Address by James J. McCarthy

Unedited transcript, subject to change and correction, of Commencement 20010 remarks by James J. McCarthy, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Science.

In Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, has just graduated from a small New England college, and his parents throw him a party at their Los Angeles home. Mr. McGuire, a friend of Ben’s father, takes Ben aside. The conversation ensues:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word, just one word.

Ben: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Now, Bates College, Class of 2010, my one word to you, just one word: “Boundaries.”

I’ll be some of you thought I would be talking about the ocean or climate, subjects dear to my heart. But I was given five minutes and it would take me an hour to talk about the oceans or climate. Besides, the oceans and climate are all about boundaries.

So, unlike Mr. McGuire, Mr. McCarthy will now elaborate, with the help of a poem. “Mending Wall,” written in 1915 by Robert Frost, truly New England’s poet and a Bates honorary degree recipient in 1936, causes I to reflect on boundaries. The poet’s neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The poet continues:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

So how do we view a wall or a boundary? Is it a border or a limit which bounds or restricts our thoughts and travels? Is it an edge or a margin or periphery, which is perhaps more neutral but still uninviting? Or is it a frontier which is inviting, challenging and full of opportunity.

I invite you to reflect for a moment across the blur of these past four years of your experiences at Bates upon the boundaries you have discovered, explored because you perceive them as inviting, challenging and full of opportunity. In a classroom for sure, but also in your day-to-day interactions with fellow students and your extracurricular pursuits and in moments of quiet contemplation on this beautiful campus.

For some of you this was the discovery that you could excel in an area of study or performance, or thoroughly enjoy some frivolous passion that seemed somehow beyond what you could have imagined possible or even possibly interesting.

For some of you, this was the opportunity to live, to truly live, in a community that expanded your sense of the human family, from one of parents, children, siblings and cousins, which intimately share blood, culture and beliefs, to one that shares blood more distantly and expresses a range of cultures and beliefs that are sometimes contrasting or even contradictory.

In the “Mending Wall,” Frost talks about replacing boulders that have fallen from the wall:

We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

Balancing on the boundary can be some of the most exciting territory of all. It is the space that people who think of themselves as daring often rush across. But lingering there on the boundary can be especially rewarding. These balanced moments can allow one to grow in understanding of the flow that moves in each direction across the boundary. Only by pausing at the boundary can you understand that the flow in each direction truly has in common with the other, and from this emerges a wonderful gift: New understanding and appreciation of whole worlds of ideas that appear to stand apart, and this can be an extraordinary opportunity for creativity.

My wish for you as you go forward to carve your future and make your mark, is that you will never be daunted by boundaries, that you will find them to be a source of life-enriching discovery.

Savor your moments on the boundaries. Seek the mending-wall spell that allows you the gift of balance. Work to prove that all of us can be even better neighbors without fences as you, Bates Class of 2010, commence to apply yourselves to the problems that will define your generation.

So, returning to the dialog between Mr. McGuire and Ben:

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes, I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shhh. Enough said. That’s a deal.

Boundaries! Congratulations Class of 2010.