2011 First-Year Assembly Address

President William D. Adams, Sept. 6, 2011

Audio

audio Listen to President Adams's Remarks (27:45)

First Steps Video

On the first day of orientation, Aug. 30, President William D. Adams and two deans welcomed the Class of 2015 in a ceremony on Miller Library's steps with brief talks that discussed intellectual challenge and community at Colby.
audio Watch President Adams's First Steps Address
audio Watch Dean Kletzer's First Steps Address
audio Watch Dean Terhune's First Steps Address

Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and, above all else today, members of the great Class of 2015 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.
 
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—nearly two hundred years—and in very much the same way. Faculty lead the way, dressed in formal academic regalia. This is one of the first of your many encounters with them. Their presence and yours symbolize the heart of the enterprise and what we are up to here—students and teachers gathered together in extended conversation about the world and things that matter. Of all the encounters you will have at Colby, your engagement with faculty is surely the most important.
 
Because we will celebrate Colby’s bicentennial next year, I should also point out that Lorimer Chapel was the first building erected on the Mayflower Hill campus. It’s hard to imagine Colby being anywhere else, but not so long ago—in every year before the year 1937, to be exact—this convocation would have been held on the downtown Waterville campus along the banks of the Kennebec River.
 
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 they conclude.
 
Fortunately or unfortunately, both of these moments—saying hello and farewell—involve advice. Literary theorists in the audience will recognize these as instances of “didactic literature.” It probably can’t be helped; that’s what convocation and commencement addresses almost invariably are.
 
What I can promise is that, in your four years here, there will be only two such moments involving the president. The rest, including our future interactions, will be much more spontaneous and interactive.
 
My advice to you today takes shape around three words: engage, explore, and listen.
 
Engagement is at the top of my list because we’ve learned so much in recent years about the relationship between the intensity of student engagement in college and both achievement and satisfaction. The research can be distilled pretty simply: the more actively and intensely you’re engaged with your work here, and the more varied the forms of engagement, the more meaningful, richly rewarding, and successful you, and we, will be.
 
By engagement I mean in part a certain attitude on your part—inquisitive, curious, eager, excited. But engagement also implies your involvement in certain activities. First and foremost are the opportunities Colby offers you to work with faculty in real and consequential forms of scholarship. Intensity of interest is one of the things that faculty respond to best, and when you express your interest you will find this faculty will be very responsive indeed.
 
You will also find that your academic programs are loaded with other opportunities for engagement outside the classroom—lectures, advisory groups, discussion groups, and manifold opportunities to participate in informal intellectual encounters with other students. You will also find opportunities to engage in practical learning and public service of various kinds—in Waterville, central Maine, and beyond—where what you learn in the classroom gets tested against the stuff of the real world.
 
Your investment in these activities will be returned to you again and again, and nowhere more meaningfully than in the permanent fortification of your basic intellectual capacities.
 
What we as teachers know is that the principal obstacle to the sort of engagement I am recommending 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 classrooms and laboratories and listening politely to others. Listening matters greatly in certain ways and moments—I will come back to this shortly—but the real key to your intellectual growth here is your personal and passionate engagement.
 
So engage! Push yourselves and your fellow students and the faculty who teach you. Don’t be afraid of the front row, in both the physical and metaphorical meanings of that term.
 
Last week I had a chance to share some thoughts with your parents about the mission of the College. Some you were there and know that I talked at some length about Steve Jobs’s very recent announcement that he is stepping down as CEO of Apple. I found the various media reactions to that announcement both fascinating and relevant to what you’re about to encounter at Colby.
 
Some of the commentary recalled a commencement address that Jobs delivered at Stanford in 2005. I’ve talked about that address in this place once before—in my baccalaureate address two years ago. I want to share a piece of his address with you because I think it’s so perfectly suited to this moment and to the meaning of my second word of the day—explore.
 
As some of you know, Steve Jobs went to Reed, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. He dropped out after one semester (this is not the point of the story, by the way), but he hung around Reed for another year or so auditing classes. One of the classes he audited was an art history course in calligraphy. Here is what he said about that course 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. 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.

There’s a lot worth considering in that passage, and first and foremost its ‘you never know what will be meaningful or useful’ admonition. “None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life,” he said; and, “Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college.
 
I think most of us who can look back on college (and still remember what we did there) would agree with the spirit of Jobs’s reflection. And with the corollary proposition that right now, today, many of your predictions about what you’ll be doing the day after your own graduation are wrong. Of course you have some ideas, and you have some anxiety about how to get your academic program to lead you to a vocation, but it’s important not to let that anxiety rule you, or you will miss the core of what’s on offer here at Colby. The conclusion one should draw from Jobs’s story is that exploration—opening oneself up to brand-new things—is one of the key imperatives of the next few years.
 
One can certainly understand why you might be anxious about life after Colby. We heard more bad news last Friday about employment, or the lack of it, in the United States. Indeed, the summer has been a long, relentless drumbeat about the lousy outlook for the American and world economy.
 
If Steve Jobs’s story about calligraphy is not sufficiently persuasive regarding the importance of exploring new things, consider the commentary that has greeted his recent announcement. I mentioned to your parents the interesting article by Steve Lohr in the New York Times one week ago Sunday. In that article, Lohr meditated on Jobs’s creative intelligence and cited approvingly a recent book published by the Harvard Business Review: The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.
 
Referring to the principal arguments of that book, Lohr makes explicit the connection between Jobs’s remarkable creative and imaginative powers and a broader array of fundamental intellectual tendencies and capacities—the “innovator’s DNA.” It’s an interesting array, and one that is certainly relevant to what we’re up to here at Colby. The five key skills of disruptive innovators are observing, questioning, experimenting, networking, and associating.
 
One might divide these skills into two groups, one involving analytical and empirical exercises and capacities—“ observing,” “questioning,” and “experimenting”—and the other requiring creative synthesis and conceptual ability—“associating” and “networking.” Lohr notes that Steve Jobs is an enormously astute and practiced observer, questioner, experimenter. But Jobs joins these talents to the uncanny ability to bring previously unconnected facts and fields of knowledge together in new and startling combinations. The Harvard Business Review authors call these combinations “idea mash-ups.” Real innovation, they assert, requires the radical recombination of ideas that were previously thought to have no connection.
 
I can’t imagine a better path to the acquisition of “creative intelligence” and the capacity to effect “idea mash-ups” than the one you have before you at Colby. For the innovators’ DNA is in some important ways very like our DNA—the liberal arts DNA. What we are after, in the end, is your broad intellectual empowerment along the lines of observing, questioning, experimenting, associating, and networking.
 
We certainly hope and expect that this empowerment will involve and flow from your exposure to specific disciplines and programs. And it may be that your intimate acquaintance with chemistry or computer science or art or economics or Chinese or calligraphy—and in some cases more than one of these—will create a path to a profession. 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, you will experience a more general kind of intellectual empowerment that will serve you throughout your lives after Colby and in every professional context you inhabit.
 
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 carefully at the precepts, now and periodically as you make your way through Colby. As you do so, I hope you will ask yourselves how you are doing in terms of the specific aspirations the precepts set forth.
 
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, and 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 enduring and most fundamental goals of the liberal arts experience. As your teachers, we are thinking constantly about how our specialized interests and work are exercising and enlarging those capacities. As students, you need to be constantly checking in on 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.
 
So explore! And explore with confidence. Wherever you go in Colby’s curriculum, you will be deepening your capacity to observe, to question, to experiment, to associate, to communicate, to think, and to create.
 
Just so you won’t imagine that I am totally clueless regarding that pesky career anxiety, I do want you to know that there is one very, very important thing you can do to cope productively with that anxiety. As soon as you are able, and certainly before the end of the semester, spend time at Colby’s excellent Career Center. Roger Woolsey and his team have devised a wonderful four-year program—Colby Connect—that will insert you into the sorts of preparatory exercises that will serve you well as you contemplate life after Colby. The Career Center team is particularly eager to meet you. You will be glad you met them, and so will your parents.
 
My last piece of advice involves the art of listening.
 
Even as we focus on intellectual empowerment here at Colby, 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 beliefs and certainties, including your own and those of others around you. But please do not confuse such questioning with moral cynicism. Our desire is not that you come away from Colby without conviction, but that your convictions become more thoughtful and reasoned, and that you understand the broader context in which values and value systems originate, develop, and interact.
 
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 the world around you. Whatever the particular object of your enthusiasms, you should know that the desire to influence events, along with the skill to do so, belong among the fundamental goals of liberal learning. 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.
 
Our appreciation of the importance of civic and moral engagement brings with it certain obligations. The first is an appetite among all of us 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 a little noisy. 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. 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 perhaps 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 fairly serious 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 or start shouting, 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. 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 completely 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 public 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 or explicit regulations. 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 interpersonal relations about what is appropriate and inappropriate, respectful and hurtful, civil and uncivil. I am sure you will live up to these expectations.
 
Our appreciation and practice of civility is especially important in light of the growing diversity of the College. As you’ve heard from Terry Cowdrey, yours is one of the most diverse classes in Colby’s history. You come from all over the world and from different material circumstances and cultural backgrounds. You have a great deal in common, but it’s also important to be mindful of, and interested in, the ways in which you are different.
 
This diversity is a very good thing, of course, for we are convinced that our differences enhance dramatically the educational experience we are able to provide. So valuing our differences is part of the College’s agenda, and it must be part of yours as well.
 
This sounds easy, but in practice it can be very hard, for really valuing our differences necessarily throws us outside our comfort zones and into other zones where unfamiliar assumptions and perspectives prevail.
 
Being able to listen carefully for and to those different assumptions and perspectives is vital. And so too is your continuous awareness of the fact that your own experience of the world is neither universal nor identical to the experiences of others. All of this implies, and finally requires, real sensitivity on your part, and a certain thoughtfulness and deliberateness in the ways you interact with one another.
 
Engage, explore, listen: that’s the end and sum of my advice. I hope the thoughts I’ve shared with you will come back to you from time to time as you make your way through this first year of college life. 
 
The other thing I hope you’ll recall is what I shared with you on the steps of the library last week. Colby’s existence and fundamental well-being have depended on the enduring care and support of its alumni—that is to say, its former students—over now nearly two centuries. In that long span of time, there have been good times and bad, times when the College seemed to be rolling easily along and others when its very existence was in doubt. But the care and affection of alumni have been constant factors in our longevity and success.
 
One of our fundamental hopes for you while you’re here is that you will develop a keen sense for both the College’s history and for the many ways in which your experience here is grounded on the hard work and generosity of those who have preceded you. 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, among many other places. 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.
 
You are now part of a community that lives in time as well as in space. As you become members of the extended Colby community, you become a part of something larger than yourselves. Your presence here obliges you not just to understand that fact but eventually to find the ways in which you too can be bearers and champions of the Colby legacy.
 
What you share with the extended Colby family, in addition to the experience of Mayflower Hill, is the excitement of being part of an important and thrilling 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 exploring and 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,” which is still apt but for the fact that the adventure 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.
 
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 Colby. Between now and then, you have a singular opportunity, one that will never be repeated in your lifetimes, to focus exclusively on learning and the development of your talents, interests, and basic intellectual capacities. I urge you to seize it.
 
Welcome to Colby, then, and to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery. Four years from now you will return to this place for more advice. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to stop by my office, to talk to me when you see me on the campus, or to ask me to lunch. I’ll buy. We’re all teachers here, in our own ways, and I’ll do my best to be involved in your lives.
 
Good luck, thanks for listening, and have a wonderful first year at Colby.