2002 Baccalaureate Address

President William Adams, May 25, 2002
Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and, of course, members of the Class of 2002, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby's 181st commencement weekend and celebration.
"And still we gather in this place and in this particular company....So it has been for 180 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least 180 more."

Standing in this building—the College chapel—and in this particular spot&mdashits pulpit—I cannot resist calling attention to the fact that the first 87 baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers. My faculty colleagues and members of the senior class will make the obvious connection: no wonder he likes to preach. We no longer wear the collar, but we still have the urge.

Thank goodness we are not so narrow-minded. Back in the rough-and-ready days of minister presidents and frontier temptations, I am sure the message of the baccalaureate sermon had invariably to do with concerns about what seniors might have been doing the night before. In these more sedate and sophisticated times, I have no doubt that your activities last night were honorable in every possible way.

And I am sure they will be equally honorable tonight. After all, your parents and relatives are in town, and they will be awake until at least 9:30 p.m. Once they have trundled off to bed, I am certain you will be eager to get in one last poetry reading, calculus problem, or late night argument over the ontological proof for the existence of God. In these and other ways, we are distinctly different from our predecessors.

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, apparently prepared for preaching; and the president rises from the pulpit to speak. So it has been for 180 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least 180 more.

A part of the explanation for such continuity is the simple urge to say farewell in a private and elemental way. This somewhat exclusive gathering of students and teachers reminds us of the undiluted essence 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 impossible task of summing up these encounters in the form of some last words about what all of it means. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, let me now summon my own form of goodbye on behalf of your many teachers at Colby.

No one saying farewell to this class could fail to comment on the extraordinary way in which your senior year began. For in the midst of an otherwise perfectly ordinary autumn day in Maine, history abruptly entered your lives and forever changed the way you will remember Colby, college life, and perhaps the rest of your lives.

However differently we have come to interpret the meaning and implications of that day, I bet all of us would come close to agreeing on what it felt like at the time.

In an absolutely surprising and uncanny way, the familiar concerns and preoccupations of everyday life--the organic chemistry test, the field hockey game, friendships and romance--were suddenly displaced by a drama of vastly different proportions. For an extended moment, distant events replaced local time and history. Our personal biographies were suddenly and weirdly connected to places and people we thought and knew little about. And we were reminded, in a terrifyingly graphic way, of our personal and physical vulnerability to forces outside our immediate control.

While these perceptions have faded over the months, they remain close to the surface. Each time I travel through the Portland Jetport, I am forced to recall the lingering, grainy image of Mohammed Atta as he passed by the airport security cameras there on his way to Boston and the World Trade Center. We all have our own versions of this reflexive recollection, which I suspect will never leave us entirely.

"Our personal biographies were suddenly and weirdly connected to places and people we thought and knew little about. And we were reminded, in a terrifyingly graphic way, of our personal and physical vulnerability to forces outside our immediate control."

This uncanny encounter with history, as I am calling it, is not exactly the stuff of normal college experience and memories. In the last 50 years in American life, I think it has happened only two or three times. And it has not happened with anything like the same force since the war in Vietnam, which for my generation was the defining context of college life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this very interesting way, your own college experience is connected to the experience of your parents.

It is understandable that you would regard the political aura that clings to your senior year at Colby with some ambivalence. But since that aura is inescapable--like the war in Vietnam was for your parents--I hope you will bear with me if I use it as a point of departure for my observations about the relationship of your Colby experience to what comes next.

Of course, in one very important sense it is entirely illusory to say that history entered your lives on September 11. The nature of that illusion crystallized for me in recalling a favorite saying of one of my best and most memorable college professors. "The future," he liked to tell us in a tone simultaneously detached and provocative, "the future is not some place we are going to--it is something we are making."

Adjusting the tense just a little, this means to me that the piece of history that inserted itself into our lives on September 11 was not something entirely new or disconnected from us. In fact, in almost every way it had been there for some time, taking shape just beyond the arc of attention and vision that constitutes our daily lives. We see that better now as we come to understand the broader drama of political, cultural, and perhaps religious conflict and difference that led to September 11. But it's worth remembering how utterly surprising it was at first.

We could all agree, I hope, that it would be better not to be so entirely surprised in the future. And that ambition, it seems to me, is going to be one of your key challenges as you make your way in the world as citizens and, I hope, as leaders of this country.

There at least two implications of that ambition. The first is that you have the concern and will to be looking steadily beyond the most immediate and compelling horizon of your lives and interests to the broader world of history that so clearly affects the first. The term "world" is both metaphorically apt and literally precise. More than any Colby class before you, the "world" is exactly what must interest you. And this is true in many ways that have nothing to do with conflict and terrorism. In this respect, your lives will be different from your parents' lives, at least in the magnitude of that truth.

The second implication is that you have the means to understand what is happening in this broader sphere of history making. By that I mean not so much the precise knowledge as the intellectual capacity to learn, to form judgments, to grasp the connections among things. None of us could hope to be sufficiently knowledgeable to have an immediate understanding of all the places and ways in which the world beyond our borders might affect us. But you can certainly have the capacity to learn quickly and to make meaningful and informed judgments.

On this last point, I can think of few experiences that will have better prepared you for what comes next than the liberal arts education you have pursued at Colby. Nothing better demonstrates the importance of an agile, sensitive, and broadly formed intelligence than the various forms and effects of what we have lately learned to think of as the globalization of our lives.

If that very general claim is unpersuasive, let me give you several compelling examples, the first somewhat distant and the others very near at hand.

Consider, for instance, the very interesting case of Bethany McClean, the first journalist to raise questions about the Enron Corporation's financial dealings. Her prophetic but largely unheeded story on Enron's strange accounting practices appeared in a Fortune magazine article fully six months before the story finally broke in a major way in the country's newspapers. As it turns out, Bethany McClean was not an experienced business reporter and she wasn't formally trained in issues of finance and accounting. Instead, she was a recent alumna of Williams College, where she majored--you guessed it--in English. "When you come out of a liberal arts background," she said in a New York Times story on her achievement, "you want to know why something is the way it is." And something about Enron's accounting seemed odd to her. The rest is history.

If that case is too remote, consider two individuals who will receive honorary degrees at your commencement tomorrow. In February, Robert Gelbard, Colby Class of 1964, returned from his post as U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia and concluded his distinguished career in the State Department. His many accomplishments included service as Director of South African Affairs and Special Representative of the President to the Balkans, where he helped bring an end to the most significant conflict in Europe since World War II. At Colby, Bob Gelbard majored in history, which obviously served him well in the challenges of history making.

"Nothing better demonstrates the importance of an agile, sensitive, and broadly formed intelligence than the various forms and effects of what we have lately learned to think of as the globalization of our lives."

And then there is Elizabeth Farnsworth, one of the most highly regarded television journalists in the country and currently senior correspondent on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Elizabeth attended a small liberal arts college in northern Vermont that competes with Colby in many areas. You know the one I mean. Her choice of college is the only blemish in an otherwise impressive career, which has lately included a most remarkable series on the Middle East and the relations of its peoples and nations to the United States in the wake of September 11. Her evident delight in receiving Colby's honorary degree stemmed, she told me, from her conviction that her liberal arts education was one of the chief reasons for her success as a journalist.

My point here is simple: never underestimate the quality and utility of what you have done here as a platform for engaging and understanding the thorny problems that will surely come your way in the years ahead. In ways you cannot now imagine, your Colby experience will return again and again to serve you.

But preparation and understanding are less important, I suspect, than interest and commitment. As we struggled to understand the new world that emerged from the tragedy of September 11, many Americans experienced a resurgence of civic spirit. Volunteerism and philanthropy blossomed, and for the first time in 30 years I was astonished to hear American college students talk positively and seriously about the prospect of military service.

How long this renewed interest in things public will last is hard to say. For the forces that pull us back into the shell of narrowly private activities and interests are powerful. Somewhere near the epicenter of those forces is the compelling and distinctively American temptation to believe that we are entirely self-made and that our successes are produced by our solitary efforts.

As an antidote to that illusion, I commend to you a different and older tradition of moral philosophy that grounds a healthy sense of public obligation in the facts of our social life and history. In this tradition our individual lives are understood to unfold within a broader network of reciprocal dependencies and duties. No one is self-made; all of us depend in some way on the efforts and gifts of others. And so we are obliged to complete the circle--to give back to the world and to others who gave to us.

I can't help thinking that something like this deeply intuitive sense of civic connection and obligation was at least a part of what compelled so many firefighters and policemen to climb the stairs of those burning towers in New York. Tomorrow we will honor that impressive group by conveying Colby's honorary degree to New York City firefighter Scott Cowan, who was at the World Trade Center on September 11. In honoring Mr. Cowan, we honor not only a group of heroic individuals but a certain spirit of civic commitment as well.

As you consider the public claims and opportunities that lie before you, I hope you will find time to contemplate the remarkable example of Colby's own history. Like most institutions of private higher education, Colby 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. There are few better examples of the power and significance of social reciprocity and giving back than the College itself. We succeed today because of the commitment of those who came before us.

In this as in so many other areas, the most powerful teachings are those that provide compelling models of the lesson. Colby is a wonderful model of a lesson that is now more important than ever to our students and our country.

Having now descended pretty far into the mode of preaching, it is probably time for me to stop. I will do so with a kind of confession.

The long tradition of the baccalaureate address at Colby is partly the result of the desire to say farewell in a private and elemental way, as I mentioned earlier. But for all those who now contemplate your remarkable potential and possibilities, it is also the result--here is the confession--of the nearly irresistible and apparently timeless urge to give advice.

The inner logic of that urge was very neatly captured for me in a recent movie that some of you must have seen. The movie is "K-PAX," and its plot revolves around the relationship between a psychiatrist and his deeply disturbed patient. The patient is convinced that he is visiting earth from another planet--K-PAX--by temporarily inhabiting the body of a human. The movie's enigmatic conclusion consists of the parting reflections of this alien visitor as he heads for home, communicated in a farewell message to his psychiatrist.

"The world changes quickly; life, as it turns out, is difficult; we do not always practice what we preach; and we often wish that we had."

"I want to tell you something, Mark, something you do not yet know, but that we K-PAXians have been around long enough to have discovered. The universe will expand, and then it will collapse back on itself, and then it will expand again. It will repeat this process forever. What you don't know is that when the universe expands again, everything will be as it is now. Whatever mistakes you make this time around you will live through in your next pass. Every mistake you make, you will live through again and again, forever. So my advice to you is to get it right this time, for this time is all you have."

We would save a great deal of time and paper if we could agree that every baccalaureate and commencement address across the country would consist only of these words.

For those who deliver baccalaureate and commencement addresses are almost always closer to the end of "this time around" than they are to its beginning. And they know how hard it is to get it right the first time. The world changes quickly; life, as it turns out, is difficult; we do not always practice what we preach; and we often wish that we had.

These simple truths, and the impulse to call attention to them, assert themselves as we look out upon you who are much closer to the beginning of the first time around. And as we look we are hopeful and eager that you will manage better than we have. You have talent, you have energy, and you are now equipped with the best of what we could give you in the time you have spent with us. And now you also have our advice, which of course makes everything possible.

We are reasonably confident that you will get it right. It has in any case been a pleasure watching you get ready to take your turn. In your company we find confirmed the meaning of what we do. And our engagements with the Class of 2002 have been very meaningful indeed.

Thank you, good luck to you, and goodbye.