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2004 Baccalaureate address

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen

I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to speak at this ceremony, which is otherwise devoted to the voices, the music, and the gestures of the Class of 2004. The Bates Baccalaureate ceremony is unique among others I have known, most of which involve outside speakers and far more formal, traditional rituals. It is fitting that Bates differs from other colleges in this as in other ways, reflecting both the unparalleled accomplishment of our students and the value we place on student engagement.

Given the spirit of this occasion, I have wondered what value I could add. I have particularly wanted to spare you my advice, since you’re going to get enough of that, I trust, at commencement tomorrow, when we have asked four very distinguished and successful people to send you packing with their personal recipes for accomplishing great things. So I decided to ask a few of you about a question that always intrigues me:

“It’s often said that the purpose of the best liberal arts education is to find out who you are and what you love. [How] has your idea of who you are and/or what you love changed since you first arrived at Bates?”

This turned out to be a really hard question. To those of you who tried to answer it, thanks and apologies, it wasn’t meant to stump you. Many of you used the time-honored tradition of avoiding the question and telling me why it was so difficult to answer. But a small subset of your responses were particularly consistent and intriguing, because you focused on something I hadn’t anticipated:

One of you said, “Well, I haven’t learned exactly who I am or what I love, but I have learned a lot about what I DON’T like.”

Another said, “Now I’m someone who at least knows how to make mistakes.”

And a third noted, “What’s changed the most is that I’ve begun to see my own limits.”

I find these comments fascinating because they remind us that at this time in your life, when the world is all before you, and you have been freed by your Bates education to access all your human potential, we should not forget the importance of understanding what you don’t like and learning from mistakes you have made, boundaries you may have chosen to set, or limits that seem to have been set for you in the last four years.

Alfred North Whitehead, one of the greatest educational philosophers of the last century, wrote, in The Aims of Education (1929), that to acquire “the initial discipline of imagination in its period of youthful vigor” and “the habit of unbiased thought…[y]ou must be free to think rightly and wrongly” during your university years.

Why did Whitehead think, as I do, that it is just as important to think wrongly as it is to think rightly? In part, we think so because life is unpredictable. The only certainty that lies ahead for any of us is that there will be ups and downs, good days and bad days. You will often, I hope, be lucky, and you already have demonstrated your ability to make your own luck. But you will also have bad luck and you will probably make a few wrong decisions, now and then. If your reach always exceeds your grasp, as I hope it will, you will need to face disappointment, from time to time, and then move on. And when that happens, it will be most important that you have been free at Bates to learn and grow not only from all your triumphs, but also from challenges survived and mistakes that won’t be repeated.

At this time, then, when we are so proud of your achievements, I want to take a moment to congratulate not the perfect members of the Class of 2004, but any of you who have made an error during your four years at Bates, any of you who have done something silly, or stupid, or careless, or wrong. I applaud you for the courage and honesty it took to admit your error, and for the hard work you did to make up for it. I admire the new self-knowledge you have gained from a failure or poor performance. I appreciate the humility you have acquired, the sense of entitlement you have cast aside, the empathy you now have for others who struggle but persist. I suspect you have learned to love others, too, who are not perfect, who may have let you down, who can only give so much and no more, but are still your friends, because true friends acknowledge weaknesses as much as they value strengths.

Those of you who know me by now can probably guess that I am going to bring this ode to the educational value of ordinary human error to a close with a literary reference. Your responses to my question made me think again and in new ways of Emily Dickinson’s great poem about defining and assessing success:

Success  is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

This is a poem about the cognitive power of thinking wrongly, making mistakes, feeling a lack, a limit. To those who ne’er succeed, Dickinson alleges, comes fullest understanding, truest apprehension, clearest insight — all the deepest goals of a liberal arts education.

Of course I expect that the members of the Class of 2004, like tens of thousands of Bates graduates before them, will succeed. But I also have confidence that you may have acquired tools you need to learn from “thinking wrongly,” and hence the tools you need to take care of yourself, and others.

Indeed, it may seem as if now more than ever the world needs people who can figure out how to have hope and do good work even in the wake of serious errors in judgment, terrible wrongs, and disastrous missteps. We celebrate today because even as we worry about the world’s problems, we believe that you are prepared by your Bates education to be part of the solutions. Thank you.


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