Remarks at Convocation: Fall 2018
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”1
I’m sure that many of you are familiar with this statement, made famous by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. President Obama liked the quotation so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office.
As it happens, King was not the first person to express this sentiment. He simply adapted it — with attribution — from a 19th-century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, who included it in a book of 10 sermons published in 1853.2 Parker, like Bates’ founders in the same historical moment, was an abolitionist deeply involved in the social and political issues of his day.
I’ve been thinking about this statement a lot lately, because it expresses a thought that I once found reassuring, but now feels dangerously like false hope, cold comfort, or a seriously misplaced sense of inevitability. Is the arc of the moral universe really bending toward justice? In Syria? in Venezuela? in Myanmar? in our schools? on our city streets? at our borders? in our public discourse?
Of course, the statement was never meant to describe conditions on the ground at any given time or place. It was meant as a spiritual, not a political, truth — an affirmation of hope in the face of contrary experience.
But I also hear it as a call to action. As did President Obama, who said that if the arc is going to bend toward justice, it’s not going to do it on its own.3 We have to get in there and use our best efforts to bend it. Otherwise, it’s like expecting a fix for climate change, somewhere off there in the future, without changing our own behavior in the here and now.
Students, you may be wondering what this has to do with your college experience. The short answer is “everything.” It has everything to do with how each of you shapes your individual path through Bates and, in so doing, how we together shape this community. If we want you to graduate in four years both prepared and motivated to do your part to make the world a better and more just place, what are the experiences you need to have here to get you there?
Intellectual discovery and informed civic action unfold out of a prior commitment to empathy.
The answers will be different for each of you. But the project — figuring out who you are and how you will make a difference in the world — is the same for all of us, and it binds us together as a community with a set of shared purposes and values. These shared values are most explicitly invoked in our mission statement, of which I would like to highlight one sentence. “With ardor and devotion…we engage the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.”
Notice that the project begins not with the head — not with intellectual discovery — but with hard work and an explicit call to open ourselves to being transformed by engaging with difference. Intellectual discovery and informed civic action unfold out of a prior commitment to empathy.
Empathy is not, as we often think of it, simply a willingness to identify with the feelings of another person. In a recent piece focused on the importance of art in our public life, writer Dave Eggers describes it as a powerful and necessary force: “With art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.”4
Of course, it is not just art that teaches empathy. Empathy is about approaching ideas, people, or situations with a stance of curiosity and openness. It is a way of moving through the world.
Treat your four years at Bates not as a structure, set out by us, for acquiring competence, but as an adventure, driven by you, focused on seeking challenge.
Writing more than a century and a half ago, in 1850, again the same decade in which Bates was founded, Nathaniel Hawthorne put it this way — with apologies in advance for the gendered language: “It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.”5
Here is my message to you. As you begin classes tomorrow and continue to meet your fellow students, I urge you to “go out of yourselves” to appreciate new ideas, new people, new experiences, and new points of view. Treat your four years at Bates not as a structure, set out by us, for acquiring competence, but as an adventure, driven by you, focused on seeking challenge. 6 To make the most of your time here, each of you will need to figure out which questions compel you most deeply, which modes of inquiry stimulate your curiosity and begin to feel intuitive, and which forms of expression engage your creativity and help you shape your own unique world view.
But, paradoxically, this journey of self-discovery only works if you’re willing at every turn to get outside yourself, to engage with difference — and, much more important, to be prepared to be transformed by this act. As Eggers suggests, moving through the world with empathy makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others, because it compels us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. In short, this way of seeing, feeling, imagining, and acting will give you the insight and capacity to do your part to bend the arc.
It will be up to you, over your lifetimes, to decide if and how you will take up this challenge.
1. King Jr., Martin Luther. “Our God Is Marching On!” March 25, 1965. Montgomery, Alabama. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching
2. Parker, Theodore. Ten Sermons of Religion. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1853.
3. Obama, Barack. Speech at 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, August 28, 2013. http://swampland.time.com/2013/08/28/in-commemorative-mlk-speech-president-obama-recalls-his-own-2008-dream/
4. Eggers, Dave. “A Cultural Vacuum in Trump’s White House.” The New York Times. June 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/29/opinion/dave-eggers-culture-arts-trump.html
5. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1850.
6. The notion of choosing “challenge” over “competence” comes from a 1961 essay in The Atlantic by Eleanor Roosevelt. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1961/04/eleanor-roosevelts-american-dream/306023/
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