‘Co-Creating Our World’: Remarks at Convocation, Sept. 8, 2015

 

Good morning. Welcome to the opening convocation of this new academic year. Members of the faculty, welcome back after what I hope has been a restorative summer. Welcome, members of the staff — it is exciting to see so many of you here. I know you have worked very hard all summer to make sure that the campus is ready once again for the opening of the new year.

It is my particular pleasure to welcome you, members of the class of 2019, to your first semester at Bates. By now, most of you have said goodbye to your families, moved in, met your roommates, gone out adventuring with your AESOP group, and made those initial efforts to get to know your classmates, your teammates, and the campus that will be your home for the next four years.

This occasion is one of many “beginnings” in these early days. This morning we call you together to constitute you formally as the class of 2019 and to mark your entry into the academic community. The next time you will be together as a class – just you – will be in late May 2019 when you will walk across this stage to receive your diplomas. So think of this convocation and your commencement as the bookends of your college experience.

I want to give you a sense of what to expect in the next hour. Following brief remarks from me, you will be welcomed by Berto Diaz, a senior from Los Angeles, who is a double major in Biological Chemistry and Religious Studies and President of the Student Government. Then we have the special privilege of hearing from Danielle Allen, Harvard Professor of Government and Education and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, whom you will recognize as the author of Our Declaration, the Common Reading for first years.

Allen is an eminent political theorist, educated in the classics, who, before moving to Harvard this summer was a Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. A graduate of Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge Universities, Allen was a MacArthur fellow from 2002 to 2006, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009, and she is Chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board, on which she has served since 2006. Allen is the author of numerous scholarly articles and reviews and three books in addition to Our Declaration. We are deeply honored that she has taken time out of her own beginning-of-year demands to visit with us today.

Following Professor Allen’s remarks, Brittany Longsdorf, our multifaith chaplain, will lead us in a benediction, after which we will process out, as we processed in, led by the mace bearer and the members of the faculty. There will be a brief tree planting ceremony honoring those members of our community who died during the past year.

Before I turn the podium over to Berto, I want to offer a few brief thoughts on why I think Our Declaration provides such a powerful foundation for our work as a community this academic year.

In Our Declaration, Professor Allen takes as her task figuring out how “[a] string of words – 1,337 of them to be exact – [could] transform a mass of people from one thing into another, from a set of colonies into a nation of united states.” The book is performance art – an exercise in slow reading that washes the 1,337 words of the Declaration of Independence like the sea washes rocks on a Maine beach, picking them up, turning them over, putting them back down again, glistening, restoring each time the wholeness of the beach.

In this singular meditation on the collective art of “democratic writing,” Allen lays bare the power of words, the limits of words, words as the embodiment of ideas and ideals, the structures that give them their distinctive logic, the relationship of words to action. She explores both the substance of, and the process behind, the writing of the Declaration. According to Allen, this document that has achieved such a revered and exalted place in our national consciousness that it is seldom read, and even more rarely understood, is basically a memo – an analysis of principles and facts joined to a call to action.

So what does all of this have to do with us here at Bates? As a residential liberal arts college, we are committed to the project of educating you, as whole persons, to find the sources of meaning and, yes, “happiness,” in your own life and to be motivated and equipped, as well, to serve purposes larger than yourself. We are committed to the notion that this kind of education is grounded in intellectual rigor and realized in community. As our mission states, “With ardor and devotion — Amore ac Studio — we engage the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.”

In short, we are a microcosm of precisely the sort of democratic engagement Allen so brilliantly brings to the surface for all of us. Allen shows us that the Declaration is an act of “co-creation and co-ownership of a shared world,” grounded in the egalitarian notion that each and every one of us has a role to play in shaping and maintaining a community defined by a set of principles and values that we hammer out together and reshape over time.

Since we are “language-using creatures,” words are the medium for this work. They are the technology that enables us converse with each other, to argue with each other, and to problem solve with each other, based on principles of reciprocity grounded in mutual respect for the agency of our fellow human beings. They are emphatically not the anonymous posts of “Yik Yak.” Rather, words, used responsibly and precisely, are the means by which we create community, what Allen calls “solidarity,” because language is shared, it is public, reasons are given, and each and every one of us is invited into the conversation to exercise our judgment and claim our place in the larger whole.

At Bates, we pride ourselves on the quality of community that defines life on this campus, at least on good days — the openness, the care for one another, the conviction that embracing difference is a transformative experience, the affirmation that engagement with community extends beyond the boundaries of our campus.

Allen’s remarkable book teaches us that this community of ours is not something to be taken for granted. Instead, it is an ever-changing dynamic that is co-created and stewarded by all of us, but, most important, by you, the students. Think about it. You in the class of 2019 redefine the Bates community simply by showing up. You are a quarter of the student body, and you bring to the mix new experiences, new expectations, new ideas and ideals for what we ought to stand for and who we ought to be.

But here’s the trick. Allen teaches us that the ideas and ambitions that brought you here, that have already begun to animate the conversations you are having with each other at all hours of the day and night are just the starting point. In order to make change in the world – or to shape this campus community based on a set of principles and values that we forge together and consciously embrace – words are just the starting point. They must be backed up with actions, and these actions eventually need to become habits.

Most of you have been here for over a week now. And my guess is that you are already well down the road to becoming “entangled” with each other in ways that will shape your lives with purpose and happiness, even as they define the life of this college. Professor Allen has given us a profound gift by bringing to consciousness the notion that we can, through our own agency and in respect of the agency of others, be co-creators and owners of the worlds we inhabit.

Welcome to Bates. Welcome to the company of scholars. Welcome to the community that you will help to create.

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