2003 Baccalaureate Address

President William Adams, May 24, 2003
Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and, of course, members of the class of 2003, welcome to this Baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby's 182nd Commencement.

Standing in this place on this occasion prompts me to call attention to the tradition we continue here today. The Baccalaureate service has a very long history at Colby. Indeed, we have been gathering in this particular way for as long as students have been graduating--since 1821, to be exact.

Of course, the times have changed and so have these services. Recall that the first 87 Baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers. One can imagine their old-fashioned preoccupations, so different from our own--things like smoking, drinking, and forms of celebration. We have moved on to more contemporary and elevated issues.

And still we gather in this place and in this particular company. Faculty colleagues process in their robes; the seniors gather alone for the last time; the president rises from the pulpit to speak. So it has been for 182 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least 182 more.

"You have argued forcefully and passionately for the value of certain student traditions, in particular, and you have defended them with energy, wit, and conviction."

A part of the explanation for this continuity is the urge to say farewell in a private and elemental way. This "focused gathering"--as one of our distinguished honorary degree recipients, Clifford Geertz, might call it--of students and teachers reminds us of the substance of what these years have been about and where the most important things have happened--between students and teachers, in both formal and informal places and ways.

The president has the duty to sum up these encounters in the form of some last words about what all of it has meant. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, let me now summon my own form of goodbye, touching both on your careers at Colby and some of the things that wait for you in the wider world to which you now depart.

Regarding your history and character as a class, I take my initial cues from that essential repository of student opinion and wisdom at Colby--The Echo. Or The Smecho, as it was recently called. As you know, the Echo--or Smecho--was edited this year by one of your classmates. When he was not consulting you directly, I am sure he was intuiting your thoughts. So with that touchstone in mind, let me offer several sweeping impressions of your senior year.

First of all, I have the very strong impression that this senior class was unusually devoted to the cause of animal welfare, particularly in the context of the presidential household at Colby. Your concern is touching to members of my family--all of its members, and most especially Pedro, who has developed, I think, a special bond with the class of 2003.

Second, I have the very strong impression that the class of 2003 possessed an unusually intense fondness for the administration of the College. I was especially impressed by the deep sympathy you expressed on occasion for the hard work of making unpopular decisions, especially those involving the safety and welfare of the student body.

Third, I have the powerful sense that you are, as a class, unusually interested in and committed to the notion of tradition. You have argued forcefully and passionately for the value of certain student traditions, in particular, and you have defended them with energy, wit, and conviction.

These interests have inspired me to imagine a very special form of homage to the class of 2003. Later today, I will announce to the Board of Trustees my decision--made without any consultation, I might add--to implement an idea first proposed by my wife, Cathy Bruce, to change the school mascot from the white mule to the pot-bellied pig. A large and dynamic statue of Pedro will be erected this summer, replacing the Colby mule, and the school's athletic uniforms will be redesigned in time for the coming year. I am pleased to take this occasion to unveil the new athletic logo, which is now available on shirts and hats at the bookstore.

You have by now discerned that this is the joke edition of the Baccalaureate Address. The real address will begin shortly.

I do have one serious impression to share with you. I formed it during the senior class dinner we had together recently, and specifically as I observed your warm response to the fine talk by Professor Jeff Kasser, recipient of this year's Bassett teaching award.

You will recall that Professor Kasser's talk was at once very playful and very serious. The serious part had to do with intellectual integrity--with the meaning of real thinking about things that matter. In the course of talking about real thinking, Professor Kasser also reminded us all of the differences between deep and the superficial encounter with ideas. And he challenged you to be honest with yourselves in your reflection on your careers here--how much was deep, how much was superficial--and about the difficulties of living a life built around intellectual and moral integrity.

It was not an easy talk. In the best tradition of philosophy, it was irritating, unsettling, disturbing--in a word, challenging.

And when it was concluded, this class rose as a single body to applaud that challenge. To me, your obvious and deep appreciation was powerful evidence of your understanding of what we have been up to over the past several years. And I was very pleased and proud to be standing among you at that moment.

This last impression leads me to the second part of my farewell. Your history at Colby has indeed been rich, in both light-hearted and serious ways. But what about that next phase of life that waits for you just around the corner--the day after tomorrow? How will your Colby history connect you to that alluring thing we sometimes call the "real world." And what kind of world is it, anyway?

In answering that question, I hope you will forgive a certain amount of descriptive candor, which might sound a little gloomy at first. I will try to lift that gloom, or at least brighten it, before I am through. But in the spirit of Professor Kasser's charge, a few unflinching observations are in order.

I begin with one of the things currently most on your minds--or if it is not, it soon will be--: the job market.

"...this class rose as a single body to applaud that challenge. To me, your obvious and deep appreciation was powerful evidence of your understanding of what we have been up to over the past several years. And I was very pleased and proud to be standing among you at that moment."

You may have noticed that The New York Times--second only in my own thinking to The Echo as a source of reliable information about the world--has been recently active on this front. In an article last week, one of your colleagues at the University of North Carolina cleverly summed it up this way: "We definitely picked the wrong time to be graduating from college," she said. Writing in a Times editorial several days later, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, agreed. "This spring's college graduates are entering the worst job market in 20 years."

It's a strange and abrupt turnaround indeed from the environment that prevailed as recently as 1999, when corporations were frantically recruiting college graduates at the height of the technology and financial market bubbles and offering eye-popping starting salaries. You begin your professional journeys in a much tougher, more competitive economic environment and moment than your recent predecessors.

If the local and distant economic news is distressing in this and other ways, there is not much relief to be found on the political front. Last year I stood here and told the members of the class of 2002 that history abruptly entered and changed their lives forever on September 11. It seemed an obvious and necessary thing to say at that moment. I did not imagine then that I would be inclined to observe now that the pressure history will exert on your lives has increased in obvious and troubling ways.

What are the meaning and consequences of that pressure for you in the near and distant future? It's hard to know for sure, but it seems utterly safe to say that both the real and imagined conflicts around the globe have created a profound and durable sense of uncertainty, caution, and anxiety about the security of the world and your place in it. And they have also created an obvious, inescapable sense of connection between the local context of your lives and very distant and different people and places. Both the sense of uncertainty and the sense of dependence are likely to be with us--with you--for a long time to come. In these senses, too, the world to which you are now headed is worrisome and unsettling in a fundamental sort of way.

I could go on in this vein, but I think you get the picture. To distort just a little Shakespeare's wonderfully crystallizing phrase, ‘Timing is all'. And one would have to say that, in several senses, the timing of your appearance on the stage of world history is testing.

As you contemplate your fate in this regard--and fate is the right word for it--you might be tempted by several reactions. First, and with respect to the unsteady economy and job market, some of you will surely be tempted by a moment of regret--let's get this out in the open--that you attended a liberal arts college instead of a business or engineering school, for instance. In a parallel fashion, others among you may now question that epiphany you had in your sophomore year when you knew you were an english, philosophy or history major instead of something more "practical."

And what about that financial markets course you let go by? Or maybe you didn't let it go by, in which case you are now gloating.

As you stare at your fate in the context of the international political situation, you might have an altogether different sort of reaction. In the agonizing moments that led up to the invasion of Iraq, many of us felt--I know I did--not so much a clarity of conviction, one way or the other, about what was the right course of action, but a deep uncertainty about the meaning of the various options that were placed before us. And somewhere near the heart of that uneasiness was the feeling that we just didn't know enough, hadn't paid close enough attention, didn't have the tools to sort things out.

"Both the sense of uncertainty and the sense of dependence are likely to be with us—with you—for a long time to come. In these senses, too, the world to which you are now headed is worrisome and unsettling in a fundamental sort of way."

My point here is that coming to grips with your political fate implies a broad, multi-faceted and deeply historical view of the world, not a narrow, technical, or professional one. Which brings us to the interesting moment in which the engineering or business major begins to wonder about his or her epiphany. And the gloating now passes to those among you who can parse the difference between the Shiite and Sunni traditions of Islam, or recount the 20th century evolution of various nation states in the Middle East.

You can see where I am going, I am sure, with this line of reasoning. There is considerable tension in the sorts of intellectual demands the world is about to place on you. In that sense, the breadth and versatility of your intellectual journeys here give you remarkable advantage, at least in the realm of what it takes to be a citizen of a democratic polity in the beginning of the 21st century.

But I want to complicate this picture still further by suggesting that there is more common ground between the challenges of your professional and political circumstances than even this implies.

It's terribly seductive to imagine that there is a knowledge key, or a skill key, or a training key, to the world of work and success in that world. And in some sense, of course, there is. I want to know, for instance, that the brain surgeon hovering over me actually knows something about brains, about my brain in particular, and that she wouldn't be there without someone having trained and certified her as having the requisite knowledge to be working on my brain. So brain surgeons go to medical school, as some of you will, and they get special training and practice there.

But the correlation between knowledge, training, and careers afforded by this example is misleading in most of organizational settings and opportunities you will encounter. The economic system we must all engage, sooner or later, is indeed a knowledge-based system, as we hear so often. But precisely because of that, it is remarkably dynamic and mobile. The particular forms of technical knowledge and skill that drive the world today will, like the weather in Maine, be different shortly. So rapid change and learning are constants of our economic reality.

What does not change, or changes much more slowly, are the underlying intellectual capacities required when technical knowledge moves so quickly forward. You know what those capacities are because you have been working away at them for four years, at least: the ability to communicate clearly and powerfully, the ability to think critically and clearly about complex problems; the capacity to analyze, to criticize, to imagine, among others. And let us not forget Professor Kasser's authentic engagement with ideas, which you will find embodied everywhere--at work, in politics, and in your private lives.

I predict that you will be steadily delighted and surprised by how well and often the intellectual foundation you have built at Colby will serve you--in the exercise professional duties or in the acquisition of additional technical competencies. And this is bound to be even truer in the highly competitive and difficult environment immediately at hand.

There is one last reason for your having confidence in what you have learned here and how well it has prepared you to confront your time. It has to do with what I want to call, a bit mysteriously, I am sure, the problem of abstraction. Let me explain by way of a moment of personal illumination that I experienced last fall in your presence.

Like many of you, I had the pleasure and good fortune to see the Colby theater department's production of a fine contemporary adaptation of Euripides' great tragedy, Iphigenia. The timing of that production was eerily appropriate, coinciding as it did with the first movements of American combat forces to the borders of Iraq.

I realized two things in watching that play. First, that one of the great dangers of the way we now live is the abstraction--the distance and aridity--of the way we often come to experience and know many of the things around us. The particular and rather fabulous abstraction I was thinking of was the now archetypal image bequeathed to us by two wars in the Middle East--the view provided by a remote television camera planted in the nose of a laser-guided bomb as it speeds toward its target.

The image is both literal and figurative. In the months leading up to the war, we were tempted in many ways by the notion that war has at last become a kind of technological event, a play of machines nearly without human consequences.

Euripides knew otherwise, of course, and so did the actors and audience at Iphigenia. The truth of that drama is as salient today as it was two millennia ago, though it is harder for us to come by in the normal course of things. Even when it is necessary--and it sometimes is--war is terrifyingly concrete, demanding human sacrifice of the most serious and terrible kind.

"I want to thank you for your spirit and energy and commitment, which you have so abundantly displayed and shared with us. In your presence and accomplishment, we understand the meaning of what we do. It has been a pleasure watching."

One of the truths of the timing, in Shakespeare's sense, of your Commencement is the certain prospect of living in a world of ever more extensive and astonishing forms of technical and technological mastery and confidence. But along with that mastery and confidence comes the problem of abstraction--the soaring, removed, high-altitude view of things--that prevents from really seeing the truth of things.

It's not stretching things too much, I trust, to express the conviction that the kinds of intellectual encounters you have had here will make it easier for you to identify and ground those abstractions where they arise. Certainly it is one of the fundamental purposes of a liberal education to connect the worlds we live in, to expose the lived meaning of things, to give human scale and dimension to all of our understandings and initiatives.

You now know more about the human scale and dimension of things, I think, and not from the classroom alone. I began by reminding us of certain traditions at Colby, and I reach back to that idea to close. One of the things about our tradition that you know at this moment better than anyone is the strong sense of community with classmates and friends that your work and presence here has created. The sense of connection I hope you now feel to this place and to one another is probably as good an antidote as any to the risks of abstraction. Your memory of a certain kind of human community will return and will help build community with others in the future.

Your memory of community is also important to the College. In some very real way, Colby now belongs to you. As you consider the many claims and involvements that lie ahead of you, I trust you will find the time and inclination to be connected to alma mater. Like most institutions of private higher education, this is a place that would not exist without the steady affection, attention, and generosity of generations of alumni and friends who have cared about this place and helped it grow and thrive. They are present here today, represented by alumni and friends, Trustees prominently among them. I hope you can see yourselves in their places in not too many years ahead.

But like the other things I have mentioned, this prospect is still in front of you. This moment in the present is one of celebration, acknowledgement, appreciation. And so, on behalf of those of us who have known and worked with you, I want to thank you for your spirit and energy and commitment, which you have so abundantly displayed and shared with us. In your presence and accomplishment, we understand the meaning of what we do. It has been a pleasure watching.

Good luck to all of you, and goodbye.