Bates Matters

From application to matriculation, the newest Bates students learn how they are expected to become partners in an educational venture that challenges them to think harder and learn more than they ever have before. Once they arrive on campus, they quickly adapt to new demands, plunging wholeheartedly into our academic enterprise.
In part, this annual miracle of adjusting to college happens informally.

Prevailing mores are often communicated by a kind of osmosis, and the membranes between new Batesies and returning students, faculty, and staff are particularly permeable given our nonhierarchical principles and practices.

But there are formal introductions as well, the most elaborate of which is Convocation. At 4:10 p.m. on the first day of classes, the Hathorn bell tolls and the Portland Brass quintet launches into the Sonata from Die Bänkelsängerlieder. Professor of Sociology Sawyer Sylvester hoists the Class of 1904 Mace to his shoulder and leads the academic procession at a measured pace toward Coram Library, past the first-year students who line the pathways in front of Hathorn.

The new class then folds into the procession and sits behind the faculty on the Quad, facing Coram. There, the explicit messages of Convocation officially proclaim the College’s values and formally welcome the new class to our community of learners and teachers.

But within this highly traditional ritual, small changes can add meaning. This year, instead of the usual outside speaker, we heard from one of our own, poet and longtime Bates teacher Rob Farnsworth. Last spring, the seniors had selected Professor Farnsworth as their Senior-Faculty Dinner speaker, and it occurred to some of us who heard him that a version of his parting advice could serve equally well as a powerful introduction to Bates. Thus, his subsequent appearance at Convocation can be seen as something of a gift to the Class of 2010 from the Class of 2006, signaling the vibrant faculty-student connection at Bates and the continuity between one generation of students and the next.

Professor Farnsworth’s Convocation talk, “Three Lower-Case Virtues,” described a trio of qualities not only “pertinent to the academic enclave” but also “crucial to leading a useful, examined life.”

The first is passion, connected to the educated citizen’s ability to create and understand metaphor. With passion as a catalyst, a student learns to relate incongruent ideas, “to think of one thing in terms of another thing — in short, to make and to comprehend metaphor.” A passion for metaphor broadens the human experience and helps students learn through “affinities, analogies, and differences…between your life and the lives of others.”

The second virtue is discipline, not so much “personal rectitude” but rather being “susceptible but not sentimental, suspicious but not cynical, rigorous but not rigid.” And the third is generosity, the act of sharing with each other “whatever you’ve been discovering — in the lab, on the playing field, in the seminar room, at the concert hall, on the job, in your travels around Maine and the world.”

Following this address by a passionate, disciplined, and generous faculty member, I spoke about two skills that the virtuous learner also needs: the skills of listening and questioning. I specifically asked students to practice “incendiary listening” — listening that may inflame and illumine. I encouraged them to enter each new situation at Bates expecting that they might just hear something that would spark some new insight, even change their lives.

I also suggested that they think more about questions and less about answers. Answers matter at Bates, but the push to arrive at them prematurely can constrain us. College is the time, and Bates the place, to ask big questions, like: “Who am I?” “What do I love?” “How can I make a difference in the world?”

Big or small, good questions challenge assumptions and probe at the root of conflicting perspectives. As I told the Convocation gathering, three questions, big and good, face Bates. First, in the wake of new curricular requirements — a topic I discussed last issue, at — our faculty will ask how to translate shared principles into actual courses and pedagogies. Second, as we recognize the increasing diversity of the world and its importance to a first-rate educational environment, we will ask how Bates can better live up to the legacy of Benjamin Elijah Mays. Third, as we watch the construction of a new dining Commons and residences next to Mount David, we will ask how to prepare ourselves to occupy these spaces in ways that serve the lofty educational ends they have been designed to meet.

Answers will come in due course, as we welcome and invite each new class to add its own virtues to our attentive, inquiring community.