2008 First-Year Assembly Address

President William D. Adams, September 2, 2008
Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and—above all else today—members of the great class of 2012 and transfer and exchange students—welcome to Colby and to this assembly, the traditional and highly ceremonial start to the academic year.

Knowing how important traditions are to students, I want to begin by remarking briefly on the tradition we continue here today.

"You offer to one another and to us a remarkable array of personal characteristics, talents, points of view, backgrounds, and perspectives from which to learn. And yet you have the very important opportunity, to which I will return shortly, to create and experience a kind of community that transcends your differences."
Each new class of Colby students is welcomed in this way, and in this place, to the Colby community and experience.  We have been doing this for a very long time and in very much the same way.  Faculty lead the way, dressed in formal academic regalia.  This is the first, or nearly the first, of your many encounters with them.  Their presence symbolizes the heart of the enterprise and what we are up to here—students and teachers gathered together in extended conversation about the world and what matters.  Of all the encounters you will have at Colby, your engagement with faculty is surely the most important.

We will return to this place on the eve of your graduation for the Baccalaureate service, when the president and faculty, looking very much as we do now, will bid you farewell.  These are the symbolic bookends 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 your careers are concluded.  

The bad news about these bookends, I suppose, is that each of them involves presidential advice—first and last words.  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.  Please introduce yourselves as we encounter one another on the campus. And please come to my office hours, which are posted on my Web site.  Through these and other means of spending time with students, I hope to meet and speak with each and every one of you during your time here.  

If this moment is indeed a bookend, with another to look forward to when you graduate, what happens in between?  What will happen to you here? What can you expect?

These are hard questions to answer, in some ways, because it’s not a simple place that you have come to.  Colby is small and compact, but for a small place it’s also remarkably complex.  

The diversity of your own backgrounds, interests and formative experiences is a fair introduction to this complexity.  As Parker Beverage has just pointed out, you offer to one another and to us a remarkable array of personal characteristics, talents, points of view, backgrounds, and perspectives from which to learn.  And yet you have the very important opportunity, to which I will return shortly, to create and experience a kind of community that transcends your differences.  

The College is a lot like your class—relatively small but teeming with various stories, inclinations, and points of view.  And the challenge of the College is also your challenge—understanding and valuing our differences in ways that bring us together instead of dividing us; building community out of sometimes incongruous pieces.  

Still, it ought to be possible—and it certainly is possible—to say something about the commonality of your experience here.  Irrespective of who you are and where you come from, what is it that we hope and expect for each of you?

My answer to that important question includes four essential pieces: a sense of intellectual empowerment; a sense of civic obligation; a sense of community; and a sense of place. I want to comment briefly on each of these.

You certainly know from your orientation that our most fundamental hopes and expectations for you reside in the academic realm.  It’s your intellectual growth that most concerns us, and it is to that growth that we are most energetically and constantly committed. And so should you be, if you hope to get that maximum benefit from the time you spend here.  

You will experience that growth in all kinds of interesting ways, no two exactly alike.  Colby’s academic program is remarkably rich, and each of you will come to know it from a slightly different angle.  

"Nothing will matter more in your lives after Colby than your ability to communicate, to think, and to imagine and to create."
We certainly hope and expect that you will grow from your exposure to specific disciplines and programs. It may be that your intimate acquaintance with biology, or computer science, or art, or economics, or Chinese—and in some cases more than one of these—will set you on a path that leads to a specific calling. Whether it does or doesn’t, we are very sure that your learning a great deal about one or several areas of human knowledge is a very good and necessary thing.

But as important as your deep acquaintance with specific subjects here will be, it is not the most important aspect of your academic experience and intellectual development. Our deeper hope and expectation is that wherever you end up in Colby’s interesting array of programs, each one of you, and in very much the same ways, will experience a more general kind of intellectual empowerment that will serve you throughout your lives after Colby.

The sense of empowerment I am referring to will develop as your confidence in your own basic intellectual capacities grows.

Nearly 20 years ago, Colby’s faculty agreed to describe these capacities under the rubric of the “Colby Precepts,” which encapsulate our vision of what a liberal arts education is all about.  I urge you to look at the precepts, now and periodically as you make your way through Colby.  As you do, I hope you will ask yourselves how you are doing in terms of the specific learning objectives the precepts entail.

Of all the intellectual powers we hope you will acquire here, three are especially important for you to keep track of: your ability to write and to speak with clarity, conviction, and power; your ability to think about and through complex problems and issues—to analyze, criticize, synthesize, integrate; and finally, your ability to exercise your imaginations and creative powers.  

These basic capacities—to communicate, to think, to imagine and create—are among the fundamental goals of the liberal arts experience.  As your teachers, we need to be thinking constantly about how our specialized interests and work are exercising and advancing those capacities.  As students, you need to be constantly checking in and evaluating your progress.  For nothing will matter more in your lives after Colby than your ability to communicate, to think, and to imagine and to create.  Together, these capacities form the most elemental meaning of your intellectual empowerment.

"Our desire is not that you come away from Colby without moral conviction, but that your conviction be more thoughtful and reasoned, and that you understand the broader context in which values and value systems compete."
What we as teachers know is that the principal obstacle to the sort of empowerment I am describing is passivity. Nothing is more certain to constrain your growth here than the notion that you will learn by way of quiet osmosis—by sitting attentively in lectures, seminars, laboratories listening politely to others.  Listening matters greatly in certain ways and moments—I will come back to this shortly—but the real key to intellectual empowerment is intellectual engagement.  

By engagement I mean in part a certain attitude on your part—inquisitive, curious, eager, excited, raring to go.  But by engagement I also mean involved in certain activities. First and foremost on the list are the opportunities Colby offers you to engage faculty and to work directly with them in real and consequential forms of scholarship.  You will also find that your academic programs are loaded with other opportunities for engagement—advisory groups, discussion groups, steering committees, colloquia, and numerous other intellectual encounters outside the classroom.  You will also find multiple and fascinating opportunities to engage in practical learning and public service of various kinds, in Waterville, central Maine and beyond, in which the work of the classroom gets tested against the material of the real world.  Your investment in these activities will be returned to you many times, and nowhere more meaningfully than in the empowerment of your minds, the permanent fortification of your basic intellectual capacities.

A recent New Yorker article captures much of what I am saying about intellectual empowerment and engagement.

The article documented a recent breakthrough in neuroscience—specifically, in our understanding of the functions of the right hemisphere of the brain, heretofore regarded as less interesting and significant than the much sexier left hemisphere and cerebral cortex.  The breakthrough was achieved thanks to the work of two neuroscientists who were working on the phenomenon of insight—those memorable moments when we suddenly understand the solution to complex problems or challenges. Insight in this sense is a kind of “big-picture thinking,” the sort that leads to important discoveries, ground-breaking creativity, and personal revelation.        

The researchers—Mark Jung-Beeman at Northwestern and John Kounios at Drexel—observed that insight is associated with extensive and largely unconscious activities in the right hemisphere of the brain.  It turns out that insight only appears to come to us out of the blue.  Long before that “ah ha” moment when insight announces itself, the right hemisphere of the brain has been chugging away making associations between scattered and disorganized bits of information.  The genius of the right hemisphere is its ability to make “distant and unprecedented connections” without our even knowing it.

Reading this article, I had an insight of my own.  It is this: one of our principal aims at Colby is to help you develop and enlarge your capacity for insight. In everything we do, we are trying to teach you to forge “holistic associations” among previously unconnected facts and phenomena.  This is a right hemisphere enterprise, in other words; together, we are teaching our brains to be more and more capable of insight.  

In the most fundamental ways that a thinking human being can grow and change, you will grow and change as your skills and knowledge build bridges to new intellectual territory. It can be, if you allow it to be, the most exciting journey of your young lives.

Even as we focus on intellectual empowerment, we are also intensely aware that intellect severed from moral energy and passion is cold and lifeless.  It’s not our job to advance any particular set of values in our teaching; indeed, as I will suggest in a moment, a necessary part of our work is to inspire you to question your own beliefs and certainties.  But please do not confuse such questioning with moral cynicism.  Our desire is not that you come away from Colby without moral conviction, but that your conviction be more thoughtful and reasoned, and that you understand the broader context in which values and value systems compete.     

One moral sensibility that I am sure we would all agree is essential to the sort of educational experience we aspire to provide is your inclination to be involved in public life.  You will be interested to know that the presidential campaign that is now fully upon has already inspired Colby students in dramatic ways.  Last spring I took my daughter to one of the local party caucuses—Maine’s version of the presidential primary—and the venue was literally overwhelmed by all the young people, including many Colby students, wanting to express their views.  

I hope this enthusiasm continues and that it gathers you in, irrespective of your specific political leanings.  For the desire to influence events, along with the skills to be creative and informed members of the public world, is one of the enduring and fundamental goals of a liberal arts education.  Your generation’s emergent idealism—your desire to make a difference—is in this sense a very good thing, and I hope it will continue to grow while you are with us.

The third thing we hope and expect for you here at Colby is a deep and lasting sense of community.  In one way that prospect is not hard for you to grasp.  As COOT veterans, you have some sense by now of the potential for building deep and lasting friendships here at Colby.  I can assure you from my work with alumni that the friendships you build in the coming years will endure for the rest of your lives.

But there is another, somewhat broader and deeper sense of community available to you here.  It includes your close friends and your feelings for one another, of course, but it also includes all of your contemporaries here on Mayflower Hill.  It even extends, in ways I think you will come to understand and value, to those who have preceded you.     

Somewhere near the heart of this sense of community is the solidarity and affection that flow from having experienced together, and in one place, the deep and lasting intellectual and personal changes I’ve been trying to describe.  These feelings will be evident to you in the pride you take in your class and in your attachment to this campus, which figures so prominently in the memories and feelings of virtually every alumnus and alumna.  
 
Sooner or later, these elemental feelings of solidarity and affection will extend to these fellow graduates of Colby, along with those who experienced this world with you.  As I mentioned the day you arrived, everything you see and experience here on this campus connects you to students who have gone before 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 this fall and other gatherings of various kinds.  I urge you to introduce yourselves.  

There is yet another aspect to this sense of community and belonging, a bit more complex and more demanding, but every bit as important.  It’s the shared sense of being part of an important intellectual enterprise—of belonging to a community devoted to  exploring ideas, to investigating the past, to valuing artistic and cultural expressions of various kinds, to debating important political topics and social issues, to investigating and understanding every facet of the natural and human worlds around us.  There was a time when all of these things would have been identified under the rubric “the life of the mind.”  But the venture we are engaged in is every bit as much about the world as the mind—about what’s happening around us, about the things that we and others care about, about the meaning of it all.  

This sense of common involvement in something that really matters—in an educational enterprise conducted at the highest level—is exciting, exhilarating, and dynamic.  I hope you will come to feel its full force, for no college experience is really complete without it.  But it is also something that will demand certain things from you.  

"When large and important topics are at issue, the family discussion here can be noisy and a little raucous.....But this appetite for debate and exchange must always be tempered by our common commitment to respect one another."
The first is an appetite for new ideas and a tolerance for intense but civil debate, exchange, and disagreement.  When large and important topics are at issue, the family discussion here can be noisy and a little raucous.  And indeed it should be, for we cannot really understand ourselves or the important questions of the day without challenging one another and ourselves.

[…] But this appetite for debate and exchange must always be tempered by our common commitment to respect one another.  Even when you disagree most energetically, even heatedly, your capacity to summon a fundamental regard for one another is essential to continuing our work together.  We may disagree with one another, but we must always have an eye to the more fundamental things we have in common.

As important as it is, respect will not protect you from feeling a certain level of intellectual discomfort, at times deeply personal, as you make your way through Colby.  Inevitably, and especially in your interactions with one another, your fundamental assumptions and beliefs are going to be challenged here.  That’s the way it should be.  If everything you currently think about the world remained comfortably in place throughout your time here, we would have failed you in a very major way.  You need to remember that.  And you also need to be able to engage in the hard but rewarding work of staying open and engaged in spite of your discomfort.    

This is where listening comes in.  Your capacity to listen, really listen, to one another is terribly important.  I predict that at some point someone’s words or beliefs will strike you as so wrong-headed, so entirely off-base and clueless, that you will want to walk away, never mind listen.  But that is precisely the time to catch yourselves and summon your best listening skills.       

The flip side of listening, of course, is speaking to others in a way that invites their listening, conversation and further response.  You can’t really benefit from new and unfamiliar people or ideas unless you are prepared to get to know them.  That requires real exchange, conversation, dialogue.  And conversation demands patience and persistence.  It also demands a way of expressing yourselves that invites response and that is from the outset respectful.
 
What’s ultimately implied here is a delicate balancing act between two very powerful values and commitments.  Because our educational mission requires the unconstrained exploration of ideas and the questioning of received wisdom, we place an extraordinarily high value on the freedom of expression.  But it’s terribly important to remember that our commitment to free expression is not a license to say whatever comes into our heads, in any tone of voice, no matter how smart or compelling or important it might seem.  The academic freedom that we value and protect exists alongside our concern for community; the one is incomprehensible without the other.  At times these values exist in uneasy tension.  But one never trumps the other.  

Respect, curiosity, tolerance for discomfort, and the capacity to engage in extended conversations about demanding, perhaps threatening, topics—these are some of the requirements of membership in a community of learners, teachers, and truth-seekers.  This is at once a different enterprise, and certainly a more delicate enterprise, than we confront as citizens of the public world.  That world is a pretty rough place at times, and it must have a very high degree of tolerance for even the most offensive utterances.  But at Colby we can and do have different and higher standards of behavior.  Those standards are not enforced by speech codes and speech police.  But they are and should be made evident in the personal and institutional expectations we have of ourselves and one another, and by a kind of candor in our inter-personal relations about what is appropriate and inappropriate, respectful and hurtful, civil and uncivil.  I am sure you will live up to these expectations.

My last hope for you is that you will develop a strong sense of place at Colby.  As some of my earlier comments suggest, I have no doubt that you will become very attached to the place called Mayflower Hill—this campus in all of its physical expressions.  The loyalty and attachments of Colby alumni and alumnae are strongly influenced by memories of this remarkably beautiful campus, and yours will be too.  This is one very important dimension of the sense of place that I hope will grow in you and remain with you after you leave.  

"I predict that at some point someone’s words or beliefs will strike you as so wrong-headed, so entirely off-base and clueless, that you will want to walk away, never mind listen. But that is precisely the time to catch yourselves and summon your best listening skills."
But there is another dimension of place that really matters and that I urge you to get to know—one that lies just outside the physical boundaries of the campus.  That place is bound up with Colby’s history; I hope that it will become a part of your history here, as well.

During the time of the Great Depression in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Colby’s leadership became increasingly concerned about the viability of the College in its original campus setting on the banks of the Kennebec River, just north of the intersection of what is now College Avenue and Main Street.  That location was at the time surrounded by the railroad, the river and the rapidly growing Waterville community, then a thriving mill town.  In a moment of both courageous vision and desperation, the president and Board of Trustees resolved to move the campus to an entirely new location.

The story of Colby’s migration to Mayflower Hill is a long and interesting one.  You can find it compellingly told in the history of Colby written by its former Dean of the College, Earl Smith.  The bookstore has copies, and the library does too.  The key moment in that story was the decision by the town officials and a group of interested citizens to purchase three farms just on the edge of town, which were subsequently donated to the College.  It was an act that probably saved Colby for those of us who came after and who have benefited from its strength and excellence.

Because our lives on Mayflower Hill are so intensely focused on our work with one another, it’s hard to recall the ties that bind us to Waterville and central Maine.  But I think it’s true to say that your experience here will not be complete if you do not develop a sense of place that includes this community.  
      
As you already know from one of your exercises during orientation, there are several ways you can pursue this sense of place.  The first is the easiest—make your way, often, to downtown Waterville and explore Main Street.  As you do so, keep in mind that you are not in a shopping mall or a box store complex.  It’s infinitely more interesting than that and vastly more real.

A second and much more substantial opportunity will come in the myriad forms of civic engagement and community service afforded by Colby-Waterville connections.  I recommend this form of 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 and being involved in their lives.  I know you will find them welcoming of your interest and engagement.

A third opportunity comes in the form various venues the College provides for you to explore this beautiful and fascinating region of Maine.  Whether it’s skiing at Sugarloaf, or trips to Portland and Augusta, or visits to the coast and nearby lakes, a great deal is in store for you if you take the time and make the effort to get out.

Intellectual empowerment, civic engagement, a sense of community, a sense of place—these are some of our most important and urgent hopes and expectations for you during your Colby adventure.  You will notice the common theme running throughout—your initiative, energy, engagement.  Your teachers, and all others on the campus who support their enterprise, are ready and waiting for you.  But we need you to connect to us with all the energy and passion that you can muster.

Well, that’s the end, and essence, of my advice—the first “bookend” I referred to at the outset.  Several years from now, when we meet again in this place, 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.  
                         
Welcome to Colby, to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery.  I will see you again in several years to offer some perspective on what you have experienced.  In the meantime I will try hard to refrain from giving you more advice – except when you need it.     

Good luck, thanks for listening, and have a wonderful first year at Colby.