2005 First-Year Assembly Address

President William Adams, September 6, 2005

Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and—above all else today—members of the class of 2009 and transfer and exchange students—welcome to Colby and to this assembly, the traditional and highly ceremonial start to the academic year.

Since this group is one of the largest ever enrolled at Colby, we wondered a little if we could get all of you in here. But we have, barely, and we are delighted to see you.

We can only begin to guess at the range of your future accomplishments at Colby.  That’s part of the excitement of this day for those of us who attend this forum every year.  Seeing all this potential in one place is exhilarating. 

But there is perfect certainty in the fact that, as one of the largest classes in Colby's history, you are also one of the weightiest. Making certain reasonable assumptions, I calculate your collective mass at roughly 73,600 pounds, or 36.8 tons.  This impressive collective physical attribute is matched I am sure by an equivalent mass of intellectual talent and energy.  We will make good use of these attributes in your time here.

"...as one of the largest classes in Colby's history, you are also one of the weightiest. Making certain reasonable assumptions, I calculate your collective mass at roughly 73,600 pounds, or 36.8 tons."

I mentioned the longstanding tradition of beginning the year in this way, with new students and faculty convening in this special place.  What you should also know is that we will return to this place on the eve of your graduation for the baccalaureate service, when the president and faculty bid you a private farewell.  These are the symbolic bookends, as it were, of your experience with us.  And they suggest a kind of symmetry to your Colby careers that I know you will appreciate by the time they are concluded. 

The bad news about these bookends, I suppose, is that each of them involves presidential advice—first and last words, as it were.  The good news is that I will offer you such formal advice only twice—at the beginning and at the end of your time here—and on each occasion I promise to be brief.  In between I will do my best to get to know you and to observe your accomplishments.  Please introduce yourselves as we encounter one another on the campus, and come to lunch or to my office to talk.  It’s my intention and hope to get to know each and every one of you. 

If this moment is indeed a bookend, with another to look forward to when you graduate, then what happens in between?  What is this place like, really?  What’s in the books?  What will happen to you here? What can you expect?

At the risk of misunderstanding, I want to try to answer that question by introducing you to one of the more common and somewhat vexing metaphors applied to Colby—one you will surely become aware of soon if you have not encountered it already.  It’s a metaphor that causes cringing among many of us, but it’s worth exploring as a way into what I want to say to you.   

I am referring to the metaphor of “the Colby bubble.” I first heard the term shortly after I arrived on campus more than five years ago, and I continue to hear it still.  What does it mean?  What is this bubble thing anyway?

Because it is a vaguely aquatic, let me get started on the metaphor by way of criticism, in the literary sense of the word, of that recent phenomenon of the American cinema, The SpongeBob Square Pants Movie.  I don’t want to embarrass anyone, especially my faculty colleagues, by asking how many of you have seen The SpongeBob Square Pants Movie.  My excuse is that I have an eight-year-old daughter who adores SpongeBob and made it perfectly clear to me that I had to see the movie.  And so I did.  For those of you worried about the worthiness of the topic, I would note that The SpongeBob Square Pants Movie was reviewed favorably in the highbrow New York Times

In any case, and as some of you know, the physical premise of the movie, and of all the related television stories, is an underwater sea world populated by all kinds of interesting creatures—fish, crabs, sponges, slugs, starfish, mermaids—who have distinctly human attributes and problems.  The narrative of the movie involves the painful and harrowing discovery that this world, so real and compelling and perfectly complete, is in fact surrounded by another quite different and menacing world—the human world of terra firma.  To the dismay of SpongeBob—the romantic hero—and his buddy Patrick—the starfish as comic sidekick, a rubbery Sancho Panza—the inhabitants of the earthly world, among other strange attributes, are found to collect and eat the inhabitants of the sea world.   

The metaphor “the Colby bubble” contains some of the same meanings and qualities, it seems to me, as the bubble-like world of SpongeBob, in both the helpful and limiting senses of the idea of the bubble.  As I feel the skepticism of my colleagues in the English department beginning to rise, let me quickly explain what I think is worrisome and encouraging about the bubble metaphor. 

"This exclusive preoccupation with what is near and familiar, and the narrowing of perspective that comes with it, is in some ways inevitable.  All of us experience some version of it in our daily lives.  But to the degree that the physical and emotional realities of campus life at Colby exacerbate this sense of isolation, it is definitely something that needs to be thought about and resisted."

The worrisome senses of the metaphor, the ones that ought to cause us concern, are not hard to discern.  The bubble conveys at once a sense of separation, isolation and indifference to what may be just outside the sphere of our immediate vision and concern.  To be inside the bubble is to be removed and protected from what is outside.  And it also suggests a tendency to become preoccupied with what goes on inside, up here on the hill, to the exclusion of what is outside. 

This exclusive preoccupation with what is near and familiar, and the narrowing of perspective that comes with it, is in some ways inevitable.  All of us experience some version of it in our daily lives.  But to the degree that the physical and emotional realities of campus life at Colby exacerbate this sense of isolation, it is definitely something that needs to be thought about and resisted.   

Your resistance can take several forms.  One of the most important and nearby is the opportunities the College provides for you to become involved in the local community.  Waterville and central Maine are real and wonderfully interesting places with all kinds of interesting opportunities and challenges.  One of the things I hope you will do in your four years here is to get to know this community and to include it in your sense of place. 

I recommend this kind of civic engagement not simply because I feel that you have contributions to make—you surely do—but also because I know how much you can learn from getting to know your neighbors.  I know you will find them welcoming of your interest and involvement.

There are, of course, ways in which the world beyond the borders of the campus will demand your attention, like it or not: bubbles, even those as sturdy as Mayflower Hill, are both transparent and fragile.  As I think back over the last several years, I am struck by how insistent and loud have been the events of the world and how commanding they have been of our attention.  Even if we had wanted to be left alone, we were not.  The class that graduated last spring began its college experience with the shattering events of September 11, 2001.  And all of us have lived since then with startling, and sometimes barely comprehensible, things happening in Iraq, Aceh, Darfur, and now New Orleans, to mention just a few.

The truth about our times—and your College careers—is that no one is very far from anyone else.  This is a good thing if we respond in the right ways.  Here on Mayflower Hill, one of the bubble-like possibilities of challenging news is to turn away, since it is so easy to do and since our local preoccupations are so compelling.  I hope you will resist this, too.  I hope you will find ways of organizing yourselves to respond collectively to the tough things that penetrate the bubble. 

One way to do that is to connect what you are learning in the classroom to what is happening around us.  Take what you are learning into your dining and residence halls and use the forms of thinking and criticism you learn there to illuminate the dispatches that come our way.  Discuss, debate, argue.  Make the political landscape, near and far, a part of your lives.  Try as best you can to locate your local passions and concerns in the broader context of the world.    

It’s important to be aware of these limiting senses of the bubble and to resist them as best we can.  But it’s equally important to understand the ways in which the separation implied by the bubble can be a good thing. 

The first has to do with the illuminating perspective that a residential academic community can provide.  The journeys that you now embark upon will provide you with an unprecedented—and probably unrepeatable—opportunity to examine and question your own experience and the world around you.  Here you will have the luxury to ask questions that are nearly impossible to pursue in the push and pull of daily life. 

This is nowhere truer, or more necessary, than it is with respect to your own values and what you have known to be true before coming here.  Interrogating your own beliefs is not an easy or comfortable exercise.  But it is an invaluable part of the opportunity that now lies before you.  And so I hope you will open yourselves to this kind of questioning and will support one another as you do so.  Your considerable talents—and the remarkable diversity of your backgrounds and experiences—will be important sources of both encouragement and perspective. 

"I hope you will open yourselves to this kind of questioning and will support one another as you do so.  Your considerable talents—and the remarkable diversity of your backgrounds and experiences—will be important sources of both encouragement and perspective."

And I hope your questioning will extend to the broader world around you—to the ways in which it is organized and functions, to the moral values that sustain and guide it, and to the assumptions and notions of truth upon which it is built.  In this small intellectual utopia you have now joined, everything is open to investigation, inquiry and interrogation—our political values and convictions, our social practices and institutions, our cultural desires and expressions.  With regard to where the quest for understanding and knowledge might lead, nothing is outside the bubble.   

The second important and positive aspect of our difference and separateness as a community has to do with the expectations we have of one another.  Quite simply and frankly, the standards governing our daily interactions are often different from, and higher than, those that govern the world beyond the campus. 

As an example of what I mean, it’s very important for you to know that our standards for communicating with one another are especially high, given our educational mission and the close quarters in which we pursue it. 

Our mission calls us to do several closely related things having to do with the general topic of intellectual engagement, which is the key to your experience here.  One of the first requirements of intellectual engagement will be your openness to what is new and different in the realm of values, beliefs, and personal truths.  Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, captured this aspect of intellectual engagement very nicely last year when he described it this way:

“To learn to ask: Is that true? Maybe there’s something to what she just said. Let me think about it.  That’s interesting. Maybe I should change my mind.  I changed my mind.”

The essential part of this operation is the will to let go of one’s own certitude just long enough to entertain a different approach, reason and conviction.  This requires us to abandon the notion that intellectual engagement is the defense of what one already knows to be the case.  I am not asking you to surrender entirely your certitudes.  But you have to be willing to entertain the prospect that what you think and believe now is partial, incomplete or simply wrong-headed.

Real engagement and communication also require a certain view of the others with whom you live, but who may not—and probably will not—share your particular vision of the world.  That view is characterized by a very full form of respect, which is essential to what we do here.  To be part of this community is to regard the others with whom you share it as fully capable participants in a common enterprise, possessing the same abilities you do, and therefore worth listening to, especially when and where you disagree. 

This kind of respect is the core of what I like to call civility, perhaps the principal virtue in a community devoted to intellectual discourse.  Civility is not the same thing as politeness, and it does not require agreement.  It is rather that mutual regard that permits us to occupy these close quarters even as we disagree, fundamentally and passionately, about things that matter.  Civility is the glue of intellectual engagement.

The world beyond the bubble has not prepared us well for this enterprise or for the standards we must observe to sustain it.  In recent years, political and moral discourse in this country have decayed into a perpetual shouting match, defined by ideologues from both the left and the right and characterized by the hurling of insults.  True political argument, where one might seriously entertain reasons for opposing positions, has all but disappeared from our lives.  And it is harder and harder to find journalism that has any kind of commitment to real investigation.  We have relinquished serious reporting and analysis for bloggers and Fox News. 

"In this small intellectual utopia you have now joined, everything is open to investigation, inquiry and interrogation—our political values and convictions, our social practices and institutions, our cultural desires and expressions."

In other words, we are poorly prepared by our daily experience for the kind of opportunities that are present here at Colby.  And so the first thing you must do to have any serious chance of real intellectual engagement with one another is to let go of your current understanding of what real argument amounts to.   

This will be harder than you think.  Here are two pieces of operational advice:

When you hear a fellow student say something that strikes you as preposterous, wrong-headed, ridiculous, consider for a moment where it is coming from.  If it seems to be coming from the attack-dog mode of television journalism, say, I suggest shrugging your shoulders and walking away (literally or figuratively). 

If the offering seems, on the contrary, to be genuine and inviting of further conversation, then I would suggest taking a kind of mental deep breath in the mode of President Bollinger: “Gee, that sounds wrong-headed to me and contrary to everything I think is true, but this person is a Colby student, a part of my world, and probably has reasons for what she is saying.  Maybe I should listen and then ask some questions or share my reservations”

The second piece of advice is about the medium of communication: avoid e-mail, the Digest of Civil Discourse, and other modes of electronic communication when the subject is serious and feelings are running hot and heavy.  This is a residential community, a face-to-face community, and it is almost always a mistake to have heated arguments in virtual space.  Talking is more likely to remind us that we are dealing with other people very much like us. 

The last aspect of the bubble that is a real gift is implicit in the other things I have mentioned—the experience of community itself. 

A genuine sense of community is not always easy to achieve.  You have already been reminded of the diversity of your backgrounds, in all of the senses of that term, including the diversity of your beliefs and values.  Your differences are real.  But what you share and can find in common is deeper still.  You have the opportunity in the coming years to experience a nearly unique form of community—a feeling of solidarity and belonging to something greater than yourself—that you will have trouble duplicating once you leave here.

"True political argument, where one might seriously entertain reasons for opposing positions, has all but disappeared from our lives."

You will learn that the Colby community is a community in time as well as physical space.  First and foremost, that means that the bonds you form here—with one another and with the College—will endure for the rest of your lives.  In this way, Colby is a community you will carry with you over time.  But ours is a community in time in yet another sense.  Everything you see and experience here on this campus connects you to Colby students who have preceded you and who, as alumni, continue to care about this place and to support it in many different ways.  You have begun to meet them already.  They are present in the buildings that carry their names, in the classrooms they have equipped with technology and in the programs they have made possible.  Soon you will begin to meet them in person, when they return for homecoming and other gatherings of various kinds.  I urge you to introduce yourselves. 

You are now a part of a very large extended family.  Like most families I know about, we have our disagreements, differences and competing ideas about the meaning and shape of the family business.  But we share a common devotion to this place and the work we do here.  Welcome to the family, to which you will make your own distinctive contributions.

Well, for what it is worth, that is my take on the Colby bubble and how you might begin to consider its several meanings.  And I hope you understand why I believe that our inevitable sense of separateness here—our life in this city on a hill—is both a hindrance and an asset, deserving of both our skepticism and admiration. 

Of course, no one lives in the bubble forever.  Several years from now, when we meet in this place again, you will be on the verge of assuming your places in the world beyond the campus.  Between now and then, the entire point of your being here is to get ready for that moment and for doing things of consequence in what follows. 

This preparation takes many forms.  The most fundamental takes shape in the classroom and in your interactions with the faculty and fellow students around what happens in that place and because of it.  And in this regard, the metaphor of the bubble, or the ivory tower, or the city on a hill, is, in the end, quite misleading.  For the entire intellectual venture here is, after all, always about the world, whether the view is constructed at the molecular, cellular, political, social, moral or philosophical level.  In William James’s wonderful phrase, it is the practice of life that you have come here to learn more about.  And so you will.

"Your differences are real.  But what you share and can find in common is deeper still.  You have the opportunity in the coming years to experience a nearly unique form of community—a feeling of solidarity and belonging to something greater than yourself—that you will have trouble duplicating once you leave here."

As you do so, recall that the practice of life goes on everywhere in your experience here—on and off the campus—and that all of it contributes potentially to your growth.  Everything is therefore open to your curiosity and interrogation—even SpongeBob.

To which I now return, fleetingly.  The ultimate meaning of the narrative of SpongeBob Square Pants is what the great literary critic Northrop Frye referred to as the romance of the heroic quest.  The hero is forced to leave the sheltered space of the community on a perilous journey.  He faces death, overcomes his nemesis, and returns home, triumphant.  His return is a transforming moment, by virtue of the insight he has gained and the change he effects in the community that awaits his return.  In this way the social fabric is both affirmed and transformed by the quest.

I hope it is not too grandiose to suggest that your intellectual journeys here are also quests of a sort.  The quest will change you significantly, and it cannot occur without risk and discomfort.  But in its successful completion you transform yourselves as you reinforce the purposes of our communal life together. 

Welcome, then, to Colby, to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery.  I will see most of you again here in four years and offer some perspective on what you have experienced.  In the meantime I will try hard not to give you too much more advice

Good luck and thanks for listening.