2014 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 24, 2014

Members of the Board of Trustees and trustees emeriti, Colby overseers, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and of course, above all others, members of this great Class of 2014, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 193rd Commencement.

Every baccalaureate service and every commencement weekend is special. For the graduating seniors and for their families, the reasons are not hard to see. This is your time, your moment. It’s a big deal. It represents a lot of work, sacrifice, and accomplishment by you and your families. It’s also the moment of moving beyond this time and place to those interesting and mysterious futures that you will have as graduates. And it’s a time to say farewell—to friends and teachers and to a place that is now a part of you. That’s a lot of meaning packed into a single weekend.

It’s also a big deal for us, the members of the faculty and administration. We’ve had the great pleasure of watching you change and grow here at Colby, and that is the source of our professional satisfaction. We acknowledge and celebrate that satisfaction with you today and tomorrow.

For me, this moment has an additional source of personal significance. This is my last baccalaureate service as Colby’s 19th president—my last opportunity to stand before a group of graduating seniors and attempt to say something meaningful about what we’ve been up to here. That’s never easy, but it’s a bit more complicated, and frankly emotional, for me today than it has been in past years. It also causes me to make the obvious connection: we are graduating together. I too will receive a Colby diploma tomorrow.

Martin Heidegger had a term for the sensation of looking into the future and not seeing answers to the questions it poses. He called it “thrownness.”

As classmates, there are some obvious and important differences between us. You look a lot better than I do, for one thing. One of the really odd things about working at a college like Colby is that every year we—your teachers—get steadily older, while you—our students—remain perpetually young.

Another difference is that you are at the beginning of your professional lives, while I am nearer to the end of mine. I suppose that fits with the general expectation that on occasions such as this one, the elder gives sage advice to the young.

But what we have in common today is more meaningful than our differences. And right near the top of the list is this: Like you, I am getting evicted from my house tomorrow! Well, actually, I have until Monday. But trust me, I’ve got a lot more stuff!

Kidding aside, you and I are facing what it means to leave an important place behind. For the past few weeks, I’ve been intensely conscious of the fact that this campus won’t be my home for much longer. Mayflower Hill has meant a lot to me, as I am sure it has to you, and I’ve spent a good deal of time over the years exploring and appreciating its beauty. I will miss it, and I know that you will too.

Perhaps most important of all, we also share the sensation of stepping off into the unknown. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding this pretty unnerving. After 14 years of making coffee in the same kitchen, skiing on the trails out my back door, riding my bike across campus to the office or to attend a game, walking to a concert or a show on a weekend night, I’ve become comfortably accustomed to the rhythms of my life here. Change is a good and bracing thing, especially when it comes at the right time and for the right reasons, as it does for us now. And like you, I have acquired loved ones and friends here at Colby who will be near me in the future no matter how far apart we are physically. But still, aren’t all of us asking the same questions as we depart? What will it be like? Will we know what to do? Will we succeed? Will our professional paths coincide with personal meaning and happiness? Are we up to the challenge of what comes next?

My own anxiety—I bet yours, too—is deepened by the understanding that there are no handy answers to these questions. Indeed, the answers won’t exist until we create them.

As busy as we’ve all been in these last few weeks—you wrapping up the work for your final classes, me wrapping up the mysterious tasks of the president—I know all of us have had some moments of deep reflection, when inchoate and anxious thoughts about the future crowd everything else from our minds. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger had a term for the sensation of looking into the future and not seeing answers to the questions it poses. He called it “thrownness.” A little awkward, that term, but the meaning is perfectly apt. Thrownness is the sensation of being launched into the future, catapulted ahead without the security of knowing where we will land—moving, as one commentator puts it, into a space of indefinite possibilities rather than of certainties.

So here we are, sitting in the catapult sling, about to be thrown into our futures. No wonder we take commencement seriously.

So here we are, sitting in the catapult sling, about to be thrown into our futures.

But if you really think about it, we’ve been here before. You and I may have arrived at Colby at different times and with different expectations, but we were equally uncertain of what we would find and of how all of this would work. I asked, as did you, how will I do here? Will this place be a home for me? Can I succeed? What will my life here look and feel like? Will I find a better version of myself at the other end of this experience?

All of us had experienced important successes before coming to Colby. We were invited to be a part of this place because of our past efforts and achievements. But in those first days, the good work of the past didn’t seem to matter as much as the uncertainty as to how we would measure up.

Slowly but surely, we got traction. I worked with my faculty and administrative colleagues, with students, trustees, and alumni to learn about Colby and to set the aspirations for the years ahead. You pursued your own kind of work. You made friends. You found courses and activities that clicked. You wrote papers, took exams, made presentations. You acted, danced, sang, played sports. As challenging as this environment was—and was supposed to be—we gradually came to feel at home here, valuable and valued members of this community. We came to understand how our abilities and limits fit into the larger picture of Colby College. We learned to trust others and to rely on them to help us find our way.

I also had the sensation that my mind was getting stronger over the years. And I’m sure that you experienced that as well. You became better writers, better speakers, better listeners, better thinkers. Our worlds became bigger, too. We knew more than before—about others and about ourselves. We gained a deeper sense of the complexity and breadth of things and of our ability to understand and interpret the world. In short, we learned.

A few weeks ago, one of the participants in the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium speaking contest captured this sense of expanded intellectual capacity perfectly when she said something like this: “I’ve learned to push on a concept until ideas fly all around the room. I feel I can understand anything.”

As one who has experienced lots of different and challenging professional organizations and demands, I assure you that it’s hard to overstate the importance of that acquisition.

In light of all the effort we’ve put in to get where we are, it seems somehow unfair that we now stand on the edge of yet another transition and that we must enter new and unfamiliar terrain where we will be required to prove ourselves all over again. When does the testing stop? Why can’t we stick around and continue to enjoy our hard-won abilities and confidence?

The sobering news, I suppose, is that the testing never stops. But the good news for you is: you’re ready. Two recent New York Times opinion pieces bear that out.

The sobering news, I suppose, is that the testing never stops. But the good news for you is: you’re ready.

In “What Machines Can’t Do,” David Brooks makes the claim that in this age of increasingly brilliant and powerful information technologies, certain traditional intellectual skills will become less valuable, while others become more so.

The less valuable list includes rote memorization, rule-bound thinking, and the capacity to regurgitate large amounts of information. These skills, Brooks argues, will belong increasingly to artificial, as opposed to human, intelligence.

The more valuable list includes enthusiasm for work, a voracious lust for understanding, the ability to engage in extended bouts of concentration, and the ability to grasp the essence of things. Brooks defines these as forms of emotional intelligence, since all involve the heart as well as the mind.

In reporting his piece titled “Getting a Job at Google,” Thomas Friedman learned that Google recruiters focus on five attributes in their hiring. At the top of the list is “general cognitive ability,” by which Google means “learning ability … the ability to process on the fly … the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.”

Intellectual leadership is another quality that Google admires—the capacity to offer imaginative solutions to new problems. This way of thinking about leadership also implies “humility,” or the ability to know when it’s time to step back and let someone else lead.

The least important quality at Google, Friedman notes, is “expertise,” in computer science or anything else. The problem with expertise, it turns out, is that it can discourage fresh thinking and innovation. Much better to have people who are “innately curious, willing to learn,” and who possess “emergent leadership skills” than to have experts.

If Brooks and Friedman strike you as a bit too soft-headed or progressive, consider Melissa Korn’s recent article in the anything but squishy Wall Street Journal, titled “Why Some MBA’s Are Reading Plato.” The reason, Korn notes, is that too many students have been graduating from business school without the capacity to engage in “big-picture” thinking. Especially in times of dynamic change and economic dislocation, that capacity is critical to exercising good business judgment. I trust that philosophy majors in our class are encouraged to hear this.

You can see where I am going with this: The qualities that Brooks and Friedman and Korn describe are central to the liberal arts curriculum and to Colby in particular. The intellectual capacities you’ve developed here, along with the breadth of learning and understanding that has also been a part of this journey, will have enormous utility in the world that lies just ahead. You’re ready for a career. You’re ready to make a significant contribution to a profession. You’re ready to succeed.

The intellectual capacities you’ve developed here, along with the breadth of learning and understanding … will have enormous utility in the world that lies just ahead.

It’s understandable that our questions and worries about what’s next tend to pile up around careers and professional questions. And so we reasonably extol the virtues of a liberal arts education as a foundation for professional accomplishment. But I hope that you are also wondering if you are ready for what will unfold away from the office, in the adjacent but somewhat different spaces of your personal and social lives.

Here’s where the difference between us does matter, and if you’ll forgive me, here’s where I choose to offer some of that sage advice I mentioned early in this talk. Sooner or later, all of us have to grapple with questions that are no less real or demanding than those of work and the professions, and that arise in slightly different terrain. I hope it doesn’t sound too high-minded to say that these questions concern the moral dimension of our lives. I’m thinking of questions like: What does it mean to be a good friend, a life partner, a wife, a husband, a parent? What are our obligations to others‑those whom we know and those further afield to whom we are connected by more abstract ties? What are our obligations as citizens of this country, of the planet? How am I doing as a person? Does my life have integrity? Do I have integrity?

I don’t wake up thinking about these questions in quite the way I’ve posed them, and you don’t either. But they’re always lurking in our daily interactions with those with whom we live and work. They’re as fully present in the headlines we read as they are in our internal evening monologues about what happened during the day and how we’re doing in our lives. Sometimes we wish they would go away and that things would simply be settled, once and for all. But if my experience is any indication, so long as you are alive you will ask yourselves those questions. And I think you will also find that your time at Colby will be fundamental to the ways you address them.

Salman Rushdie got me thinking about this in a new way when he spoke at Colby a few weeks ago. He talked about literature and the way it renders our experience of the world in all its intensity, messiness, uncertainty, and ambiguity—in other words, in the ways in which we actually live our lives. Literature gives us a lived perspective on the fullness of what it means to be human.

For some writers we’ve all read, the end of the quest for this form of knowledge is called wisdom. Wisdom takes time and experience to develop, and it usually has a price attached. Consider Oedipus, or Job, Antigone, or King Lear. There’s something achingly familiar in these characters, no matter how outsized they are. They resonate with us because we know that our experience is bound to involve moral failures as well as triumphs and that the failures are equally parts of our humanity, self-understanding, and identity.

In ways not entirely obvious to us now, I am sure that our intellectual journeys at Colby have made us deeper and larger people and better equipped us to deal with the moral questions and challenges of life. And the resources that we have been exposed to here —literary resources, the resources of art and history and philosophy —are always there for us to return to when we need them. The chance to engage again with those resources is among the greatest gifts your teachers gave you—and you gave yourselves—in your time on Mayflower Hill.

Here’s another piece of good news. In everything we are about to encounter the day after tomorrow, in both the professional and personal realms of our lives, we are going to have a lot of new friends—more than 20,000, in fact—in the global Colby community.

As some of you know, I spent a good deal of time this last year traveling around the country saying farewell to alumni I had come to know during my time at Colby. I visited seven different cities, and in each one I encountered large numbers of the extended Colby family. I was enormously impressed by how much our alumni, parents, and friends really care about this place and its well-being and by how interested they are in what is going on here and in the ways the educational experience and program have evolved since they were students.

The other thing they obviously care about is you, soon to be graduates of the College. Some of you know already that a fair number of alumni and alumnae are involved in counseling and mentoring young alums. Many of them are making work experiences possible. Nearly all of them are eager to make you feel at home in the places to which you’ll be going.

These generous forms of outreach and support come with reciprocal obligations. In return for their friendship and help, the members of the extended family will be expecting us to join them in finding ways to help the next generations of Colby students. For some of us that will mean getting involved in Colby clubs in cities across the nation. For others it will mean service as admission or career counselors. Some of us will become volunteers in even more substantial ways, as members of the Alumni Council or as overseers and trustees. In these and other ways, all of us will be expected to give back some part of our time and energy to the College. This is the Colby way, and it ensures that future generations of Colby students will have the same opportunities that we did during our time here.

In noting the things that we will take with us the day after tomorrow, I would be remiss in not mentioning perhaps the greatest gift of all—the relationships we’ve built here. I am thinking of the friendships we have made. But I am also thinking about all of the relationships we’ve had with coworkers, with faculty, with members of the administrative staff, with those who work in the dining and residence halls, with our coaches and mentors, and perhaps with alumni as well. All of these relationships are part of our Colby experience and soon to be memories. But they are not just memories. These relationships will endure, and they will be there for us to reengage and deepen when we’re ready.

And so, here we go—up and out into life after Colby. We know that there are no certainties, and we know that there will be challenges and surprises. But I hope you share with me the confidence that we take a great deal with us—the intellectual empowerment we’ve experienced here, a richer sense of our identities as individuals and as members of a common enterprise, a deeper and more empathetic understanding of the world around us and of our own possibilities within it, and the strength of the extended Colby community and the friendships that we’ve made here on Mayflower Hill. That’s a lot to start with; almost all the rest is about the effort and carefulness and integrity that we bring to the task and excitement of making our lives.

And so, here we go—up and out into life after Colby. We know that there are no certainties, and we know that there will be challenges and surprises.

I want to say in closing that it’s been an extraordinary pleasure and honor sharing this time and place with you. Thank you for your allowing me to observe your accomplishments and progress. And thank you, above all else, for permitting me to think of myself as your classmate. I will never forget this class or this moment of culmination and our stepping off together into our futures.

I’ll hope to see some of you at alumni events in the near future, in Washington, perhaps, and probably in other places as well. We will meet then as alumni of this wonderful place, and we will share our memories and reflections on what all of this has meant and still means. Until then, thank you for listening, good luck in the world that awaits, and congratulations on your accomplishments at Colby.

 

 

 

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