October 17, 2015
Clayton S. Rose
Why We Are Here
Thank you, all.
Recently, the former president of a great university offered me a piece of advice about my inaugural address. He said, “take a moment and soak in the applause when you’re introduced . . . because the next time you hear applause like that is when you announce you are stepping down.”
Thank you, Debbie.
This is a very special day for Bowdoin College, where we acknowledge our history, celebrate our present, and consider the exciting possibilities ahead.
Let me begin by offering my thanks to a number of people.
First, thank you to my faculty colleagues, our devoted staff, and Bowdoin’s remarkable students, as well as Bowdoin’s trustees, trustee emeriti, alumni, and parents for your welcome, support, and encouragement. And to the Brunswick community, for the gracious and warm welcome that you have accorded Julianne and me.
Thank you, Tom. And thank you to Bob for you invocation, and to Thomas, Bill, Sarah, George, and Hanna for your greetings. Thank you as well to George Lopez and our stellar Bowdoin Orchestra.
And many thanks to the Inauguration Committee, chaired by Rick Ganong, and the amazing staff for your tireless work.
To my colleagues in the Maine higher education community – David Greene, Ron Cantor, Laurie Lachance, Kate Foster, Matthew Auer, Danielle Conway, and Patricia Bixel – welcome. We are so pleased you are here.
Thank you to our panelists yesterday: Camille Charles, Bro Adams, Adam Weinberg, and Mary Lou Zeeman…and the moderator, Jen Scanlon. It was an amazing discussion. And, on a personal note, I am so delighted that Camille is here. She was central to my studies and research on my doctorate at Penn. I learned so much from her. She is a role model for me in her scholarship and work with her students.
And many thanks to Ken Chenault, Ruthie Davis, Shelley Hearne, and Senator George Mitchell, and to moderator Andy Serwer – amazing alumni, with amazing journeys, who have made a difference on their terms, and all of whom mean so much to Bowdoin.
And to Hanna Gray – thank you. For your keynote yesterday and your welcome this morning. I have known Hanna since I was in college. I won’t do the math on how long ago that was, but I will say I had hair then, lots of hair. As I noted yesterday, Hanna is one of the truly remarkable American educators, and one of the truly remarkable people I have the privilege to know. More importantly, and quite selfishly, is that she has been a mentor, cheerleader, colleague and great friend for many, many years. That you are here to celebrate with us Hanna means everything to me.
I would also like us to recognize my two most recent predecessors and their partners at Bowdoin, Bob and Blythe Edwards, and Barry and Karen Mills. Their work, through thick and thin, over a combined twenty-five years has led to the profoundly strong College we know today. For all of us, thank you.
Julianne and I are also so happy to see so many wonderful friends from so many parts of our lives who have journeyed here to mid-coast Maine to help Bowdoin celebrate today.
Finally, I want to thank my family, for everything they have done for me over so many years: Julianne’s sister, Mary Kate, and her husband Herb, who are also Bowdoin parents; her brother, Ted, and his wife, Holly, and my niece, Katie; my brother, Tyler, and his wife, Janet; our two sons, Garett and Jordan, and our amazing daughter-in-law, Meredith. We are so proud of you. My mother, Carma, is here, which is fantastic — thank you, mom. My father died many years ago. I miss him, and I know he is with us today. And finally, thank you, Julianne. You have been an amazing partner for over thirty-five years.
A few weeks ago at Convocation I addressed how we will consider our future – the imperative that we change and the exhilarating opportunity we have, to a large degree, to shape our destiny. We will be bold and deeply ambitious; we will continue to place a premium on intellectual excellence in our learning, teaching and scholarship; and we will remain true to what makes Bowdoin special. As we examine the possibilities, we will naturally address the shape of our curriculum, the size of our College, the use and effect of technology; and the imperative that we continue to offer great, need-blind financial aid. This is work we will do together. And this work will be in service of remaining a preeminent, deeply relevant, and very special liberal arts college.
Yesterday’s symposium was a discussion about the power and value of the liberal arts, and in particular Bowdoin’s liberal arts education. The insights we gleaned were fascinating, inspiring, and reaffirming of the work ahead.
What I want to discuss with you today, the title of my remarks is, “Why we are here.” Why we are here at Bowdoin, as faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, and town neighbors, in service of this kind of education. I want to address this in two ways. First, by adding to the edges of yesterday’s sessions and offering my view on why a liberal education is so important. Second, by speaking to two issues that have been much in the news lately. The first is the thoroughly misguided notion that the value of a liberal arts education should be measured by looking at salaries. The second is the threat to intellectual discourse and discovery that comes from within, and that strikes at the core of our intellectual mission. I speak to these issues not be defensive — quite the contrary — but because in revealing them as wrongheaded we see and reaffirm what is special and profound and valuable about what we do at Bowdoin.
Let me start by describing the unique power and transformational potential of a liberal arts education; why we are so enthusiastic about our future.
At its core, a liberal arts education is about understanding. Not understanding facts and figures for their own sake, but through the immersion into the questions and issues of many disciplines we better understand who we are and how we came to be who we are – physically, historically, socially, spiritually, and so forth. And we develop the capability to understand new questions and issues throughout our lives. It is about diving deep enough into an area to understand the cutting edge, and finding always that there is much yet to know. It is about developing an appreciation for and facility with analytical tools – quantitative and qualitative – to better consider data, questions, and ideas. And it is about the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. In particular, to develop a facility with the written word, not simply because of its power to persuade, but because it is a specific and important way of thinking – of understanding ideas clearly.
A liberal arts education also develops the capability and the disposition to question what we hear, read, and see, to both understand what we do not know but as importantly to test what we think we do know – to make our ideas stronger, or challenge us to adjust them. It is about being respectfully and persistently skeptical.
A liberal arts education regularly surprises us. We learn new things, some of which should “blow our minds” a bit. We see we are capable of pushing ourselves and accomplishing a great deal. And we find passions we had never considered, which in some cases will affect the course of our lives.
This education offers us the chance to fail and to develop resilience. To push ourselves and stretch outside of what we know, to develop the capability to pick ourselves up and the confidence that we can stretch further. We also learn that there are others around to help, and that reaching out can be the right thing to do.
All of this changes us, profoundly, and that’s the point. We emerge from four years here better able to participate in our chosen communities, with a better understanding of how our values should shape our obligations, more capable of evaluating issues, more willing to engage, and better equipped to lead.
We understand ourselves, others, and the world better. We will be more curious and better able to learn. We will be more critical thinkers, seek precision and facts, and be more comfortable with ambiguity and nuance.
This is a powerful transformative process, one that offers profound value, and this is why we are here.
Sadly, there has been an effort by some to reduce the value of this education to salaries. Obviously, making a living is important. And the good news is that empirical evidence is crystal clear on this point – those with liberal arts degrees, of all sorts – in science, math, humanities, and social science – can do just fine. And this narrow focus on pay is misguided. The understanding, the ability to question, the chance to fail, to develop resilience – the skills of critical thinking, analysis, communication and ongoing learning – all of these things offer us much.
First, this education changes and shapes us as human beings, allowing us to better comprehend ourselves, our world, and our place in it, and to continue to learn and grow. It is an education — to paraphrase Plato — that leads to the examined life, one that will be richer, more fulfilling, and happier.
It is an education that allows us to be engaged and informed citizens. To have the ability to evaluate issues and develop a point of view, to engage in constructive discussion, to make our case with data and facts, and with thoughtful rhetoric. This education encourages us to give back; at our college we are grounded in Joseph McKeen’s idea of the Common Good.
And, of course, this education also has professional value. The ability to think critically, analyze, decide, communicate, and learn are essential skills for careers in the modern economy, more valuable today than they have ever been before. And it matters not if you major in art history, classics, government, biochemistry, or economics, to name a few. Our graduates, distant and recent, are doing amazing things in all fields — there are many where you would never guess their professional focus from their course of study here.
More importantly, and virtually lost in the discussion, is that a liberal arts education gives us the opportunity to understand better the work that we should pursue, what it is we will be passionate about. This point is key. This education provides us with the insights into who we are, which in turn leads us over our lives to work that can be deeply satisfying, and with the opportunity to make a difference.
Measuring value by which school or which major leads to the highest salary is, to be charitable, deeply misguided. Value comes from an education that makes it possible for each of us to learn what it is we really want to do – for those who yearn to teach to find teaching, for those who want to build businesses to become entrepreneurs, or for those pulled to the arts, or called to heal, or who desire to shape public policy, among many examples, to find their careers.
A liberal arts education, regardless of a particular field of study, will prepare us well for the jobs we will have. But more importantly, it will give us the best chance of finding the jobs we will be passionate about, with a direct and powerful effect on professional satisfaction and success.
This is real value, and this is why we are here.
Let me turn now to a more insidious issue facing the liberal arts and higher education: the threat to free and robust intellectual discourse. At Bowdoin we have a culture where we treat one another with kindness, warmth, and respect. This is special and wonderful and right. Ours is a place where we are sheltered from much of the angst and struggle of the “real world.” Bowdoin is a comfortable and safe place. And this is as it should be: it should be comfortable and safe enough to allow us to engage in our core mission of full-throated intellectual discovery and discourse – which is most decidedly uncomfortable and unsafe.
At the welcome for the first-year students on the museum steps a few weeks ago, I said to them:
At its core, a liberal arts education and intellectual experience is about being uncomfortable, and at times even rattled. It is more about the questions than answers, about challenging deeply held views, and pushing ourselves to comprehend new material, and consider material that shakes us up. A great liberal arts education is not easy; by its nature it cannot be. But it will be deeply rewarding, and it will set you on a path to ambitiously engage the world, to continue learning, to confront hard problems, and to enjoy success. . . .If you think the same way, and think about the same things in the same way four years from now, something has gone wrong.
By its nature, the intellectual engagement at Bowdoin must be unsafe. So what do I mean, “unsafe?” As I said on the museum steps, every idea, issue, belief must be open to discussion, examination, and debate. To do less, to restrict what is acceptable in intellectual discourse in our classrooms, dorms, dining halls, all across Bowdoin, diminishes our education. It shortchanges our ability to understand essential issues about ourselves and the world, to wrestle with these issues, and to develop and refine our views.
We must be open to — in fact we must invite — views that are different from ours. We not only must listen to them, but we must engage them. It is through the debate and discussion of opposing ideas and engagement with uncomfortable issues, through pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, that we really test how we think and what we think – either validating our views or revealing the flaws that then send us back for more work. Moreover, as I said to the first-year students and again at convocation, we must be unafraid of language or ideas that are disturbing and deeply unsettling. We must be willing to wade deeply into all manner of texts, films, and art, among other means of intellectual discourse, particularly the ones that challenge us in some fundamental way.
It is only through this engagement with the most uncomfortable and difficult ideas that we can understand ourselves, our history, and understand the issues and challenges embedded in the hardest, fiercest problems we face today – natural, social, political, and economic. Addressing and confronting these problems requires individuals who are unafraid, who have honed their intellectual skills and are prepared to engage in the debate. If we are to tackle these tough problems, we must be willing to engage with those we disagree with in the strongest terms possible, whose ideas may offend us, and where we may have a deep emotional reaction. We cannot respond by turning away, rather we need to confront and dig in, figure out what is flawed, incomplete, or wrong. We solve the hardest problems and defeat bad ideas, not by withdrawing, but with well-honed logic, data, analysis, and rhetoric.
President Obama weighed in on this issue last month in remarks at a high school in Des Moines, Iowa. He made the point that college is a place where “a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time people learn from each other. . . .They are getting out of their own narrow point of view.” The president went on to say, in strong terms, we cannot allow our emotional reactions to opposing viewpoints, or to offensive language or ideas, cut us off from essential learning opportunities.
In my remarks to the first-year students I turned to The Offer of the College, a remarkable description of the power of a liberal arts education. I also referred to remarks made by Bob Edwards at an earlier time; that “The Offer” is just that, an offer — something for us to take up. Taking up “The Offer,” — realizing its promise — requires us to be intellectually courageous, and to exercise a willingness to step into unsafe intellectual territory and to be deeply uncomfortable down to our core.
This is why we are here.
We are here today to celebrate the promise of a Bowdoin liberal arts education, as preparation for a life of self-discovery, deep meaning, of understanding ourselves, of open mindedness, objectivity and of serious and analytical inquiry. It is the promise of courageous engagement in civic life and with our toughest problems. We are here because a Bowdoin liberal arts education holds the promise of changing individuals and the world in profound ways.
I am so very honored, humbled, and excited to be Bowdoin’s fifteenth president.