June 27, 2009
Thank you Richard.
I was delighted to accept the invitation to speak with you today, particularly because of the long and meaningful relationship between the Maine Historical Society and Bowdoin College, and also because the new research library here is named for our graduate, overseer, and trustee, John Marshall Brown and his wife, Alida Carroll Brown.
I’d like to thank Mert Henry and Jane Morrell for recommending me as your speaker today. I’d also like to thank Scott Hood, Richard Lindemann and John Cross for assisting me in the preparation of the words and research for this talk.
It is a special honor to stand before you today at the home of the history of the great State of Maine — especially as I am a person "from away." Although I understand I can never become a real Mainer, I assure you that Karen and I and our boys consider Maine to be our real home — we are now even homeowners in Maine having recently acquired a house in Cundy’s Harbor. We and our boys take special pride in this State and enjoy studying its impressive and important history.
I stand before you not as a historian, but as a college president who has had a number of incarnations—college president, corporate lawyer, and once an aspiring biologist. I am now specially privileged to lead a historic college – the oldest in our state, and a place where the past and tradition play an enormous role.
Roy Greason wrote that "to walk through the Bowdoin campus is to walk through the history of American architecture." And, I would add as Earle Shettleworth knows so well, that the study of the architecture of the Bowdoin campus is a prism through which to understand and appreciate the history of our great College and in part of the history of Maine. For those interested in American history, our campus is also where "leaders in all walks of life" over more than two centuries gained an education and cemented a lifelong connection and love for Bowdoin, Brunswick, and Maine.
History and tradition play a surprisingly critical role in what I do at Bowdoin. Four years in college are but a snapshot in time, yet for alumni, those four years represent a touchstone so important and so vivid that one must tread very carefully when implementing change. Sometimes, college presidents have to learn that lesson the hard way. Change is important for all institutions as they mature and seek to improve—but it is critical in charting a course for the future that the institution understand its history and mission, for the core of the College is the measure of its importance.
Like anything, it is in finding a proper balance that defines success, and we take great pride at Bowdoin in being able to meet the challenges of higher education in the 21st century, while also preserving the heritage of our campus, the traditions that define us, and the ideals and mission first articulated by our founders.
As everyone here knows, John Adams was president of the United States when the charter for a new college in the District of Maine was signed by his cousin, Samuel Adams.
When the doors of Massachusetts Hall finally opened in 1802, Thomas Jefferson was newly in office. Ours is a college founded at the dawn of the American Republic and with a history as long as America’s. We take great pride in that fact.
The history of Bowdoin tells us that we are therefore one of the oldest colleges in America. There are few like us, and that history and uniqueness create a special responsibility for us as we strive to continue our tradition of educating young men and women in the liberal arts tradition and with a commitment to the Common Good. It is simply our historic responsibility to live up to our historic mission.
In Brunswick, we also take pride in the notion that the Civil War had – in some ways – both its beginning and conclusion in the hands of people from our town and people associated with the College.
It is not, of course, a pride in igniting that terrible conflict, but rather a deep and enduring respect for those who championed freedom and dignity for all Americans and who worked to perpetuate a government of the people, by the people, and for all of the people of the United States.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin;
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Gettysburg and Appomattox;
John Albion Andrew who, as Governor of Massachusetts, formed Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers;
Oliver Otis Howard in battle and as leader of the Freedmen’s Bureau…
All of these extraordinary people – and many more – were associated with Maine, with Brunswick, and with Bowdoin.
There was something about our state, our community, and our oldest college in those days that produced extraordinary vision and leadership, exceptional courage, and an unwavering spirit – all on behalf of a cause and a struggle played out far from our borders and even more distant from the Maine way of life.
Many visit the Bowdoin campus to enjoy our theater and dance facilities in Memorial Hall. This time of year, the building is home to the Maine State Music Theater. It doesn’t take long for those mingling in the lobby before the show or during intermission to know the true and solemn meaning of that building – why it was built in the first place and why it remains a revered spot on our campus. In this space, several bronze memorial plaques commemorate 288 Bowdoin alumni and students who fought for the Union in the Civil War. A smaller plaque lists the 18 who served the Confederacy, including Jefferson Davis who received an honorary degree from the College before the war – an honor that was never revoked.
To put these numbers in perspective, consider this: the five classes at Bowdoin during the Civil War – the classes of 1861 through 1865 – contained a total of 266 students.
It has been said that a larger percentage of Bowdoin alumni fought for the Union cause than any other college in the North. And while our friends in Hanover have made a similar claim, the undisputed fact is that patriotism, the cause of freedom, and preservation of the Union stirred the passion of people associated with Maine and with Bowdoin in ways rarely seen before or since.
One of those people was General John Marshall Brown of the Bowdoin Class of 1860.
A Civil War hero who saw action at many of the most storied and violent confrontations of that terrible conflict, John Marshall Brown was also a prominent figure in Maine politics, in business, and the cultural life of 19th century Maine. Gravely wounded in battle, he carried with him a lifelong loyalty to and concern for veterans, along with a staunch belief in the need and value of preparing young men for battle.
This conviction he shared with fellow Bowdoin graduate and his former professor, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and like Chamberlain, Brown was unwavering in his devotion to Bowdoin. For forty years, from 1867 until his death in 1907, Brown served with distinction as an overseer and trustee of the College during the presidencies of Samuel Harris, Chamberlain, and William DeWitt Hyde. And as Hyde was leading Bowdoin through its first period of profound expansion and change, Brown was at his side serving as vice president, then as president of the Board of Overseers.
It was during Brown’s service as a trustee that Hyde wrote his famous "Offer of the College," a vision for liberal education that has stood the test of time, and words that many believe to be the best mission statement for Bowdoin ever written.
So, like many of the leaders of our state in those days, Brown was very much involved in shaping what now stands as one America’s most distinguished colleges. He was also instrumental in the growth of this Society.
It must have seemed odd and perhaps presumptuous to some when the Maine Historical Society was incorporated in February 1822. After all, our state was not yet two years old. But for those present at the Society’s first meeting there was surely a sense of excitement mixed with purpose and duty.
As my predecessor Casey Sills wrote on the occasion of the Society’s centennial: "The list is a roster of names famous in the history of our state. You may find there a Mellen, a Preble, a Payson, a Wingate, a Longfellow, a King, a Lincoln, a Vaughn, a Weston, a Carey, a Robert Hallowell Gardiner, a Peleg Sprague, a Packard, an Abbott, a Williamson, a Sewall, a Shepley, and a Dana."
Nearly all of these names appear in the General Catalogue of Bowdoin College as alumni, faculty, overseers, or trustees. The first president of the Society was Governor Albion Parris, a Bowdoin overseer and trustee. He was succeeded a year later by Bowdoin’s third president, William Allen. In fact, during its first hundred years of operation, nine of the ten presidents of the Society were associated with the College as graduates, board members, or presidents. The tenth, William Willis, chose, inexplicably, to seek his education at a college down in Cambridge, but Bowdoin awarded him an honorary degree nonetheless!
I mention all of this to reaffirm the close ties between our two institutions. The first meetings of the Society were held on campus and scheduled to coincide with Bowdoin’s commencement ceremonies, and when a growing collection of books, maps, and other materials dictated the need for proper quarters, a small room in Bannister Hall was provided.
Bannister, a space adjoining the Bowdoin chapel designed originally to house Bowdoin’s growing library and picture gallery, would serve as the Society’s home until its move to Portland in 1881. By then there was need for additional space for the Society, but also a deepening sensitivity that a Society devoted to the history of all of Maine might not want to be so intertwined with a single college.
There was also, on the part of Bowdoin, a desire to recapture space intended for the College’s growing collection of art. Some, including Theophilus Walker, had been agitated that the Society’s presence caused the dispersal of important works of art across campus where they were not receiving proper care.
The College took these concerns very seriously; so seriously that it fully renovated and expanded, at great expense, the magnificent art building named for Mr. Walker by his nieces. Of course, it took us more than 125 years to do so, but better late than never!
By all measures, that move to Portland over a century ago – first suggested by John Marshall Brown – has been a tremendous success. Today, at this location and on its Web site, the Maine Historical Society serves an invaluable role in preserving our heritage and traditions while promoting the enormous value of history for those everywhere with an interest in Maine and New England.
The importance of this institution and its holdings are obvious and enduring. Here researchers, students, and anyone with an interest in Maine history and heritage can explore the past and discover much about the present. Here, we get a sense not only of the events and ideas that defined a previous era and an earlier culture, but also an appreciation for the context, values, and beliefs that brought change – both good and not so good.
Libraries such as this have a deep responsibility because they provide the critical resources necessary to understand the human condition – our achievements as well as our failures. Each generation looks for answers to different questions amid the context of their times, so no matter how old the material, or how many times a researcher has pored over it, there are always new clues to discover and new ambiguities to question. Much of what’s here is old, but many of the ideas and interpretations that flow from these books, photographs, and letters are new and frequently revealing.
Some may argue that dealing with the present and planning for the future consumes so much energy and focus that a consideration of the past is but a luxurious pastime. Certainly our world demands much of us these days, but, as I have found, there can be both comfort and critical discovery in reviewing the past.
During the last several months, we have all been dealing with a very challenging economic climate – a climate made more ominous by the loud and regular media comparisons with the Great Depression. Recently, I decided to have a look at how Bowdoin was managed during those dark days. In doing so, I encountered this passage from Sills of Bowdoin written by the noted Bowdoin professor, Herbert Ross Brown. Sills was president of the College from 1918 until 1952.
"Kenneth Sills at first was disposed to regard the market crash in October 1929, as only another periodic crisis which would mainly affect a lunatic fringe of speculators. In the next few months, however, when every brief rally was punctuated by a violent collapse, he was not entirely reassured by those who kept insisting on the soundness of the national economy. At a faculty meeting in December, he warned of future financial stringency for the College even though Maine was suffering far less than the heavy industrialized states. Department budgets, he said, would have to be cut to the bone."(Sills of Bowdoin, p.261).
"As the shadows of the Depression lengthened in the autumn of 1932, Kenneth Sills told alumni that the state of the nation compelled him to think more seriously than ever of the real purpose of the college. ‘Suppose,’ he asked on November 5, ‘that Bowdoin's funds were so far reduced that we had to cut out everything that was unessential—what would be left? One can well imagine a college run without administrative officers, a college could certainly be run without a president…. It would still be a college if there were not athletic fields… When you come right down to the bare necessities of the college you are driven to the conclusion that the college consists of those who teach and those who study together. The essential equipment can be confined to the library and the laboratory, with a few classrooms thrown in for good measure."(Sills of Bowdoin, p.264).
Now, there is no disputing the essence of what Sills was saying. Colleges like Bowdoin – at their core – are about the students, the faculty, and the tools of teaching and learning. But there was then, and there is today, much more to the residential liberal arts experience. Bowdoin alumni soon took Sills to task for the suggestion – uttered at an alumni luncheon just before a football game on Whittier Field with the University of Maine – that perhaps we could do without their beloved sport.
Sills would later say, "I suppose that intercollegiate athletics were invented to keep every college president in a state of humility. They certainly furnish more trouble than all the rest of the College put together."
He would also recount the words of Harvard President Lawrence Lowell who said: "Sometimes I wish I were the head of a penitentiary. Then I should have no trouble with parents, and none with alumni."
The daunting issues facing Casey Sills and Bowdoin three quarters of a century ago help to put our time in perspective, and they remind us of our resiliency. Bowdoin was, of course, able to survive the Depression as it had the First World War and later the other tribulations of the 20th century.
How did Sills do it? As it turns out, it was not by eliminating football or taking the drastic step of reducing Bowdoin to the basics of teachers, students, and blackboards. It was, in large measure, by maintaining morale during pessimistic times and by asking the College to come together as a community committed to each other and to Bowdoin’s mission of the College.
As he wrote in April 1933: "Despite the economic distress there is a feeling of unity when all of us – undergraduates, faculty, and working staff – are in the same boat, and realize that cheer and courage are the best sailing companions."
So, while our economic circumstances are different, and the College and our society much more complex, we at Bowdoin today have worked hard to replicate the shared sense of sacrifice and purpose described by Sills, and we have every confidence in a similar positive outcome.
As for football, while we don’t play the University of Maine any longer, you can be assured that I am in the Hubbard Grandstand for every home game!
For those of us here today, it is clear what history teaches us. But how do we teach history, and how do we continue to convince new generations of its value and substance?
Unlike other subjects that can come and go, history has always been taught at Bowdoin and will likely always draw considerable interest from our students. It is not that the history we teach today has always had a place in our curriculum – far from it.
At our founding, students would draw their history from the review of ancient literature and orations, or through the study of religion. Today, Bowdoin students choose from dozens of courses in a variety of disciplines; everything from Ancient Rome to the Making of Modern China; from the History of Sexuality to a course on Victorian Crime. History is, of course, the ultimate interdisciplinary subject – if it happened in the past, in government, science, sociology, language, art, philosophy, or any other area, it is history. Yet, not everyone agrees about what we should teach.
For example, some lament the displacement of so-called "diplomatic history" by non-traditional courses and instruction…the displacement of what some have called, pejoratively, the history of "dead white men" by the study of minority groups, workers, and other people previously missing from our history textbooks.
As we gather here today, members of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations are meeting in Falls Church, Virginia, for their annual convention. As reported recently in The New York Times, on the agenda for that meeting is whether or not to change the title of the sole journal devoted to diplomatic history at a time when traditional course offerings in history are disappearing.
But historians will tell us that the methodological center of historical studies has never been still; that the study of history changes as times change. As Lawrence Levine points out in The Opening of the American Mind, traditionalists who now champion the study of western civilization once railed against its introduction at the cost of the classical college curriculum.
The fact is that our interest in history is frequently defined by the context of our times. One generation will come to the Maine Historical Society to research one subject, while another will look equally closely at the same materials in search of something completely different. And the important part about teaching and learning history is not necessarily what we learn about a given event, person, or group, but rather, what we learn through the search.
A few years ago, the faculty at Bowdoin re-examined what it means to be educated in the liberal tradition, and issued this statement:
"A liberal education cultivates the mind and the imagination; encourages seeking after truth, meaning, and beauty; awakens an appreciation of past traditions and present challenges; fosters joy in learning and sharing that learning with others; supports taking the intellectual risks required to explore the unknown, test new ideas and enter into constructive debate; and builds the foundation for making principled judgments. It hones the capacity for critical and open intellectual inquiry – the interest in asking questions, challenging assumptions, seeking answers, and reaching conclusions supported by logic and evidence."
Nothing serves this vision more completely than the study of history, particularly today when we are assaulted constantly with opinions, arguments, and assumptions. It is not that history supplies all the answers. It is that in searching for answers we learn to live with ambiguity, to think critically, and to question.
A member of our history faculty, Patrick Rael, reminds us of the famous quote by the philosopher George Santayana who wrote that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As Patrick pointed out "…this is often misquoted as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Perhaps, but the misquote assumes that the lessons of the past are clear and agreed upon. In reality, the study of history suggests that we seldom agree upon the questions, let alone the answers."
For years to come, I am confident that this wonderful new facility at the Maine Historical Society will stand, not necessarily to provide answers but to encourage a multitude of questions about Maine and her people and traditions. In doing so, it will ensure that every generation has an opportunity to remember the past and to develop the critical habits of inquiry so necessary for our future.