Hanna Holborn Gray: Baccalaureate Address 2017

Hanna Holborn Gray
Baccalaureate Address. May 26, 2017.

Let me begin by congratulating you most warmly on the achievements that have brought you to this occasion. I feel very much honored to be joining the class of 2017. But there are still some hours left to get there. In the meantime, I will share with you the fact that talks like mine are deliberately scheduled to prolong the ceremonies as you become more and more impatient to receive the degrees you’ve anticipated for so long.

Once upon a time, a crusty old Vermonter, living on an island in the middle of the Connecticut River, was unexpectedly found to be living not in Vermont but on the New Hampshire side of the border between those states. The surveyors went fearfully to tell him the news, and to their relief, his reaction was entirely positive. “Well, thank the good Lord,” he said, “I didn’t think I could tolerate another of those goddamned Vermont winters.

In those far off days, the state of Vermont was a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold, and another old man named Caleb, who was lying on his deathbed, sent for the town clerk. “What can I do for you?” asked the clerk. “I want you to change my registration from Republican to Democratic,” said Caleb. “Good God,” cried the astonished clerk, “I’ve never registered one of those before, we’ve never seen one in this town’s history. Why would you do such a thing as your last act on earth?” “Better one of them should go than one of us,” was the response.

You will have noticed that both these stories are about crossing borders, moving from one state of things to another. You, too, are about to do so as another Brunswick winter lies behind you, and as you become one of them, of the alumni.

If you think you’ll escape this fate, forget it. Degrees hang on like burrs. You can’t even legally remove them. Bowdoin’s mark will remain on you forever. You will accumulate many reminders of that as you receive incessant communications of immense good will from Bowdoin. The College, you will find, is like the church that welcomes all denominations, preferably fives and tens and twenties (but in this case with zeroes attached).

You will also find, unless you are extremely careful, that Bowdoin will, perhaps as early as Sunday, fall into a lamentable decline. It is a common experience of alumni to feel that their college is not exactly what it was in their day, and that not to be the same, or the place of their memory, is to be less than before. I urge you to avoid this trap and to remember that it is in is the nature of living institutions not to ossify, but to change and adapt. Your question should be whether Bowdoin has remained faithful to its ethos and in doing so, has maintained the defining goals and spirit for which you care, even while assimilating those to sometimes new ways. Your commitment to the fundamental ideals of the College and to their ongoing vitality should make you advocates for the best in liberal education in a larger society that needs to hear and support that.

You will in fact remain citizens of a community that extends well beyond the borders of this campus. You will, I hope, remain identifiable not by some doctrine or dogma but by your continuing willingness to take seriously, and to practice, independence in thought and judgment. I hope that you not simply conform to the expected, not simply capitulate to the merely fashionable or currently correct, not adopt unthinking, if common, opinion, but chart a course that is your own. I hope that you will do the hard work of confronting complexity and support your positions without arrogance, open to other ways and ideas. I hope you will be open also to a sense of the absurd, to a delight in the human comedy. I hope you will care more deeply for wisdom than for expertise, and I hope that you will not neglect that powerful heritage of the past that speaks recurrently to our understanding of the present and draws us into a larger world of thought and experience.

Robert Frost once said, “Education doesn’t change life much. It just lifts trouble to a higher plane of regard.” Education is not, of course, meant to make us comfortable, nor is the freedom to which it aspires. It would be a lot easier not to think or take into account new or different or unsettling ways of what we may have taken conveniently for granted. It might be easier, too, to evade the pain of making decisions and choices and withdraw into some state of being in which all thought and all options were forever open. But that way brings the loss of a genuine or true freedom.

The word freedom, as you know, has many connotations. It can mean freedom from—as in freedom from hunger or freedom from poverty. And there are lot of people in this arena today who are about to experience and wonderful freedom, and that’s freedom from writing very large tuition checks. It can mean freedom to—the freedom of your children to approach and say they’ve decided to go to graduate school. It can mean freedom of positive choice or freedom to reject what is offered to you or what you were pressured to do, to reject going to graduate school perhaps. It can mean of course political liberty or freedom before law, freedom of thought and expression or academic freedom, and so on. The term liberal education has at its roots an idea of freedom. In the world of ancient Rome, the liberal arts referred to the studies appropriate for the free man as opposed to the slave, but in modern times it has become a metaphor for freeing the mind, whether from the tyranny of unquestioned assumptions or from coercively imposed beliefs, in order to assert the freedom to think for oneself in a disciplined and informed manner.

In presuming to express my hopes for you, I hope above all that you have gained, and will continue to cultivate, the freedoms attached to a liberal education and will have been enabled to follow where they lead. There is I know, a tendency to think that any choice you make now about the future will determine your life completely and forever, and you may be feeling a little hesitant right now about committing to what may seem so limiting or so final. But it’s not final, I assure you, and although I could go on preaching this forever without much effect, since it is ultimately something you won’t quite accept until you learn it from your own experience, it is simply true that while some choices may close others, the more important outcome is that each choice opens new and entirely unexpected and unforeseen other ones. The freedom to remain open to that, to allow yourself to grow and learn and embrace new opportunities, is very great and, I can assure you, very fulfilling.

It is now, I believe, my duty to help send you off to the world with a few enduring and inspirational thoughts. Here they are, in a teaching by the well-known philosopher Pete Seeger:

Do you know,” he asked, “the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print.  Experience is what happens when you don’t.”

So remember this, all you graduates, as you proceed through a life inevitably filled with a great deal of small print, and remember, too, your citizenship in this community of learning.

Warmest congratulations again to every one of you, and the very best of luck!

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