2002 First-Year Assembly Address

President William Adams, September 3, 2002
This [assembly] is, of course, primarily about you, the members of the Class of 2006, our 185th, but its also a moment in which we bring ourselves together in a formal recognition of this time of collective beginning and renewal.
"You are moving from the Colby of your imagination to Colby in its reality–with real people, real classmates, real faculty colleagues. And you must be wondering, in the midst of everything else that's going through your minds, what kind of place this is, really."

There's a symmetry that I remarked upon when I first saw you on the Miller lawn last week, and that was that the first moment of welcoming to Colby happens in the very spot where we will recognize your achievements four years from now at Commencement. There's another symmetry here today: this is one of only two occasions when the president has the opportunity to address Colby classes in their entirety. The other is the baccalaureate address, also roughly four years from now, where for the second and last time Ill see you again and share some thoughts with you. In both instances my approach is to try to stand for a moment in your shoes and to think about what is happening to you and going through your minds.

You are moving from the Colby of your imagination to Colby in its reality–with real people, real classmates, real faculty colleagues. And you must be wondering, in the midst of everything else that's going through your minds, what kind of place this is, really. I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on some things about this community, to talk for a moment about the nature of any college community, but also, most especially, this one, as you go through this important time of transition.

As I say that and the seriousness of that topic settles in on you, I can feel some of you wince. This is indeed a kind of high-minded topic and maybe the first of a long series of associations in your minds between the president and ponderous subject matters. Let me qualify this immediately by saying that one of the things you need to know about this place is that not everything that goes on here is perfectly serious. There is also a great deal of the comic and the playful. I recommend to you right off the bat that one of the qualities you need to cultivate is a sense of humor, and at times even of the absurd, as well as the ability to suspend belief as if you were watching a play.

Some symbolic antidotes that you might keep in mind when seriousness descends upon you are these: keep in your minds the fact that the mascot of Colby College is the white mule. I have a great deal of respect for mules. They are admirable in many ways. But I think you'll agree they're also slightly comic. More locally, there is another mascot which some of you have become aware of, my family's pig, available for inspection on the lawn of the Presidents House when you have a moment. And again, if you descend into too much seriousness, come by. He will amuse you.

That's a segue into the primary offering I have today, which is simply this: I want to suggest to you that a college community, and this community in particular, is something of a paradox, a unity of unlikely and in some sense opposed things, a strange mixture of things. The things I'm thinking about are pairs of opposition, of the unreal, or the irreal, if I can invent that word, and at the same time, the really real –a mixture of the separate and the connected. A mixture of the abstract and the concrete, all of which is embodied in a very helpful metaphor often applied to this college, "a city on a hill."

Of course, the hill part is obvious. Here we are on Mayflower Hill in this particular place overlooking the valley and the town to which we belong. But we are also a city, and that conjures all of the complex and urgent things we know go on in cities. I want to explore the paradox that's embedded in that phrase as well, and I begin by offering some thoughts on the sense of separation or abstraction or unreality that seems to be characteristic of college communities.

That sense is, first of all, physical, as I've already implied. We are on this hill, removed in some way from other parts of the world. This must have been intentional. This campus was redesigned and lifted out of Waterville beginning in the 1930s, at least from a planning point of view, and now here it is in this unique and special place.

"There is no other place in the world that we are accustomed to, day in and day out, which is so concerned with ideas and the life of a mind."

But the separation I mean to evoke here is not simply physical. It is also intellectual. This is a place where ideas and the life of the mind are the central aspects of what we do and what we care about. It is the atmosphere and also the preoccupation of this community. There is no other place in the world that we are accustomed to, day in and day out, which is so concerned with ideas and the life of a mind.

The separation is also moral, with respect to the absence of a certain kind of necessity here. This is a place where you are very deliberately separated from certain kinds of necessities that other people in the world have to deal with. That is important to your growth; it gives you the time you need to do the things you need to do in this educational program. There is a high degree, therefore, of what sometimes is called "negative liberty" in a college community, but its also a place of extensive positive freedom.

You're urged, and I will be the first to begin urging you, to try things on while you're here at Colby, to go to places where you haven't been before intellectually, emotionally, and in other ways that Ill suggest. And it is also the case that taking risks is supported by a certain muting of the consequences of those risks. We want to be supportive of you in those ways, and so we are.

The confirming evidence for me of this aspect of unreality or removal that I'm talking about is very visible to me at commencement, when there is what I have come to regard as the "deer in the headlights" phenomenon, the seniors contemplating the departure that faces them immediately after that commencement ceremony and the prospect, among other things, of going to work and all of the anxiety and other kinds of emotions that provokes. I think it reminds us all of the way in which this is, in some ways, a world apart.

But what I also want to suggest against the background of this, perhaps a little bit trite, description of an academic community is just the opposite–that there are ways this place and places like it are really real or hyper real or super real. In many ways they intensify reality. They involve the magnification of experiences and of the world. The two most powerful ways that I can think of in which this happens are in your living with one another and in the educational process itself.

With respect to your living with others you have to go no further than the setting in which you now find yourselves. Here you all are in this incredibly compressed space, cheek by jowl. Inescapable, really, your colleagues are, day in and day out. You eat together, you work together, you study together. It is a kind of no exit, though a happy one I hope, most of the time. This compression of space speaks a lot about the way in which this experience is very real, but think too against the background of the remarkable people that you are in such close quarters with and the differences and diversity they bring into your lives, the differences in origins and backgrounds. The differences in racial and ethnic backgrounds and traditions; the differences in beliefs–religious beliefs but also political convictions and other forms of beliefs–differences in sexual orientation, differences of lifestyle and on and on. I bet for most of you this is the most eclectic community that you have so far been involved with.

What is before you is the challenge of building and sustaining relationships among and with people fundamentally different from the people that you've been involved with heretofore in your lives. And secondly, learning from one another. I think the most difficult aspect is, in the course of building those friendships and learning from one another, forging a sense of community here. A community inevitably and necessarily among differences. A community not of sameness, but of diversity. That is an exceptionally difficult challenge and it is something that very few of the rest of the people in the world that I know have to confront in quite the compressed and heightened way that is now before you. In this sense this community is really real, and the challenges of it are also very real.

The prize in all of that is tremendous opportunities for personal growth for you, for change in ways that you cant now even imagine, for deep and lasting friendships of a quality probably that you haven't experienced before, and in the end, a sense of belonging to the greater community of Colby that goes way beyond the confines of this campus and stretches out increasingly around the world.

There's another factor that complicates all of this for you, and it is the most important one of all: it is the educational mission of the College and certain existential realities of that process. Remember what I said before about the centrality of ideas here, our mission really is to bring you into the presence of the power and significance of ideas and also to foster in you a sense of deep and thoroughgoing critical judgment. What do I mean by these things? First and foremost, please understand that I mean the word "idea" in a very loose and comprehensive way. I mean to include all of the ways in which we deal with representations of the world–with artistic expression, with various kinds of ideas and methods and discoveries that you will encounter in the natural sciences, and with the methodologies and approaches and experiments of the social sciences and in the humanities in the presence of texts of literature and other sorts of representations of human experience.

What is important for you to understand here and what is very, very real about this place is that we are going to try in every way we can to expose you to the materiality and force of ideas, to the way in which they matter in the world and the way in which they open up the living of real human lives that go on every day in our lives and the lives beyond the campus. And furthermore, these things I'm calling ideas not only shed light on our human experience but also have tremendously significant consequences in the world. In the course of most of our lives in the world we don't have time to thematize and articulate and to pull out of experience for inspection.

This community has a very high degree of investment in what I'm calling ideas. There is an emotional connection here, not just a rational connection, and that emotional investment is critical to understanding what goes on here. I dare say that all of you will also need to have that emotional investment to maximize the value of this experience for the rest of your lives. This is a place that is passionate about these things.

I also mentioned the importance to us of critical judgment, and here too we come upon a very important part of what we do at Colby. We are trying to acquaint you with a deep and thoroughgoing form of skepticism that leads you into a process of self examination and the questioning of assumptions and claims that all of you, that all of us, live with all the time but which here we bring up daily and in great detail and with great energy for our collective inspection and discussion and debate. We want you to become participants in that process of examination.

"The differences here are as vital and as likely as the sameness and the things that we share. This is just the way it is....The key question, for us and for you, is how do we make this work?"
What does all that mean when combined with what I mentioned before about the way your lives are lived here? Here we all are, you are, in these very close quarters, living very intimately with one another among differences that we have described, in the midst of this passionate emotional caldron of ideas and in a place where there is a certain cultivation of skepticism and critical judgment as an important ingredient of what we do. The very predictable outcome of that is that this college community, and I think any college community, is a place of predictable and inevitable tensions in our relationships. There is a constant clash, sometimes louder than others, of beliefs and values. This is the stuff of college life. This is what it is about. We argue and we disagree and we contest with one another what is true, what is right, and all of the things that go along with that. So this is a very complicated form of community. More complicated perhaps than any other you have been involved with. Its tone is sometimes noisy and edgy and provocative. Its kind of "out there," to use a term that my son uses to describe me sometimes. And this is true about its structure as well as its tone. The differences here are as vital and as likely as the sameness and the things that we share. This is just the way it is. This is what college is about–its a necessary part of our mission. But you can also imagine there's a kind of problem associated with this. And that's the problem of this finely balanced community coming out of balance from time to time and falling into a kind of disintegrating mode. The key question, for us and for you, is how do we make this work? How do you preserve a community of this kind and under what conditions? How can we have both this tense disagreement at times and also a certain kind of solidarity?

Let me propose an answer. I think the way we keep it together is through the cultivation of a kind of virtue. That is to say, the cultivation of a kind of excellence, in the original meaning of that word, or, if you will, a capacity, an ability, that we all have to have in some measure or another. Its important to understand that virtue, and the name I want to give to it is civility.

Theresa an initial awkwardness in this term that I want to be up front about right away because I think in common sense this idea of civility is often opaque and distorted and misunderstood. We typically think of civility as a private virtue. It is about manners and politeness. Its associated meanings are reserve and being quiet and passivity, being nice. I remember my mother looking at me at dinner and saying, "Be civil." I'm sure you've experienced things like that, too. That's not what I mean by civility. I have an alternative understanding in mind, and I must give credit here to something I read by one of our own thinkers, [Prof. Of Philosophy] Cheshire Calhoun, who has written on this subject. The civility I have in mind is really a public and political virtue and capacity, not a private one. It happens in public places and in public exchanges like this community. Its about our individual actions, but only in a public place. Its key elements seem to me to be this: first of all, to be really civil we have to have a commitment to affection for the community of which we are a part. Otherwise it doesn't make any sense. We have to have, secondly, a respect and tolerance for individuals not simply in the way in which they are like us, but, most especially, in the ways they are not like us. And third, I think, elemental to civility is the notion that it is basically about communication. That is to say, it happens only in communication and its effects and nature are demonstrated in the communications we have with others. Finally, civility has to do with something like self-control. But what does it look like in action? What do these elements look like when you put them together?

I think it involves listening and openness. Listening especially to things that are hard to hear, that we don't like to hear. That challenge us. That makes us uncomfortable and nervous and anxious. A kind of openness to that experience which is very hard. An invitation to others who make us uncomfortable in their differences to keep on talking to us about things they're thinking and caring about. And a response to those others in those uncomfortable especially moments but not just those. A response to those others that invites continuation of the conversation. That doesn't shut it down. That keeps it going. Also, civility in action involves the use of public language. That is to say, things and words and ideas that other people can understand, that aren't private or obscure in some way that also closes communication. Finally, civility is always about shared things, not private things. That is to say, civil exchanges between people do not reduce themselves to personal attributes. They're not about the character of somebody. They're about the ideas that are being expressed. In action in these ways it seems to me the purpose and promise of civility is first of all the creation of a community as a common ground of rational and emotional dialogue. Reason in these ways is always accompanied by emotion and also the preservation beyond that creation of a community in a state of creative tension, going back to the idea I presented earlier.

This is certainly not easy. It is not always comfortable. It is certainly not passionless or emotionless and it is not, as I have been trying to say, personal. It sounds like a line from the Godfather. Alternatively, in related but slightly different ways, civility will not alleviate the tensions of a community. It does not require disinterest. It does not require passivity, and it does not require agreement. What it does require, I think, is a commitment on your parts and all of our parts to communication and to conversation that is deep and abiding.

So what, circling back, does this all have to do with Colby as a community? I think you're going to find a number of very important things here. You're going to find an abundance of care and concern among the people who live and work here. You're going to find among one another very strong and abiding personal relationships, and I bet most of you will have very strong and abiding personal relationships with faculty and staff at Colby. You will find it to be a place of very strong and lively intellectual commitments, as I've indicated, and, therefore, strong arguments and disagreements. Also, I hope, you will discover its up in part to you to make it a place of civility. That is to say, where there is a strong communal sensibility. Where there is very strong tolerance and respect and where there is a will to communication among people especially as they differ.

"Engage this place in every way you can, and engage it emotionally as well as intellectually....And finally, most importantly, as I indicated at the beginning, with humor."

This flows rather naturally and finally into advice. How could a President stand in front of a new class and not give advice? Engage this place in every way you can, and engage it emotionally as well as intellectually. Stretch yourselves. Take calculated risks with the kinds of friends you seek, in the courses you take, in the ideas you're willing to explore. Explore those ideas passionately but also with civility. And finally, most importantly, as I indicated at the beginning, with humor. This is especially important because I think humor presents us with opportunities for irony and the detachment that we all need from time to time. Think about the mule and the pig. They will restore you.

For my part, I promise there will be no more presidential lectures and advice until the baccalaureate. In the meantime, good luck to you. Thanks for being here and for listening.