President Elaine Tuttle Hansen: “The Place of Possibility”
I am honored by your trust and grateful to all assembled here today. Thank you, Chairman Harris, members of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, the staff, students, and alumni of Bates, friends of Bates from the Lewiston-Auburn community and from the academic community, my two predecessors who are in the audience today, and my family and old friends. I also give thanks to all who are with us in spirit today. Our ritual draws its strength from those who are here to speak and perform or to listen and watch, and from those who have in other times and places helped Bates, and helped me, to arrive at this moment.
Rituals mark moments of transition, of change and uncertainty. By carefully planning an inaugural ceremony so similar to those celebrated for five of my six predecessors, we reassure ourselves that even though things may be different tomorrow, Bates will endure and flourish. We alleviate our fears about the uncertainties of going forward — uncertainties symbolized by the new president, even felt by the new president — with retrospective gestures, implying that the wisdom of the past will guide our choices. At the same time, the ritual affords us prospective opportunities for expressing our hopes and aspirations, our desire for change, and our will to improve, all of which are also symbolized by the new president.
In one important sense there is very little that the new president can do to effect change; colleges are made great not by the president, but by the transformative teaching and learning in which generations of faculty and students take the lead. But change from inside and outside the institution is inevitable, and our essential task is to be alive to change. Gloria Anzaldua’s comment on personal identity might serve as the motto for a vibrant campus culture: “Transitions aren’t what we go through. Transitions are what we are.”1 Or, as I want to suggest today, echoing the words of Emily Dickinson: We at Bates “dwell in possibility.”
Bates is and always has been a place of possibility because our purview is education, and the essence of education is to create the conditions under which each individual can realize his or her highest potential. In his inaugural address of 1894, arguing for the introduction of a few electives into the Bates curriculum, the second president, George Colby Chase, noted that “we must recognize the individual if we would develop the man.”2 One hundred and eight years later our mission statement still begins with a commitment first to academic rigor and then to “the dignity of the individual.” This is the promise of the College to each incoming student: You will be changed by Bates forever. You will explore identities that you have not yet imagined and that will have a profound effect on the rest of your existence; you will focus your attention not only on knowing and doing but also on being, confronting at a formative moment the most serious questions all human beings should have the opportunity to ask and the freedom to answer: Who am I? Who might I become? My experience with an ever-expanding number of remarkable alumni confirms that Bates lives up to its promise, and to verify this claim for yourself, I offer an assignment to be completed before you leave today. Talk to one current or former Bates student whom you have never met before, and let me know if you do not meet an individual for whom Bates has made a personal difference, someone with self-knowledge and self-confidence who is in the process — no matter how old that individual is — of living up to his or her potential.
Bates is and always has been a place of possibility in another sense, too — one that couples individual potential with social purpose. Bates, from its inception, aimed to offer its promise more widely and inclusively than other colleges and universities and to connect the private benefit for individuals with civic reform and human progress. Today we manifest this historic commitment to collective possibility in our efforts to provide access to education, to hope, to the dream and reality of self-improvement, to the broadest range of talented young people. We invite those who have grown up expecting and preparing to enroll in a highly selective undergraduate college, and we invite those who have not been able to feel so confident about their destiny, who seek greater possibility for themselves than others in their family or group or community may yet have had, those who thus bring a wider variety of experience and perspective to the campus. We strive to build a heterogeneous academic and residential community on the grounds that the best learning takes place in a world where assumptions of all sorts are challenged, a world of expanded horizons, extended responsibility, collaboration, interaction, teamwork, and dialogue across differences. For the same reason we stress the importance of outreach to worlds beyond Bates, from the local to the international, in order to learn and to serve. Again I invite you to test my claim while you are completing the exercise I suggested earlier: when you talk to that Bates alum or student whom you have not yet met, let me know if you do not discover someone who has made, is making, will make a difference to the world.
The value of a Bates education to individuals is at one level relatively well-understood and easy to market these days: Public opinion recognizes the B.A. degree as a private good at least insofar as the economic data clearly demonstrate that lifetime earnings for college graduates are significantly increased. But there is no consensus about the social or civic value of higher education, or the relationship between private and public possibility. The kind of argument I have just made about our efforts to advance the possibility of social justice and human progress and our conviction that inclusivity and academic excellence are linked is even now being challenged in the highest courts.
In preparing any defense to these challenges, we find that the founding principles, even of Bates, are of mixed value. In that inaugural address I cited earlier, George Colby Chase acknowledged, as we must still today, that the privilege of higher education was not an equal possibility for all human beings. As he put it, “The ideal life which each wise man would gladly live is forbidden to the many by the hard necessities of this exacting world.” In the face of this reality, however, Chase did not speak about either the responsibility or the self-interest of the College in providing greater access to those many who are forbidden. Instead, he observed a different role for the wise few who come to Bates: “What cannot be attained for each and all may be made accessible at least to the few, and these shall exemplify to the less favored the meaning and uses of life at its best; shall be the guides and leaders of mankind in its steady march of conquest over nature…” American colleges and universities, both public and private, “were all born of the popular conviction,” Chase observed, “that the state must have its picked men upon whom it can rely in all questions of the public weal” (pp. 3-4).
This claim does not sit well with our current values or with present and future demographic and political realities. Yet it is important to pause before rejecting Chase’s position and to note that it actually afforded a far higher motive for individual achievement than is now commonly understood. For Chase went on to argue that Bates existed not so that each alum would accumulate more lifetime earnings, more status and private power, “not to gratify the selfish instincts of the more fortunate, not to nourish the haughtiness and arrogance of a false aristocracy, but to develop men who shall be fit exponents of that spirit of philanthropy to which the world will always owe its increasing “sweetness and light’” (p. 5).
Substantial remnants of this ideal survive today in our demonstrated ability to educate people who are committed to service and to philanthropy. But at a point roughly in the middle of the last century, we lost the ability and the willingness to tout the moral and political superiority of “picked men.” This loss fortuitously opened the place of possibility for many previously excluded people. At the same time, it cost us not only a widely shared sense of the higher motive and social purpose for individual achievement but also a clear vision of the relationship between the public and the private good that inheres in higher education. The intellectual, political, and ethical task now before us is daunting as we fight two uphill battles at once: We need to reformulate the public value of the kind of education we offer at the same time that we figure out how it can be offered more broadly. Bates is well-positioned to lead in this effort, but our success, I suggest, depends on our ability to articulate, reinvigorate, and perpetuate the place of possibility in all we do.
Toward this end I can offer today only a few thoughts about how we will proceed. Most importantly, we will recognize and hold the fine line between a place of possibility and a place of entitlement. I take my notion of “entitlement” from Volume 5 of Robert Coles’s Children of Crisis series, where Coles uses it to describe the “psychological common denominator” he encountered in speaking with children from well-off American families — “an emotional expression… of those class-bound prerogatives, money and power.”3 Coles draws his ideas about entitlement from conversations with children who, by the age of five or six, know that “abundance” is their “destiny,” children who have “very definite notions of what is possible, even if it is not always permitted; possible because there is plenty of money that can be spent” (p. 369). Coles emphasizes that most of these children are not what we would think of as “selfish” or “spoiled.” Instead they are often highly “restrained, disciplined children,” “self-critical, even ascetic,” and willing to accept burdens and responsibilities beyond their years. But their behavior exhibits an extreme emphasis on “self” and “selfhood.” Coles observes “an inclination to build a sanctuary out of one’s room and one’s property,” and sees that these children may tend to withdraw from people and the environment around them “in favor of a mixture of reverie and disciplined activity” (p. 379).
“A mixture of reverie and disciplined activity”: This sounds a great deal like the behavior we might expect and endorse in college students — even in college faculty and, just possibly, college presidents. But in the twenty-first century, the key difference between a learning community that fosters a sense of possibility and one that cultivates a sense of entitlement must turn on different ways of thinking about “self” and about “learning.”
As David Lawrence has pointed out in speaking about threats to the humanities, some modes of attending to self — such as self-congratulation and self-justification — serve the cause of higher education poorly.4 We do not persuade public opinion of the social benefits of a selective liberal arts education by congratulating those few who are admitted to Bates, nor do we justify the expense of their first-rate education by pronouncing them guides and leaders. What serves us all better for the future is to preserve a place for other ways of honing a complicated, historically and ethically informed sense of self — through honest self-reflection and deep self-questioning. These activities lead us to perceive among other things that our personal ambitions, ideals, and values are rooted in a social and economic context; that the individual and the social are not separate but interdependent spheres; and that the fully developed self is therefore not constructed or experienced in one’s own room, apart from the various, sometimes overlapping, sometimes divided social groups in which we live.
Together with this way of understanding and constructing our selves comes a different model of learning, a model most persuasively laid out recently in the work of Etienne Wenger. In Communities of Practice, Wenger explores the theoretical implications of his practical observation that learning goes on all the time — in the family, in the workplace, in our various social associations.5 Learning is not just the unique experience we have in schools, not something a few lucky people do while most unfortunately do not. Learning is a necessity of life, a vital and irrepressible part of human nature. It is interesting to note that Wenger’s approach breathes new life into the ideas of one of the earliest apologists for liberal education, John Henry Cardinal Newman, who also believed that learning is a fundamental, defining human need, and therefore an end in itself, apart from its practical or even its social and moral worth.
Again this is what I believe we already know at Bates and what we will seek to act on even more self-reflectively and more visibly. Experiences of learning in a community — fundamental, defining human activities that go on everywhere — are more intensely, more intentionally, more self-consciously pursued in a place of possibility. To nourish this possibility, we will continue to argue for the importance of experimentation and creativity, to encourage varieties of risk-taking, and to make room for both disagreement and mistakes within a certain zone of temporary safety, provisional protection. We will cherish individual autonomy within a populace bound by mutual respect and, most vitally, mutual responsibility. We will remember, as Wenger demonstrates, that the “transformative potential” of learning goes both ways — participation in communities shapes us, and we shape communities (p. 56). And we will provide space and experience for new generations of leaders and citizens to emerge who do not see themselves set apart from others, who know how to listen to and learn from those with whom they do not agree and those who do not share their privileges.
I want to close today by noting an obstacle to the pursuit of possibility for ourselves and our communities that my optimistic inaugural rhetoric occludes, one that we have yet to overcome, even at Bates: time. Early in my teaching career I went to talk to a college president about some long-forgotten issue, and I nervously opened the conversation with a formulaic apology — “I know you have many other important things to do, but if I could just have a minute of your time…” The president in question interrupted and corrected me: “No,” he said, “I’m very busy, but I don’t have a lot of important things to do.” I puzzled over that remark — that president might have merely meant to put a junior faculty member at ease, but his comment has come to seem like a sad epigraph for the many people in academe and elsewhere who are busier and busier but do not feel that they have important things to do.
The causes of our busy-ness are all in themselves worthy, well-known to everyone, and depressing to itemize. For all of us, there is infinitely more to know than there once was. For faculty, standards for tenure, like many other bars, are set measurably higher. Meanwhile teaching has changed too, at least at places like Bates, in ways that all require much more time. We know that discovery-based learning is more effective and that students learn more if they enjoy learning: In good conscience, we cannot use the reading notes we took last year, the already prepared lecture, because our fields have exploded while the value of passive learning has shrunk to nothing. Technology creates its wholly new, all-consuming set of demands, as do consequential things like the expansion of our mission into service-learning and community development and involvement in recruiting and interdisciplinarity and team teaching. This is a problem for students too. We admit only the most over-scheduled children and we boast of how many sports they play, how many clubs they organize, how many hours of volunteer service they provide.
All these things we do are truly wonderful, but without detracting from their worth we need to ask hard questions about our selves and the way we learn in this community. What are we wittingly or unwittingly giving up, in order to find time for adding more and more activities into our lives? If we do not give something up — in fact if we do not give up quite a lot — how do we avoid burnout; fatigue; the loss of the passion that makes our best work possible; and, worst of all, the despair and dullness that comes from feeling that there is no way to keep up, that you have to let everything slide a little and settle for mediocrity, getting by and being merely busy? This may seem like a small problem, perhaps even a trivial one, in comparison to global concerns — terrorism, hunger, the millions of children around the world who do not go to school, disease and discrimination and greenhouse gas emissions — or even in comparison to our local needs — to solve problems of substance abuse, to form meaningful partnerships with our neighbors, to raise the endowment. But we ignore this issue at our peril.
We’ve done a superb job at Bates of creating a culture of engagement, of making and finding time for expanding possibilities through doing more. But we have not yet fully admitted, let alone solved, the widespread problem of fostering a culture of reflection — not as a self-absorbed retreat from reality where we shore up any erosion of our sense of entitlement, but as a spirited advance toward what sounds so quaint: moments of woolgathering, daydreaming, improvisation; opportunities for the random and serendipitous to take us by surprise and move us to new discoveries.6 We need time alone and time with others that is undisciplined time — time to listen, speak, think, imagine. What I am talking about is endangered because it looks like unproductive time, the rarest of commodities in a world that measures everything by its outcome. American culture is obsessed with measurable achievement, the bottom line, with ranking and competing. But again looking back may offer alternatives to live by as we press on, so let me cite President Chase’s inaugural address once last time: “Few can appreciate and none can observe the slow process by which the crude boy develops into the scholar. Valuable things require fine scales, and the most valuable things cannot be weighed at all” (p. 18).
Speaking of time — mine is up, but the question of time brings me full circle back to yet another reason why ritual is important: because it obliges us to take a collective moment out of time, makes us pause and come together to think about who we are, where we have come from, and what we might become. Many, many people have been very busy, I fear, making this inaugural moment happen. But thanks to their efforts, I hope we can all go forward with the sense that the things we do are also important, if we are to sustain the place of possibility.
— Elaine Tuttle Hansen President, Bates College
5. Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 5. I am grateful to my friend Richard Roth for bringing Wenger’s work to my attention.
6. I am indebted to Craig Williamson, professor of English at Swarthmore College, who prompted me to think of this problem more carefully when he spoke at a Mellon Trico Faculty Development Seminar about the lack of “time for reflection” as opposed to “time for engagement.”