He eliminated mandatory morning and evening prayers and Saturday classes. He encouraged the faculty to be more accessible to students both inside and outside the classroom. And he established something near and dear to the hearts of each of his successors: an endowment for the College.
As Willard M. Wallace asserted in his book, The Soul of the Lion, “…the modern college dates from [Chamberlain].”
Look at Bowdoin today.
In addition to Latin and Greek, we teach French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and, of course, English. Our science faculty, programs and facilities are recognized internationally for excellence. And today at Bowdoin, half of our students are women.
Is Bowdoin today the college Chamberlain championed at his inaugural? Not exactly. We still don’t have military drill and there is little chance that this president will add that to his list of pending initiatives! But Bowdoin clearly did eventually accept many of the challenges Chamberlain described, and has continued to accept new challenges along the way with his spirit of innovation.
Abraham Lincoln, in his address at Gettysburg, predicted that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his words that day. Chamberlain might have applied a similar prediction to his own Bowdoin presidency. But in both cases, we know differently.
The dedication of this statue today, in a prominent location near the entrance of the campus, casts in stone and iron the bond between Bowdoin College and its sixth president, and underscores the respect and admiration we at Bowdoin hold for our alumnus, our professor, and our president – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.