September 3, 2008
Good afternoon. It is my honor to preside at the official opening of the 207th academic year of Bowdoin College.
Today, I am very pleased to welcome our faculty, staff, students, and friends to this traditional ceremony, and to offer a particular welcome to the members of the Class of 2012. We are delighted that so many members of our impressive first-year class have come to celebrate with us. We know you will make important and lasting contributions to Bowdoin over the next four years and beyond.
It is my practice to focus my remarks at Convocation – as well as those delivered during Baccalaureate in the spring – on issues and ideas of importance to the College.
In the recent past I have discussed academic freedom at Bowdoin, our sustainability initiatives, the fundamental importance of our financial aid program to the future of the College, and how construction and renovation on campus has been in support of our academic program – the core of our mission as a college.
On this last point, I am very pleased to celebrate with you the re-opening of the newly renovated and much-improved Adams Hall, and to ask for your patience as we complete a new fitness, health, and wellness center over the course of the next year.
Today, as we welcome the Class of 2012, I want to underscore the long-held belief on this campus that a Bowdoin education is, at its best, used by those who attain it in service to the common good, and to speak about an issue this College has chosen to focus on this fall—the issue of social and economic class in America.
In a letter to our first-year students this fall, Craig McEwen, our professor, former dean, and senior faculty fellow in the soon-to-open McKeen Center for the Common Good, writes that social class has been largely unspoken and invisible in our national discussion. This is certainly true, except every four years when we have a national election.
During a presidential campaign, class is often at the very heart of the contest. Which of the candidates appeals to the vast middle class? Which one is more in touch with working class values and understands best the struggles of the poor?
This political season, we are being reminded constantly in the media about the candidates raised by single moms and the scrappy kid from Scranton who still rides the Amtrak train home from Washington nearly every night. We have been told about the “average hockey mom” who once ran the PTA, and about the war hero taking on special interests and closing loopholes on behalf of working Americans. Clearly, social class has political currency. It is the currency of the American Dream.
We have learned to expect and to endure the rhetoric in politics, and to maintain the hope that this time, when the election is over, the political pragmatism of both parties translates into national policy that actually better enables the American Dream.
While politicians draw attention to class as a matter of election strategy, we at Bowdoin choose to focus on the issue of class because of the educational value inherent in such a discussion, and because we seek to create a stronger residential community at the College. We do so knowing that these are hard conversations and lessons not easily learned.
This summer, an article appeared on my desk in the journal The American Scholar—a periodical published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” the piece was written by William Deresiewicz, an associate professor of English at Yale from 1998 until 2008.
The article begins this way:
“It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on a conversation with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to a man who was standing in my own house.”
Now, I do have some sympathy for Mr. Deresiewicz and share his incapacity in one profound way: I often find it impossible to communicate with people wearing Red Sox caps. This isn’t a deficiency in their education or mine—it is just a geography and baseball thing for me.
Deresiewicz goes on: “…the first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.” He further contends that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth – based solely on GPAs, SATs, and GREs – and that a strong intellect translates into a sense of entitlement. He writes that an elite education ushers you swiftly into the upper class and that it trains you – not in positive ways – for the life you will lead once you get there. For Deresiewicz, elite education breeds a false sense of security and an unwillingness to take chances. And his most damning contention is that our educational institutions are intended to reinforce social class.
These arguments are certainly provocative, but most depressing to me is the author’s own sense of isolation from those not part of his “academy.”
For anyone here today who may feel similarly, let me remind you where we are. In Maine, the plumber in your kitchen may very well live across the street or next door, while the smelt fisherman you meet on the town dock could have a PhD. There’s not much use here for pretense.
My guess is that despite the author’s attempt to lay all this at the doorstep of his education and his environment at an “elite university,” there is probably much, much more to his unfortunate predicament.
That said, as an educational institution, we are obliged to consider Deresiewicz’s indictment and the problems he identifies, despite the fact that it is unlikely that we are solely or even substantially responsible for them.
Those associated with this college know well President Joseph McKeen’s words delivered at his inauguration in 1802: “…literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.” This is our canon, yet there will be some among us who may see a ray of truth in the Deresiweciz view of Bowdoin over its long history.
Maybe so, and historians will chart that past. But my sense, from visiting with thousands of alumni over the past seven years, is that the sons and daughters of Bowdoin are good people with enduring values; women and men who are intellectually engaged and able to “cooperate with others for common ends” to achieve important results for their communities, their country, and the world.
So I find it very difficult to believe that a Bowdoin graduate struggles with the problems Deresiweciz describes. When the plumber shows up, offer her a cup of coffee!
For those of us at Bowdoin today, as we think about what we can effect, our challenge is to live up to McKeen’s ideal of service to the common good and to continue this hard and sometimes uncomfortable conversation about class in America.
We are first and always about education, and the selection of the first-year book to begin the education and discussion of this issue is an important first step for the class of 2012. We chose this book – Class Matters, by correspondents of The New York Times – not to make anyone feel personally at risk or unwelcome at Bowdoin, but to send a message and to commence an important conversation at the outset.
We are intentional about the exploration of these issues as part of our curriculum and academic program, though not in a coercive way. While we have a distribution requirement that all students take at least one course that examines social difference, none of this is force-fed. These are subjects that our faculty wants to teach and that students want to study. That’s why we have first-year seminars and many courses that examine the issues of class. The ongoing task, as we continue to examine the success of our distribution requirements, is for our faculty to consider whether we are achieving our goals of creating course work for students that covers these issues in ways that are rigorous, intellectual, and challenging.
We must do so because class is not extracurricular to our academic endeavor. These issues are centrally addressed in the modern scholarship of politics, economics, history, philosophy, sociology, the arts, and throughout the humanities and social sciences. They are a part of our interdisciplinary world and considered in our study of the sciences and the environment.
Additionally, the issues of class are ripe for discussion within the life of our residential community – in residence halls, clubs, student activities, and on the playing fields. Our conception of Bowdoin today is that of a college that seeks to create opportunity for all regardless of difference, while at the same time celebrating and respecting the values and principles inherent in our differences. That’s why we encourage members of our community to find out about their neighbors, their teammates, their colleagues – to really find out who they are, where they come from, and what they are about; to learn from others, and also to teach them.
I happen to be a strong believer in the American Dream. I believe in my bones that our ability to support students from a variety of financial backgrounds is directly related to our mission as a college. I know from experience that we change lives, that these lives change families, and that these families change communities.
Yet, in a macro sense, our first-year book, Class Matters, proves to us that the American Dream is elusive for too many, and that the concept is confounded by the reality of America today.
David Shipler, in his book The Working Poor, writes about the American Dream as both the myth and the anti-myth. “The American Myth,” as Shipler describes it (and as documented empirically in the book Class Matters), is the belief that any individual – even those from the humblest of origins – can climb to well being. In a collective sense this concept of class mobility has been demonstrated as a truly problematic concept.
And then there is “The Anti-Myth” that holds society largely responsible for an individual’s poverty, concluding that “the individual is a victim of great forces beyond his control…” At the core of “The Anti-Myth” is the power of the individual to overcome the societal forces when provided opportunity.
This connects us back to Bowdoin. At Bowdoin, we now create opportunity for faculty, students and staff of all classes and all races. The educational opportunities are limitless, and the financial resources and the support systems for success are widely available, even as we seek daily to enhance those resources. With the opening of this academic year, we have now replaced loans with grants for all students on financial aid. Our model is to bring together students of great promise from all backgrounds in order that they may learn on our campus for their own benefit and they are able to contribute to the education of each other; so that unlike Deresiewicz, each of us will be comfortable and experienced “in talking to people who aren’t like us.” After all, the “Offer of the College” – “...to be at home in all lands and all ages” – is hardly about geography or time travel.
For Bowdoin it is a question of the individual in a collective endeavor; what will we each do to participate, support, and enhance this educational enterprise to create opportunities for ourselves as individuals and as a college.
For us it is participation in a residential community that seeks to understand difference while we also celebrate difference.
For us, it is our sense that we should be a community in the broadest sense committed to the values set forth by our founders in support of the Common Good.
Simply, as individuals at Bowdoin – whether or not we come from privilege – we are among the privileged few who are able to benefit from this place. For us then, there is the responsibility as individuals to create collectively an educational and residential environment that supports our mission: a mission that recognizes that the American Dream is to live life as a life-long learner committed to creating a better, fairer, more generous place for all in our society.
I now declare the College to be in session. May it be a year of peace, health, success, and inspiration for us all, and a recommitment to our most important tradition – teaching and learning together.