2010 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 22, 2010

Members of the Board of Trustees, Colby overseers, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and of course, above all others, members of this great Class of 2010, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 189th Commencement.

Students value traditions, I know, so I always begin by reminding us that the baccalaureate service has a very long history at Colby. We have been coming together in this way since 1821—for as long as students have been graduating from the College.

Of course, the program has changed with the times. The first 87 baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers. You can imagine, I am sure, the challenges of enduring a long sermon on a warm spring day.

A lot has changed, at Colby and elsewhere. But we continue to meet in this special place and company. Faculty colleagues and trustees process in their robes; the seniors meet as a class for nearly the last time; the president rises to speak. It has been so for 189 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more.

Part of the reason for our commitment to this tradition has to do with the timeless urge to say farewell in this rather private and focused way. But this ceremony also reminds us of what these years have been essentially about and where the most important things have happened—among students and teachers and among students and classmates, in both formal and informal settings and ways.

The president is supposed to say something meaningful about all of this in a time frame not exceeding 20 minutes. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, I want to offer my own farewell by sharing some reflections on what lies just around the corner for all of you.

But before I do that, a look back. You surely recall the last time we were together in this place. It was the first-year convocation in 2006 for most of you, and you had just arrived. I’m equally sure you remember what I talked about. All right, maybe you don’t remember. But I do. I spoke about the tension that can arise in a small, complicated place like this one while we negotiate the prerogatives of individual liberty versus our obligation to live up to community standards and expectations. I traced that tension all the way back to Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, and the American Baptist Church, and the spiritual father to the Baptists who founded Colby.

Williams’s thinking, I’m sure you recall, was built around two fundamental values: “soul liberty,” by which he meant the freedom of individual conscience, and “true civility,” by which he meant the obligations of communal life. Williams thought these values were essential and that they had to coexist in any worthwhile human life or endeavor. I shared the hope that you would appreciate this tension and also manage it well in your time at Colby.

I’ve often wondered what you were thinking during that address. Have I come to the wrong place? Is this what college is really like? Is the president a Baptist minister? Has the president lost his mind? Whatever you were thinking, I’m guessing that no one here went straight to the library to investigate the collected works of Roger Williams. And even if you had, you could not have known then what these four years would bring and how correct Roger Williams would be. You couldn’t know that until today, as you look back on all the moments and ways in which you negotiated your responsibility to yourselves and to this community. You did it very well, with or without advice from me.

And here we are again, as I forecast in 2006: the other bookend, as it were, of your Colby experience. You’ve certainly changed. For one thing, you’re better dressed; the black robes are very stylish. And you have an air of accomplishment and happiness about you that impresses.

You will be deeply relieved to know that I do not plan to further revisit the theology of Roger Williams. But, as I also forecast in 2006, you can’t escape one last bit of presidential advice. I promise to be brief.

It may surprise you if I focus on something that I am not particularly worried about, but that you may be, and that is whether or not you are prepared for success in the interesting futures that now await you. My absence of worry is a bit counterintuitive, I know. You’re leaving Mayflower Hill at time of significant economic disturbance, high unemployment, and a very tough job
market. What’s not to worry about?

My conviction has a lot to do with my fundamental belief in you and in the value of what we’re up to at Colby. But it was also bolstered by two recent experiences that I want to tell you about.

Last month in Boston, and again last week in New York, I had breakfast with small groups of young alumni—about 30 individuals in all, and all of them within eight or so years of graduation. One of the purposes of these gatherings was to sustain the connection of young alums to the College. But its other—and in my mind more important—purpose is to give me a better view of what young alums are doing and how they’re thinking now about their Colby experience.

Both of these meetings were illuminating for me and profoundly encouraging. That’s not to say these men and women didn’t have criticisms of Colby or of the choices they made here—or both. But I was pleased to learn that, virtually without exception, these individuals felt that the basic intellectual capacities that we prize so highly in the liberal arts curriculum—the capacity to communicate, to think analytically and critically, to imagine and to create—were both well developed at Colby and useful in meeting the challenges they were experiencing at work and in graduate school. No one felt at a disadvantage; most reported some kind of edge. I was particularly impressed by the report from a young woman—an English major at Colby, now attending NYU’s Stern School of Business—that she could “write circles around” fellow students who graduated from preprofessional programs. English majors take note. She did lament not having a working knowledge of Excel. English faculty take note.

My second confidence-boosting experience was reading Daniel Pink’s recent book, A Whole New Mind. Pink’s thesis is this: The history of the last 150 years in the developed world has been a three-act drama. Act One was the Industrial Age, in which agriculture gave way to industrialization, urbanization, and factory work. Think Detroit, the textile mills of central Maine, or steel mills in Pittsburgh. In Act Two, the Industrial Age gave way to the Information Age, with its emphasis on technology, information, and knowledge. Think Silicon Valley, IBM, and desktop computing. And now, Pink argues, the Information Age is about to give way to what he calls the Conceptual Age, which will once again alter radically the ways in which we live and work.

At the heart of this transformation is a rearrangement of the meaning of knowledge and knowledge work. Just as the Information Age prized what Pink calls “left brain” or highly analytical thinking, the Conceptual Age will require its own kind of thinking—a “whole new mind,” as the book’s title has it. Information, analysis, and digital logic will still be powerful and central to our world, but a more comprehensive, more conceptual, more holistic form of thinking will also be required. Pink calls this “right brain” or “High Concept/High Touch” thinking. Left-brain thinking is logical, sequential, analytical, lateral, digital. Right-brain thinking is synthetic, big-picture, conceptual, creative. The left brain focuses on logic; the right brain focuses on connections.

Pink’s argument (as some of you who have taken neuroscience surely know) is based on recent research and breakthroughs in neuroscience and specifically in our understanding of the functions of the right hemisphere of the brain, heretofore regarded as less interesting and, in the Information Age, less consequential than the left hemisphere. One of these breakthroughs came in research on the phenomenon of insight, those memorable moments when we suddenly understand the solution to very complicated problems or challenges. Insight is that “big-picture thinking” that Daniel Pink so admires, the sort of thinking that leads to discoveries, creativity, and personal revelation.

Researchers observed that experiences of insight are associated with extensive activities in the right hemisphere of the brain. Long before that moment when insight announces itself, the right hemisphere of the brain has been chugging away making connections among scattered and disorganized bits of information that constitute a particularly vexing problem. The genius of the right hemisphere is its ability to make “distant and unprecedented connections” without our even knowing it.

In addition to this kind of connectivity, Daniel Pink argues that “High Concept/High Touch” thinking involves a number of very specific capacities. He calls these capacities the “six senses:” design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. “These six senses,” he writes, “increasingly will guide our lives and shape our world.” To thrive in the Conceptual Age we need to join the incredibly powerful processes of analytical and technical thinking with “whole-minded aptitudes”—with aesthetic, creative, and emotional intelligence.

It’s a little surprising that Pink does not talk about much about higher education or the liberal arts, for it seems to me that it’s exactly this kind of whole-mindedness that we are seeking to explore and stimulate in our work with you at Colby. In all of our engagements with you, we have tried to make you better able to craft holistic associations among previously unconnected facts. This is a left and right hemisphere enterprise, in other words; together, we are teaching our brains to be more and more capable of generating insight.

A few hours after I left the New York breakfast with young alums, I decided to walk up Fifth Avenue to my next meeting. It was one of those glorious spring days in New York, and Fifth Avenue was full of people. The biggest crowds of all were milling around the new Apple store at the corner of 57th and Fifth. Those of you who’ve been there know the place I mean—the elegant, arresting glass cube that sits in front of the colossal General Motors office building. As some of you know, that Apple store and others in New York and around the country were designed by Peter Bohlin, the architect who designed the Diamond Building, Pulver Pavilion, and the bookstore.

Standing in front of the Apple store and staring up at the General Motors building, I had something of an insight of my own. It begins with Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Jobs grew up in California and went to Reed College, the progressive liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. He didn’t get very far at Reed; he dropped out after the first semester. (I’m not commending this to you and, besides, it’s too late.) But he hung around for another year, auditing classes in philosophy, poetry, and, of all things, calligraphy, as well as exploring various incarnations of the 1960s’ counterculture, including Buddhism, which became a long-lasting interest.

Jobs credits the calligraphy class, in particular, with changing his thinking in ways that later led to the fundamental intuition that drives Apple’s success. Here’s how he described it in his commencement address at Stanford in 2005:

[The calligraphy]…was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. [And here’s the really interesting part.] Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

At least four of Daniel Pink’s six senses—design, narrative, symphony, and play—are implicitly represented in Jobs’s comments. And it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that the success of Apple’s products—especially their recent success—has as much or more to do with the ways in which they prompt our aesthetic sensibilities and responses, with their tactile and physical beauty, than it has to do with their technical function.

It makes perfect sense to me that Steve Jobs chose Peter Bohlin to design the Apple stores in New York and elsewhere around the country. Some of you may know that Peter was briefly profiled in the May 17th issue of the New Yorker, and I was struck by one of his comments. “It’s ridiculous to think that all architecture is rational,”he said. “Every building has an emotional side as well. My roots are in the crusading years of modern design…and the vision of making modern design for people to use, and that’s what we hope to do—when we are at our best.”

I don’t know for sure what Peter Bohlin thinks about the General Motors building that towers above his luminous cube at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th. But as I stood at the corner, fresh from my encounter with Colby alums and channeling Daniel Pink, it was hard not to connect the massive office tower to the fate of the company that built it, and to compare both with Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s creative impulses. Daniel Pink would certainly welcome the comparison. At one point in A Whole New Mind, he takes understandable delight in a comment from Robert Lutz, the automotive executive who was brought out of retirement to help run General Motors after its very public and astonishing failure. “When Lutz took over his post at the beleaguered company, and the New York Times asked him how his approach would differ from his predecessors’, he responded: It’s more right brain….I see us as being in the art business. Art, entertainment, and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation.”

Lutz is retired again, and who knows whether GM will be right-brained without him. But as all of this pertains to you, what I’m trying to say is this: as graduates of one of the world’s best liberal arts colleges, you have everything you need to succeed in the Conceptual Age. Or perhaps almost everything.

In one of the more revealing moments of my New York breakfast, near the end of the gathering, a young alum working in New York made one final and telling observation. He said: “I’m not sure that Colby graduates realize how good they are, and how important confidence is to success.” I meet a lot of Colby alumni, and I’ve watched 10 classes graduate, and I think there is an element of truth to his observation.

And so, here’s my solitary and concluding piece of advice: be confident. You’re good and you’re ready. You’ve received a terrific education here, an education of your whole brain—right, left, and middle—and in whole-minded thinking. Remember what Steve Jobs said in his commencement address and what young alumni have been telling me: your understanding of the power of your Colby education will grow with time. Looking
back two or five or eight years from now, you, too, will connect the dots.

Your confidence should be bolstered by the fact that you have more than 20,000 potential advisors, networkers, and mentors out there waiting for you to join them as members of the extended Colby family. You will find them in every place you work and live, and you will discover in their presence the part of you that is still here. Call on them for help, advice, and friendship. I know you will find them eager to know you. This is one of the most important and enduring benefits of belonging, as you now do, to a community such as this.

As you meet these people, I hope you will come to feel, as they do, a keen sense of responsibility for Colby. As alumni, this place now belongs to you in a very real and powerful way. Its future well being, and its future generations of students, will depend on your affection and your support, as its present strength depends on those who preceded you.

You have a wonderful start on the road to giving back. Over 86 percent of this class has already given to the senior class gift drive. Your effort shatters the previous record of 76 percent. Thanks for this early and impressive signal and expression of generosity. I hope, and I know, that it will continue.

I’ve spent a lot of time today talking about things you have acquired here at Colby and that now leave with you. But no farewell of this kind would be complete without an acknowledgment of what you have given to us.

I think I speak for every one of my faculty and administrative colleagues here in saying that we are very grateful to you for letting us be involved in this remarkably interesting time in your lives. For it is in this exhilarating work that we find our most important satisfactions and realize who, in fact, we are. In other words, for us, too, this enterprise has been about the realization of potential. So thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, and for your commitment.

Tomorrow is a much more public day and occasion, with happy crowds of family and friends looking on. And the sun will be shining. In the meantime, I’m grateful, we all are grateful, for this one last chance to think quietly and a bit more privately about where we have been and where we are going together in the years ahead.

I look forward to seeing you at a young alumni breakfast in the reasonably near future and to learning of your accomplishments and your reflections on your Colby experience.

Thanks, good luck, and goodbye.

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