2012 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 19, 2012

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 2012, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 191st Commencement.

Students value traditions, I know, so I’ll begin this address 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—that is, for as long as students have been graduating from the College. This tradition becomes especially meaningful as we approach the formal opening of Colby’s bicentennial celebrations next fall.

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 a warm spring day.

A lot has changed, at Colby and elsewhere, and I won’t be delivering a sermon. 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 191 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more.  

Part of the reason for our commitment to this tradition has to do with the timeless urge to say farewell in this rather 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 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 seniors and share some reflections on how your Colby experience has prepared you for what lies ahead. 

I take it as a sign of things to come that the winter of your senior year was unseasonably warm and that spring arrived early. When you look back on this year, I am sure you will recall fondly those weird days in March when the temperatures exceeded 70 degrees. I will resist the temptation to speculate on the relationship among those wondrous moments, climate change, and the influences of human activity on the warming of the globe. Tomorrow Colby will give an honorary degree to Ralph Cicerone, who, as you will hear in the citation I read, is far better versed than I in these issues. But I can’t help but note, parenthetically, that those among you who brushed up against Colby’s rapidly expanding commitment to environmental studies and to sustainability are now equipped to join the public discussion of these important matters. Indeed, I suspect that some of you will be leaders in that discussion.

So it was an eerily warm spring—for whatever reason. It was also a relatively quiet one, at least until a few weeks ago. It may surprise you to know that sometime around the middle of March my administrative colleagues and I begin to wonder about the nature and intensity of what we call the “spring thing”—that issue or incident or cause that almost invariably galvanizes the campus every year and that makes our lives exceptionally interesting.

But this year the “spring thing” never quite arrived. It was curiously calm well into April. Even the digest was relatively quiet. And that’s saying something.

I have to admit that I found this calm a bit unnerving. Perhaps it’s because we’re so accustomed to the season of turmoil. Or perhaps it’s because we just need the excitement. Whatever the reason, as April went along I felt a little depressed, a little bored. And much to the horror of my administrative colleagues, I decided to stir things up. 

And so I sent out a message having to do with a controversial substance, informing the community of my intention to banish that substance from the campus in the reasonably near future. In one way this should not have surprised anyone. I am, after all, the author of “Brohibition”—not the phrase, of course, but the deeds that caused the brilliant Class of 2003 to invent the phrase. I actually spend a good deal of my time sitting in my office dreaming up things to ban. And tobacco seemed like the logical next choice.

My message was noticed! The digest lit up like a Christmas tree. Finally, the “spring thing!” There were many memorable posts on the digest, most of them lamenting and condemning my overreaching authority. But the one I liked best—combining, in perfect measure, doses of irony, disdain, and humor—was this one: “You’re not my mom!”

That’s almost as good as Brohibition! And of course it’s true. There’s almost nothing to say in response, except perhaps, “You’ve got me there.” Or maybe, “You’re my daddy.”

A community forum followed. That’s actually a good practice of ours, though I must admit that it’s not always easy for me to stand in front of a disgruntled group and defend controversial actions or policies. But it’s important to emerge from time to time from our technologically mediated conversations on Facebook or the digest or Twitter to actually look one another in the eye and talk. And so we did. And while I doubt that our fundamental positions were much affected, we aired our differences in a direct and respectful and civil way. I also heard very clearly the disappointment among some in the audience that I did not consult more widely with students in coming to my decision. It’s a criticism well meant, I know, and also well taken.

Earlier this year, in February, there was another such forum, much larger and occasioned by an incident in the fall that rocked all of us for a time. I must admit that the prospect of this meeting, in light of the material and the strength of feeling about it, caused me to lose a little sleep. But my foreboding was unwarranted. What might have been an occasion of finger-pointing and angry accusation became instead a remarkable display of listening and engaging. I heard people offer apologies and other people accepting those apologies while admitting their own shortcomings. I heard calls for community building and for understanding. In short, I heard the best of and from Colby’s students, and it was enormously gratifying and encouraging.

There’s a related and somewhat broader point that I want to make here. Some of you saw Colby’s own Mike Daisey, Class of 1996, perform his fascinating one-man show on the work and life of Steve Jobs, at Strider Theater in April. If you didn’t see it, I hope you will have a chance to see it at some point. Daisey has become controversial for the ways in which his theatrical work merges fact and fiction. But that does not lessen the power of one of his central observations, namely, that our lives are changing in radical and disturbing ways on account of the mediating influence of information technology. This has become something of a commonplace, I suppose. But it’s nevertheless a terribly important fact. Yours is the first generation whose entire adolescence and early adulthood have been lived within and around the dazzling constructs of social media. You have been entirely, thoroughly, relentlessly mediated. Your teachers and parents have tried to keep up with you in this regard—I have a highly underdeveloped Facebook page, as some of you know, as a way of keeping up with you. But of course we can’t really keep up. You are pioneers of a certain kind, and you will negotiate a terrain unknown and probably unknowable to those of us who passed into adulthood under very different circumstances.

There are several good things to say about the recent advances in technology and the mediated age. For instance, it’s hard to imagine the successes, or even the existence, of popular movements around the world in recent years without the communication now made possible through social media. The technological advances of recent years have given us access to worlds of information that were previously unavailable. And we all understand the pleasures (and problems) with nearly instantaneous communication with our friends. Networking can be a very satisfying, if sometimes risky, thing.
But it’s also dangerously abstract. The thing we have all noticed about the digest, I am sure, is how easily it accommodates, perhaps encourages, incivility, not to say hostility. The person out there in the electronic ether who just posted that clueless opinion is not this real person sitting next to me in the library, the dining hall, or the classroom; he or she is a disembodied voice who evidently doesn’t have the first inkling about what’s so obvious to me and the rest of the world. And so it is with almost every other form of digitally mediated communication. The digital landscape is one populated by abstract and faceless “others” with whom we have only the sparest connection.

But here is a piece of good news about your education at Colby. Living with one another here in this very intimate setting has given you access to a different kind of interpersonal experience and knowledge. It’s the old-fashioned but still powerful face-to-face encounter with others, where physical presence is the precondition for everything else that follows. Whether you know it or not, you have developed here at Colby a form of intellectual capital that will give you certain advantages in the future. That capital is what I’ll call social knowledge, the art of working with others to solve problems or create things or simply to share. We probably don’t talk enough about this form of knowledge and the learning it requires, as Robert Putnam, another of Colby’s honorary degree recipients tomorrow, has insisted in his brilliant work. But it is one of the critical avenues of learning that you have traveled here at Colby, and you will find that the things you have acquired along the way are enormously and immediately useful and empowering. That is certainly one of the encouraging messages I have gathered from young alumni around the country.

And speaking of technology, I am sure that most of you are aware of the dramatic recent announcement made by Harvard and MIT regarding their intention to create and distribute a digital curriculum. The initiative, called edX, will include hundreds of online courses offered by permanent faculty at both institutions, and they will be offered to the world for free and on an open-source platform, inviting similar contributions from other institutions.

Like Google’s efforts several years ago to digitize every book in the public domain, the Harvard and MIT announcement caused quite a stir. The stir has included some pretty wild speculation about the end of higher education as we know it today at places like Colby, where students sit in classrooms with faculty and talk to one another. Even the otherwise cautious David Brooks recently opined in the New York Times that we are on the verge of a radical change in the way colleges and universities do their business. Quoting Stanford’s president John Hennessy, the catchy headline of Brooks’s article is “The Campus Tsunami.” And just this week, Tom Friedman predicted that Coursera, Stanford’s venture into online education, would be “revolutionary.”

I am intrigued by edX and Coursera, and it’s significant that Harvard and MIT and Stanford—great places with great faculty and immense resources—will now direct their formidable assets toward a project that might do a lot of good in the world. But the notion that a bundle of courses thrown up in the cloud will constitute a tsunami or revolution for higher education is a bit hyperbolic. I am sure that someday Colby will be using digital resources of this sort, and perhaps those offered by edX, in ways that we cannot now imagine, and that the educational experience we provide will be all the better for it. But the wholesale substitution of distance and digital learning for what I’ll call embodied learning—students working in the physical presence of real faculty and one another in a common physical setting—won’t happen, as least as long as this country is committed to having the best system of higher education in the world.

Most fundamentally, that’s because we are social beings with minds that are actually in bodies. Or better said, we are social beings with embodied minds; there is no way to separate our thinking from our embodied life in the world. Those of you who studied Descartes know all about the problems of philosophical dualism—the separation of the ideas of mind and body. The fascination with the notion of a comprehensively digital education landscape shows how influential Descartes’s thinking continues to be. But you don’t need to be a philosopher to know this: there are important forms of learning that must and will only proceed by way of the embodied presence and interaction of students and teachers.

That’s the way it’s been at Colby for almost 200 years, and that’s the way in which you’ve come to know one another here. The deeper social knowledge you all have as the result of your time here is a basic piece of the residential liberal arts college experience and one of its most important gifts to you. You’ll find this out for yourselves very soon, in your places of work or advanced professional education, where the ability to engage meaningfully and productively with others will be a necessary and valuable skill.

Social knowledge is a valuable acquisition, but it’s just the start of what you have now that you didn’t have when you arrived. Among the first things you heard from me when you arrived at Colby was the following thought about your intellectual development, 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 form 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.

Now, on the other side of your Colby adventure, what we want you to know and take away with you tomorrow is the certainty that you have indeed been empowered in these ways, and that what you take with you is the much more fully realized capacity to think, to write, to speak, to create. This form of intellectual empowerment is real and it matters.

Of course, that is not to say that the good and specific work you did in various academic programs and disciplines at Colby was somehow beside the point—either intellectually or professionally. On the contrary, it is only through these very specific forms of intellectual engagement that the more fundamental brand of intellectual empowerment I am trying to describe is available. And there is a related and significant argument about the importance of a deep understanding of a particular field and way of seeing the world. But wherever you ultimately found yourselves in the curriculum here at Colby, we intended for you to experience a common regimen of intellectual challenge, exercise, and accomplishment. Each and every one of you has been required to think hard and clearly about complex matters of real substance; to write and speak clearly and persuasively about things that matter; to exercise your imaginations in all kinds of interesting and difficult ways. 

One of these ways is your capacity to insert yourselves into the moral dimension of experience—your own experience as well as the experiences of people very different from you. By the moral dimension I mean that zone of meaning and significance—the values and the goods—by which people know and explain and justify their lives, and through which they encounter their most important and demanding choices, conflicts, dilemmas, satisfactions. 

I am sure that the work of moral imagination in this sense was at times obvious to you, inside and outside the classroom. If your undergraduate experience was anything like mine, you’ve found that some of your most enduring memories of college will include those late night conversations with friends about the really big things—politics, God, truth, justice, love, racism, the future of the planet—and those more formal moments, in and around classrooms, where your personal convictions were rocked, affirmed, or forever altered. 

But the stretching of your moral sympathies and imagination was at issue in many other, perhaps less obvious, places and ways—in your exposure to different languages and cultures, to the works of literary and artistic imagination, to the histories of peoples and places both strange and familiar, and to matters of social and political justice, to name just a few. Indeed, one of the abiding ambitions of almost every part of the educational enterprise here was to equip you to be able and sympathetic interpreters of moral life and conflict—your own life and the lives of others.

Tomorrow, Colby will extend an honorary degree to Tonya Gonnella Frichner, president of the American Indian Law Alliance. I can think of few better role models for those of you who wish to devote your now expanded moral sympathies and understanding to the advancement of some pressing public cause. I am quite certain that our speaker, Tony Blair, will also advance the proposition of the importance of living a life of service and public engagement. Here, too, I hope and trust that Colby has inclined you to do so.

Somewhere at the intersection of all these interesting capacities, exercises, workouts, and pathways, and connecting them all, is one final quality that might be the most important of all. It’s hard to name and describe, but it’s easy to sense when you’re in its presence. St. Augustine and Lao Tzu and Shakespeare had it, and so did Virginia Woolf; Einstein had it, and Darwin too; Toni Morrison and Stephen Sondheim have it; Jane Austen and John Coltrane had it; Tom Waits has it; Randy Weston, also one of our honored guests tomorrow, surely has it; Cezanne had it; Joan Didion and Meryl Streep and Steven Hawking have it. This is my list, of course; I know you have one of your own.

What all of these individuals share is what I will call “depth.” And what I am trying to get at by way of referring to them is that remarkable thing that happens to us when we encounter and share exceptionally powerful insights into our inner lives and the world around us. For me, the phrase that best describes that experience is “going deep.” Going deep is the sensation of being more completely inserted into and aware of the world; it’s that dizzying and moving moment of encountering some powerful new insight—insight that moves us and changes us and that makes us larger, more capacious, more complete human beings.

In some way, and probably in several ways, each and every one of you has had the experience of going deep here at Colby. It may have been while looking through a microscope at the very moment some beautiful part of the natural world revealed itself; it may have been while reading a difficult philosophical text late at night in the library; it may have been while struggling with a mathematical problem; it may have been while composing, or painting, or writing; it may have been while considering the life of a great historical figure or a great event; it may have been while looking at a painting in the museum. But wherever it was, something clicked, the world was suddenly rearranged, you “saw” something new and important about your life, or about the world, or both. And you became deeper.

Going deep and being deep is not likely to be one of those things you say about yourselves on your resumes, though that could be interesting. And you are not likely to be asked about being deep and going deep in a job interview. But as your lives move along, as they become challenging and complex and rich and testing in the ways all lives do, you will come to understand the value of depth and of going deep. And you will also understand why one of the ultimate purposes of a liberal arts education is to give you the means to become more fully realized human beings, more artful explorers of the deep. 

I know that this is starting to sound ethereal, perhaps even religious, so I’ll bring us abruptly back to earth in order to make one final point about what you’ve gathered here at Colby. Several weeks ago there was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Melissa Korn titled “Wealth or Waste? Rethinking the Business Major.”  While it’s ostensibly about the undergraduate business curriculum in the United States, it’s also about the value of the kind of educational structure you have participated in here at Colby. Here’s an extended passage, dedicated to you and to all those liberal arts graduates around the country who might be wondering at this very moment about their choice of college or major. She writes:

Undergraduate business majors are a dime a dozen on many college campuses. But according to some, they may be worth even less.

More than 20% of U.S. undergraduates are business majors, nearly double the next most common majors, social sciences and history.

The proportion has held relatively steady for the past 30 years, but now faculty members, school administrators and corporate recruiters are questioning the value of a business degree at the undergraduate level.

The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses.

Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines. And while most recruiters don’t outright avoid business majors, companies in consulting, technology and even finance say they’re looking for candidates with a broader academic background.

I am not accustomed to having my own thinking and experience about education affirmed by the Wall Street Journal, but in this case the report confirms what I’ve been hearing from business and professional people for 18 years as a college president: what matters most in most professional environments is not technical knowledge, which can be gotten in other ways, but the ability to think, the ability to communicate, and the ability to deploy one’s creative and imaginative powers in a variety of contexts. I’d also insert here the power of the social knowledge that I discussed earlier. And the ability to go deep doesn’t hurt, either.

Tomorrow we are also honoring David Shaw, the very successful Maine entrepreneur and founder of IDEXX Laboratories. I have a strong hunch that David shares this view of which talents and aptitudes matters most in the business world.

I began this talk with an extended reference to social networking. We hear those words now and we think immediately of Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. But you’ll soon experience another kind of networking, also rooted in the immediate and embodied intimacy of the extended Colby community and family. That community now numbers well over 25,000 alumni in the United States and around the world. 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 feel, as they do, a keen sense of responsibility for Colby. This place now belongs to you, as alumni, 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 and students depend on those who preceded you.

You have a very good start on the road to giving back. Almost 65 percent of this class has already given to the senior class gift drive. And there’s still time between now and tomorrow morning to shatter last year’s record and reach your class goal of 80 percent. Thanks for this early and impressive expression of generosity. I hope, and I know, that it will continue.

But giving back need not consist exclusively in philanthropy. Hundreds of Colby alumni and alumnae volunteer annually, serving as admission interviewers, class agents, advisors for the Career Center, and more. Your future association with Colby can touch many parts of your lives, and we hope it will.
And of course you also take your friendships with you. I can assure that they will endure. At every one of the many stops I make on my annual tour of the country, I’m always impressed by the strength of the ties that bind classmates. These too are permanent acquisitions.

I’ve spent a lot of time today talking about things you have acquired here at Colby and that now leave 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 faculty 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 be shining. 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 past four years.  
I look forward to seeing you at a young alumni breakfast or a bicentennial celebration 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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