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2014 Honors Day Address by Robert Sobak Archives

Bowdoin College held its 18th annual Honors Day ceremony on May 7 in Kanbar Auditorium, Studzinski Recital Hall, to recognize the academic achievements of Bowdoin students and faculty. Assistant Professor of Classics Robert Sobak, recipient of the 2013 Sydney B. Karofsky Prize for Junior Faculty, delivered the Honors Day Address:

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Thank you, President Mills and Dean Judd, for inviting me to offer these brief remarks. But most all, congratulations to all of you – students, staff, faculty, and parents alike. For today is a celebration not only of individual achievements, but also of collective mentorship and guidance. And it is both individual and collective excellence that I wish to touch upon tonight, naturally with reference to both ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

First, the Romans. I hate to disappoint you, but I am not going to tell you tales of incest, gladiatorial mayhem, or the appointment of farm animals to high office. I am simply going to mention one custom from a Roman Honors Day, of sorts. The Roman Triumph, where a victorious general, preceded by his army, displaying the spoils of war, bedecked like a God, was paraded through the cheering crowds of the Eternal City. And while this happened a slave stood behind him on the chariot, occasionally whispering in his ear, “Remember, you are mortal!” So, as each of you students stride forth to accept your award, and to bask in the well-deserved applause of this adoring audience, do not forget that you, too, are human. Except, of course, those students earning awards in Latin and Greek. You are at least demi-Gods.

So much for the Romans, now what about the Greeks? Here I confess that I am really talking about Classical Athens, where Democracy was invented. I focus on Democratic Athens because I think it offers us a useful historical model through which to think about education, decision-making, and leadership in our own lives. How so? Well, in order to get to Athens let us first re-imagine Bowdoin. That is, a Bowdoin community where all types of decision-making positions – student, staff, and faculty – are neither appointed nor elected, but instead assigned by lottery, each year, to a different person. Except, however, for a very few jobs elected by popular vote. These are ones that we might think require a particular kind of competence. Like the Director of Safety and Security, Chair of the Economics Department, Head Proctor in Appleton, Dean of Students, Editor of the Orient, Head Chefs in Moulton and Thorne, the President…

Barry? What do you think? Should the next Bowdoin President be elected, appointed, or drawn out of a hat? [President Mills shouts from the audience: “Drawn out of a hat!”]

You laugh now, dear audience. But is each of you ready and able to follow in Barry’s footsteps next year should your draft number come up? Sobering isn’t it? For knowing that any year we may have to serve in a position demanding difficult decisions of us, decisions which directly impact the community we love, should train us to be both sympathetic and empathetic to those who happen to lead at any given time. And of course, under this system, as Barry rotates out of his Presidency, and becomes eligible to stand for election, we shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself voted unanimously to serve as Head Proctor in Appleton Hall next year. And finally, what about the big, thorny decisions about the future of the college and how to preserve and build its resources long-term? These will be determined by popular vote at a monthly assembly of every single member of the Bowdoin community. Under this system I suspect you students might finally get your week-long Thanksgiving break!

I know all of this sounds nuts, but I am only partially joking. For this is how the Athenian Democracy functioned. Ninety-eight percent of all public offices and duties were randomly assigned, annually, without regard to wealth, status, or expertise. It was a radical system that strongly affirmed the ability of common people to do pretty much anything demanded of them, at any time. Moreover, the truly momentous and complicated decisions, about whether to go to war, or how to invest state revenues, these were made by the assembled citizens, thousands of them at a time, collectively. It seems like a recipe for disaster, and mistakes were made. But under the Demokratia, the Power of the People, Athens flourished. While a Democracy she became the most powerful and most successful of any Greek state. Athens excelled in a highly competitive environment, one in which failure meant not a loss of market share, but the destruction of one’s community, and the death or enslavement of oneself and one’s family.

The growth of Athenian power strongly suggests that, put simply, Democracy worked. Ultimately, that is the truest test of a decision-making mechanism. Does it operate more successfully than competing mechanisms over time? This is not to say that traditional defenses of Democracy – legitimacy, fairness, and stability – are not important. But recent work by computer scientists, economists, political theorists, and philosophers is beginning to offer a new defense of Democracy, a defense that maps on well to our historical data from Athens – that is, a random selection of decision makers, so long as the group is large enough, and so long as they interact in an environment marked by free-speech and vigorous dissent, are better at solving truly complicated problems than a group of expert decision makers. By complicated I mean problems that seem truly opaque. This quality of problem was most pithily described by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in February of 2002, during the lead-up to the Iraq War.

“There are known knowns – there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns – that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Rumsfeld has been unfairly criticized for this language, but it nicely captures a clear ordering of epistemological difficulty facing any individual or organization. And in fact it is Rumsfeld’s third category, the unknown unknowns, that research has shown large groups of diverse decision-makers are best at tackling. We don’t always need the so-called best and the brightest, sometimes we need the wisdom of the crowd.

The crowd excels at this because large, randomly selected, groups maximize the cognitive diversity available to those making decisions. Cognitive diversity is a package of things: diversity of perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and predictive models. This is the scholarship I love to have my students wrestle with, as it is profoundly counter-intuitive and thought-proving, and it is important for them to understand: for the purpose of solving complex problems a group’s cognitive diversity is more important than its average competency. Or, as Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan puts it, Diversity Trumps Ability. Thus, modern research in diverse fields shows that the Athenians seem to have installed and then refined a system that best harnessed their collective citizen brainpower. Even so, they severely limited their potential because they had an exclusive definition of governing citizenship – no women and no immigrants, for example. They made themselves less cognitively diverse than they might have been, and therefore made their citizen community less intelligent than it might have been.

Thought experiments aside, what does this have to do with us? Government by lottery is less likely than Barry Mills as Head Proctor of Appleton next year. Well, if we think of a liberal arts education as a holistic experience aimed partially, at least, at producing individuals, and over time groups, best capable of tackling the unknown unknowns in their own lives, and in the lives of whatever organizations they serve, then we have a pragmatic, outcome-oriented defense of the Bowdoin curriculum, and an exhortation for the continued expansion of access to this curriculum. Not only for reasons of fairness, or social justice, but simply because these things improve us all in useful, hard-edged ways. Aristotle observed that Democracy teaches people to rule and to be ruled in turn. So too do we all, students, staff, and faculty alike, teach and are taught in turn. And here again, diversity is key. For we professors learn as much from our students as we teach them. Our students learn as much from each other as from us. Lest we, and our community as a whole, grow rather dull over time, we need interaction with as broad an array of interlocutors as possible.

The same goes for what we teach. Some might find it ironic that it is in Classical Athens, the place out of which so many of our notions of what a traditional liberal arts education entails arose, where I find evidence for what some may think is an undermining of that tradition. I see it instead as striving to both honor and fulfill it. The study and understanding of Democratic Athens, which itself produced Plato’s Republic, an amazing re-imagining of its own community, teaches us that we must not only meet each other over the words of Sophocles and Thucydides, but we must also learn about each other in the company of cliché-defying Berlin prostitutes and Native Americans. For they, like Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy, offer us windows into diverse perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and predictive models.

As any ecologist will tell you, monocultures are unstable and dangerous. Not to mention just plain boring. So let us carefully cultivate our intellectual gardens to the best of our ability. Let them flourish in such way that they become eclectic, adaptable, and queer. For in sowing and cultivating diversity over time, we, as well as those who follow us, will harvest a greater bounty of knowledge and wisdom.

Finally, I’ve spoken of the past and the present, but what of the future? Students, consider the pragmatism of your Bowdoin education. The fact that you have chosen to pursue not one thing in particular means that you will be able to do anything in general. But perhaps most importantly, when you find yourselves in positions of leadership and decision-making, show humility regarding your own abilities, and respect for the abilities of others, no matter where they might stand as far as wealth, status, or educational background. Consider carefully the opinions of others, encourage those around you to express respectful dissent, and inculcate as a virtue what Plato regarded as one of the worst vices of a Democrat, the delegation of authority. And so, appropriately enough, after Athens we find ourselves back at Rome, humbled, and reminded that no matter what our own talents and abilities, we remain merely human, fallible, and reliant upon the collective energies and intellects of our community in order to flourish as individuals. So accept this much-deserved praise and recognition, thank all of those with whom you have learned, and be prepared, from this day forward, to teach and be taught in turn.