2011 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 21, 2011

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 2011, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 190th Commencement.
Students value traditions, I know, so I’ll begin as I customarily do by reminding us all 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 the day before commencement.

A lot has changed, at Colby and elsewhere. But we continue to meet in this special place and company. We dress up and march to the chapel in our medieval garb; the seniors come together as a class for nearly the last time; the president rises to speak. It has been so for 190 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more at least.

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 about and where the most important things have happened—among students and teachers and among students and classmates, in both formal and informal places and ways.

The president is supposed to say something meaningful and memorable 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 to the senior class and share some reflections on how your Colby experience has prepared you for what lies ahead.

But before getting to that central and serious business, I want to respond to a few more immediate questions that I know are on your minds.

First, I am aware that there is a lot of curiosity and speculation among you as to whether or not I attended the Wiz Khalifa concert. I am sorry to say that I did not. I was in Ohio, which, although he’s from Pittsburgh, is pretty far away from Wiz Khalifa in several senses. Believe me, I would much rather have been here with all of you and Wiz here on Mayflower Hill.

I’ve heard many good things about the concert, but one report caused me to worry. It concerned a T-shirt that Wiz was selling at the concert. Perhaps you know the one I mean, referring to certain social behaviors that we at Colby have been attempting to discourage. I found the T-shirt on Wiz’s website and bought it, just to see for myself. Of course, I can’t show it to you now, even though I’m wearing it under my suit, given our immediate surroundings and the sobriety of this occasion. But it refers, as you know, to certain evening indulgences and next morning consequences.

I am not sure how many of you purchased one of these T-shirts. But whether you did or didn’t, you may be interested in another T-shirt opportunity, which I offer to you today on special terms as a kind of rebuke to Mr. Khalifa’s imprudent suggestions. It comes to us courtesy of the Class of 2003, which presented it to me on or around the occasion of its commencement. On the front it reads: “Fight Brohibition.” And on the back, this interesting, if somewhat partisan, definition: “Brohibition: n 1: Policy advocating the banning of alcohol at small liberal arts colleges, esp. hard alcohol. (How prescient was that?) 2: the act of typecasting responsible college students as juvenile delinquents. 3: A blatant infringement upon our rights as students and adults.”

Today, but only today, I am pleased to offer this collector’s edition of the Brohibition T-shirt for the extremely low price of a $10 donation to the senior class gift drive. Please see one of my personal representatives at the door.

And speaking of the creative humor of Colby students, in looking at Wiz’s website I realized that he and I have something else in common: tweeting. As you might suppose, Wiz’s tweets are colorful and, like his T-shirt, inappropriate to share on this occasion. Some of you might have seen my recent tweets in the latest edition of InsideColby. And perhaps the content of those tweets caused you some surprise and even discomfort. Well, worry no more: it was a joke! More precisely, it was the joke issue of the Echo, masquerading as InsideColby. I want to share my congratulations with the editorial staff, and particularly those who are members of this class. Many things have changed from year to year at Colby, but the inclination of students to make fun of the president is not one of them. Don’t worry—I can take it. You were worried, weren’t you?

And now on to more serious things and the central purpose of this gathering.

Commencement, as we know, is a time chiefly of celebration for you and your families and your teachers. There are many things to celebrate: the conclusion of this important passage in your lives; the many good and interesting things you have done here; the friendships you have built over the past several years, among other things. For us who remain, there is also the satisfaction of seeing another group of talented young people leave us with greater capacity and confidence than they had when they arrived.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we also know that there are considerable anxieties lurking beneath this celebratory mood. There is the anxiety, first of all, of leaving this physical place, Mayflower Hill, that you’ve called home. In a related but even more powerful way, there is the anxiety of saying farewell to friends you have come to know in your time here—friends who are classmates, of course, but also friends on the faculty and staff with whom you have worked in your time here. And perhaps most potent of all, there is the anxiety regarding what comes next in the way of work and professional engagement. Indeed, I bet that the sudden relevance of the words “profession” or “occupation” or “vocation” is pretty jarring in itself.

I won’t try to relieve you entirely of any one of these anxieties; I can’t do that and you wouldn’t believe me if I tried. But I’d like to share some thoughts that might prove meaningful to you, even confidence building, on the day after tomorrow.

Two weeks from now, Colby will host reunions for 12 classes of alumni, five years apart, ranging from the Class of 2006 to the Class of 1951, which will be celebrating its 60th reunion this year. Individuals from classes prior to 1951 also attend reunion and celebrate together as the Golden Mules. Last year, the most distinguished member of that very distinguished group was Beth Pendleton Clark, who was celebrating her 75th reunion. When Beth Pendleton Clark graduated from Colby, in 1935, the Mayflower Hill campus was still a dream in the minds of the president and trustees.

The sheer arithmetic of reunion is impressive and speaks to the depth and persistence of the Colby connection. But what you can’t sense in the math is the spirit of place and friendship that are so pervasive in these gatherings. No matter how long people have been away from Colby, the place continues to thrill and inspire those who return. And some significant number of the human connections—the friendships—also remain, despite time and distance.

Of course, no friendship is guaranteed to last forever. And like every other form of human relationship, friendship takes effort and care. But as you leave this place and one another, you can be sure that many of the relationships you have established here will endure. Some will continue in very regular and familiar ways. As I travel around the country, I come into contact with alumni who are living in close proximity and see one another regularly. Other friendships will need to be rekindled from time to time, including in the virtual spaces so many of you have mastered, like Facebook and Twitter. But just like this place, Mayflower Hill, those friendships will remain available to you and ready for your return.

The common link between place and people is Colby. The College is the bond that now unites all of you, and that connects you to more than 25,000 other alumni. You will begin soon to experience firsthand something I told you when you arrived—that Colby is not just a place in Waterville, Maine, but a community in both space and time that reaches around the country and increasingly around the world.

I was powerfully reminded of that fact again this year as I travelled around the country thanking Colby’s alumni and friends for their support of the recently concluded Reaching the World campaign. We had gatherings in nearly every part of the country—in Portland, Boston, New York, Hartford, Providence, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other places I’m probably forgetting.

In nearly every one of these places I had breakfasts for small groups of young alumni. By “young” I mean those who have graduated within the last ten years or so, which seems pretty young to me, though not, probably, to you. Among all of the things I do with alumni, these breakfasts have been some of the most gratifying for me personally. I think that’s because I can see so clearly the profound impact that Colby has had on personal lives and professional careers.

And here’s the really good news. Almost without exception, these young alumni feel very well prepared indeed. What is even more exciting to me is the fact that almost to a person these young alums agree that among their most important advantages are the basic intellectual capacities that we prize so highly at Colby—the capacity to communicate, to think, and to exercise creativity and imagination. But they are also quite adamant about the value of the social and emotional skills they acquired at Colby, both in and outside the classroom, especially those involving their ability to engage and work with other people.

I was not at all surprised to hear the positive reports about the importance of their capacities and advantages as communicators and thinkers. Among the first things you heard from me here at Colby was this anticipation regarding your intellectual development here, delivered in the fall convocation address. I said:

Our deeper hope and expectation is that, wherever you end up in Colby’s interesting array of programs, each one of you, and in very much the same ways, will experience a more general kind of intellectual empowerment that will serve you in any and every kind of work you end up doing in your lives after Colby. The sense of empowerment I am referring to will take the form of your confidence in a number of very basic intellectual capacities…: 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, integrate; and finally, your ability to exercise your imaginations and creative powers.
I was frankly less well prepared to hear the part about the importance of social and the emotional capacities to engage and work with others. We know that many forms of learning go on outside the classroom at Colby, and we know that much of that learning goes on among students in all kinds of places and ways. Still, I was unable to appreciate the full import of this notion of social capacity until I happened on a recent column by David Brooks of the New York Times. Perhaps you saw it. Brooks’s column was titled “The New Humanism,” and its thesis goes something like this: our tendency in this technological age is to divide our rational selves from our emotional selves and to value the rational over the emotional.

Thinking about ourselves in this narrowly bifurcated way creates lots of problems, Brooks argues, including recurring failures of imagination and foresight when it comes to understanding human behavior. “I’ve come to believe,” he writes, “that these failures spring from a single failure; reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society—not only in the policy spheres but in other spheres—that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the degree that reason can suppress and surpass the passions.”

For Brooks, this skewed view of human nature leads to an equally skewed view of knowledge and what he calls “human capital.” The rationalist paradigm privileges things like IQ and SAT scores and professional degrees and competencies over, he says, “a range of deeper talents, which can span reason and emotion and make hash of both categories.” The rationalist paradigm also bends our attention away from social insights and impulses in favor of a highly individualistic view of the world, of knowledge, and of moral life.

What are these “deeper talents” Brooks has in mind? It’s a fascinating list and includes the following:

“Attunement: the ability to enter into other minds and learn what they have to offer;

“Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings;

“Métis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations;

“Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and to thrive in groups.

“Limerance: [the inclination]…to those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for one another, the challenge of a task or the love of God.”

In championing these “deeper talents binding reason and emotion,” Brooks does not mention the liberal arts ideal and tradition, but it seems to me that he easily could have. And in that sense what he prescribes is not really a new humanism so much as it is the rearticulation of an old and very familiar ambition that is central to the ideal of liberal learning.

That ambition has been expressed in various ways in the long history of thinking about liberal education: “the education of the whole person,” “moral education,” the cultivation of “emotional intelligence,” to name a few. In his great work on moral education, Emile, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau described it as “the perfection of reason by sentiment”—as the enlargement and refinement of our capacity for sympathy. At bottom, all of these formulations have to do with the attempt to generate the fullest possible understanding of what it means to be human and how we create and share a world with others.

For you and for us, this enlargement of understanding of the human has occurred both within and outside your academic endeavors and experiences. In the classroom you’ve been asked to grasp ways of life that were unfamiliar to you; to perceive the patterns and contradictions in social and cultural systems; to enter imaginary, fictional worlds where human lives are laid bare and sometimes distorted to expose new truths and possibilities; to inspect and question your own values and assumptions in sometimes jarring ways. All of this and more has contributed to the formation of those deep social talents David Brooks calls attunement, equipoise, and sympathy.

But I also know that these same talents have just as surely been shaped by your lives with one another, outside the walls of Colby’s academic buildings. And probably nowhere more clearly or obviously than in your efforts to build a community with one another that embraces your similarities and your differences. Colby has some distance left to travel on the road to representing the fullest and most robust diversity, but I bet that for many of you Colby contained more forms of difference—not just of background but also of thinking—than you had previously encountered. Because I read the Digest of Civil Discourse, I know that understanding and appreciating one another in all of your differences has not always been an easy task. But here you are, a community of classmates in very real and meaningful ways, sharing many important things, and about to move out together into the waiting world. You have indeed succeeded in constructing a kind of community here, and in that process you have learned a lot about yourselves as social beings and agents.

As I contemplate your intellectual, social, and emotional talents and progress, and addressing that largest of all your possible anxieties today, I offer this summary piece of advice: be confident. You’re good and you’re ready. You’ve received a terrific education here, an education of your rational, social, and emotional selves. And keep in mind what young alumni have told me over and over: your understanding and appreciation of the power of your Colby education will grow with time. Looking back in two or five or eight years, you, too, will discern your distinct advantages and how best to employ them.

Your confidence should be bolstered by the fact that you have more than 25,000 potential advisors, networkers, and mentors out there waiting for you to join them as members of the extended Colby alumni 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 to a community such as this.

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

You have a wonderful start on the road to giving back. More than 67 percent of this class has already given to the senior class gift drive, and I’m sure that will rise with this T-shirt offer. And there’s still time between now and tomorrow morning to shatter last year’s record and reach your class goal of 90 percent. Thanks for this early and impressive expression of generosity. I hope, and I know, it will continue.

I’ve spent a lot of time today talking about things you have acquired here at Colby and that you will take 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 colleagues here in saying that we are very grateful to you for letting us be involved in this remarkably interesting and promising 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 is about the realization of potential. So thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, and for your commitment.

Tomorrow is a more public day and occasion, with happy crowds of family and friends looking on. And the sun will come out. 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 together during these last several years.

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.

For now, thank you again for your many contributions, good luck to you, and goodbye.


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