The College’s annual Convocation ceremony, marking the official opening of its 216th academic year, was held August 29, 2017, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. In his “Opening of the College” address, President Clayton S. Rose took the opportunity to reinforce the virtues of a liberal arts education, defending it from critics and underlining its usefulness in today’s world.
Rose referred to the myth that “students with a liberal arts education, especially in the humanities and areas of the social sciences, are disadvantaged in the job market. This myth is pervasive, but it is just that—a myth.” He went on to say that the data clearly show that liberal arts-educated students from all disciplines “do very well. They get great jobs in every industry and field of endeavor, and they are very successful at them.”
He urged students, especially the incoming first-years, to “be wary of the trap that your area of study leads directly to the work you do. They are different. A liberal arts education is not a straight line from ‘A’ to ‘B,’ it is a journey across the alphabet. Use these four years to explore, to taste from the amazing intellectual menu in front of you, to seek out, learn about, and pursue your intellectual passions.”
A liberal arts education, said Rose, is more important than ever today. “We have evolved to a most distressing place—I use that word, evolved, very deliberately—to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked, facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed.” Rose said everyone, regardless of political persuasion, should be alarmed by today’s climate: “A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect, and character are in terrifyingly short supply is a system in trouble. This is why what we do at Bowdoin matters, now more than ever.”
Dean of Student Affairs Timothy Foster used his annual “Voices from the Past” address to tell the stories behind some of the 116 buildings that make up the Bowdoin campus, “each with its own unique history and many named for people we ought to know.”
He began by talking about the Searles Science Building, “named for a women who never set foot on the campus.” Foster continued: “It’s a long and knotty story involving the California Gold Rush, railroad fortunes, San Francisco society, death, adoption, lawsuits, and ultimately the generosity and vision of Civil War General and New York attorney Thomas Hamlin Hubbard of the Class of 1857.” That’s the same Hubbard for whom another building on campus is named, not to mention the grandstand at the College football field.
The science building’s donor was Edward Searles, an interior designer who married a very rich widow some years his senior, who died shortly after they were wed. Searles was left a very wealthy man, but had to defend the will against a legal challenge from his late wife’s relatives. Hubbard was the attorney who successfully represented Searles, explained Foster, and according to one account, Hubbard persuaded his client to stump up the money for Bowdoin’s desperately needed science building as part of the compensation for his legal services. He also suggested he name it after his wife, Mary Frances Searles.
Foster also talked about the John Brown Russwurm African American Center, dedicated by President Roger Howell in 1979. Russwurm, a noted abolitionist, was a member of the Class of 1826, he said, “the third African American student to graduate from an American college or university, and the first at Bowdoin.
“Russwurm would go on to co-edit Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned and operated newspaper published in the United States.” Russwurm ended up in Africa, explained Foster, as governor of the Maryland Colony in what is today Liberia.
In concluding his speech, Foster appealed to students to take a moment to learn something about the buildings they pass through everyday. “As you do,” he said, “you will learn more about Bowdoin history and traditions, about the people who built our College, who inspire us, and who helped to make this campus of ours one of the most historic and most beautiful in America.”
This year’s Convocation address was delivered by Professor of Government Michael Franz and titled “Promoting Empiricism in the Age of Alternative Facts.” His central message was to approach political debate “with the tools of scientific inquiry,” and not to let emotion or personal opinion get in the way. “I was taught that we should form our hypotheses and study the data without regard to our own view of the outcome,” said Franz.
Franz talked about his own political activism as an undergraduate at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he and colleagues at one point staged a “sit-in” at the president’s office to protest the treatment of custodial staff on campus. When he headed to graduate school, Franz recalled his concern that the advanced study of political science would mean no more activism. “Advocating for a cause was generally seen as out of bounds. If you want to DO politics, someone told me, you are in the wrong place.”
As a professional political scientist however, Franz said he learned that the study of data is paramount, whether you wish to be a political activisit or not. “I want you to consider the role of data, evidence, and methodology as critical backdrops—as the skeletal structure—of political struggle.”
Franz urged the assembled students not to show up at a political debate armed armed only with beliefs, but also with evidence and analysis. “Before you jump into the fray,” he said, “remember this: you will become a better citizen if you ask often, ‘how do you know?’ And if you seek out the tools and foster the intellectual curiosity to collect and weigh out the evidence.”
The musical interlude was performed by violinists Anne A. McKee ’20 and Hanna S. Renedo ’18, accompanied by Beckwith Artist-in-Residence George Lopez on piano. They performed part of J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins.