background

2003 Baccalaureate address

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen

What next?

While there is no hard and fast cultural line between youth and adulthood, graduation from college is one very prominent marker. In our world it signifies a coming of age characterized, above all, by material independence and self-reliance. If Bates is in some measure a kind of Eden, you, like Adam and Eve, are about to be cast out and sentenced to a life of toil. Now or in the near future you are expected to support yourself financially, normally through paid work, for decades to come.

I recently asked some Bates seniors a few questions about this imminent fall into work: “What do you expect from job and career? What experiences are you hoping for and what values will guide you in choosing and then navigating your professional life to come? What hopes and fears do you have?” I also asked them to reflect on an issue that is particularly important to me as the new president of Bates: “(How) do you think your education at Bates has affected your expectations about the world of work?” While no two of my informants said exactly the same thing, clear themes emerged, and my guess is that they are highly representative.1

First, as one senior lamented, “I still have no idea what I want to do.” While a few have detailed plans, many Bates seniors do not have a fixed notion of what comes next. Some of you know what job you will be doing in the coming months, but you do not know if this is the right job, or even the right direction. Some are still looking. All are nervous, even frightened, about leaving the “security” you have known and accepting “the obligation and the burden to support ourselves.”

Second, you worry also that “society and Bates expects us to achieve some level of greatness — to make it to the best graduate schools, to make a lot of money, to ‘move mountains.’” You wonder, though, if professional success has anything to do with personal happiness or a better world.

This brings me to the third and related issue. As one of you said, “My goal…is to find a way to make a living doing what I really love.” Bates seniors care most of all about finding a job that they are passionate about doing, about finding happiness and fulfillment (as well as supporting themselves) in work. You are listening for a “calling.” For some, if not all, this feels like making a difficult choice between pursuing a personal passion and following a “more ‘serious’ career path.” You understand that “it is a huge privilege” to dream of combining your “work” with your “job” — that only a handful of the world’s citizens can imagine earning a living by doing something that connects their beliefs, their dreams, and their loves to their paid labor.

Fourth, and again this is a related theme, Bates seniors seek to “translate” the work you have done here at Bates — the amazing thesis or the powerful seminar — into “work that is meaningful to me, to others, and to the world.” For most, the work that will fulfill you personally must also be work that involves social change and social justice.

Fifth and last: You do not know if Bates has prepared you for the world of work. You appreciate the fact that you have been able to follow your own interests here and succeed in your classroom and extracurricular endeavors. You have learned enough to know how little you know, so you worry whether you have the skills it will take to do your work in the world beyond Bates. At the same time, you believe that Bates has taught you to learn how to learn, has given you some tools and self-confidence, and has helped shape your “character” as well as your interests: “While Bates has not taught me how to build a ship, write legislation, or raise capital, it has taught me how to examine, question, and think critically about my decisions, about the world, and how my action will affect my community and greater society.”

As I thought about these themes, I was struck by the resonance between what I hear from members of the Class of 2003 and the findings of one of the most interesting books I have read in the last year or two, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.2 The book reports on a study undertaken by three psychologists — Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon — who felt that psychology as a discipline had not adequately examined “work” as a human experience. They were particularly interested in the kind of work that Bates seniors hope and expect to find, which they call “good work” — work that on the one hand is of high quality, demonstrates expertise, and offers personal satisfaction to the individual, and work that on the other hand is also understood to be ethically responsible and beneficial to society. “Good work” involves both doing well, in other words, and doing good.

Gardner and his colleagues approached their project with a concern, moreover, that underscores why your anxiety, as members of the Class of ’03, might be quite understandably high. Work that feels good to individuals and is respected by the community is harder and harder to find in a time of rapid change, when both the technologies used to do work are in constant flux and commonly shared values seem more and more difficult to define.

To answer the question, “What does it mean to carry out good work in a time of constant change?” the authors chose first to study what they thought of as two “parallel” groups of professionals whose work is highly influential today and has been profoundly altered by the information revolution: geneticists, who are dealing with massive amounts of new information about our bodies, and journalists, who must adjust to the technological and global revolution in information that influences what we know and think. As Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 members of each of these professions, they came to realize that the two professions differed chiefly in terms of their “alignment” with social values.

Oversimplifying, we might say that geneticists are happy and fulfilled because their work is well-aligned with the perceived needs and values of society and generally respected and trusted. Geneticists interviewed led “hectic” lives (p. 66) but for the most part believed they were doing good work, enjoyed “the thrill of scientific discovery” (p. 73), and felt that “science foregrounds a certain kind of rational thinking” (p. 75) that is highly desirable. The only potential disturbance in the field came from concerns about the effect of new opportunities for great wealth now associated with genetics and various ethical concerns about the ownership and use of information about the body.

Journalists, by contrast, were “despondent” for the most part, working in a misaligned domain in which they were often criticized both internally and externally. Those interviewed said they valued “truth” and “objectivity” and “fairness” in principle but felt that the profession as a whole could not say it was living up to its own ethical standards. They complained about the lack of time to do good work in a field where information technology emphasizes speed over reflection, and about the dominance of the profit motive, as editors now must consult the market researcher before deciding which stories to cover.

Gardner and his colleagues continue to study good work in other professions3 and believe that individuals who care about doing good work represent the best hope for the future of the world. They call upon individuals to “take the initiative, one by one” to find and do good work by focusing on what they term the “three M’s”: Mission, Models, Mirror.

Focusing on the “Mission” is what one Bates senior describes as seeking a “calling” — acting out of a sense of moral identity and being true to one’s best self and the highest ideals of one’s profession. If the “sense of calling degenerates,” Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon warn, “the moral identity slips away” (p. 164). Finding models involves looking for other workers who “realize the calling best” (p. 210), and it is incumbent upon leaders in the field in particular to “affirm the values of a domain” so that others, especially young professionals, “take heart” (p. 217). The Mirror test involves asking, “How do I feel about myself when I look in the mirror?” (p. 210), and “What would it be like to live in a world if everyone were to behave in the way I have?” (p. 11).

Good Work focuses mostly on individuals because the authors are interested in questions about personal identity. Yet the authors also touch on the role that institutions play, suggesting that “the strongest lever for good work resides in those organizations that already embody it” (p. 216). While they note in their conclusions the importance of educational institutions, they single out the role of the graduate or professional school (p. 246) without mentioning the undergraduate institution. I would argue that the residential four-year college experience is far more formative in the foundational development of personal identity in a community of mutual obligation, where good work is possible and valued.

I do not have time to make that argument here, however. It is the topic for another time. For now I rest my case by referring back to the place I started: what Bates seniors say about their hopes, fears, and ambitions. I am proud to see that you are fully focused on doing good work. You are feeling the right anxieties — if you did not feel these things, if you were certain about future directions, I would be terribly worried about your eventual fate. You are asking the important questions. You are looking for a mission. You all have the potential to become models and you will pass the mirror test. Like Milton’s Adam and Eve, again, you may be cast out of Bates, but you take with you “a paradise within…happier far.” I close with the benediction offered by Garrison Keillor at the end of A Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Notes

1. I am most grateful to Adam Brandow, Alison DeVita, Christopher Westcott, Jesse Fox, Kathleen Burke, Patrick Quirk, and Samuel Goldman — all Bates ’03 — for their thoughtful responses to my questions.

2. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

3. See “The Good Work Project” at the Harvard School of Education, www.goodworkproject.org.

 


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