Round Table

By Catharine R. Stimpson

The Meaning of a B.A. Degree
At last fall’s Trustee meeting, Bates Trustees James F. Orr III, Catharine R. Stimpson, M. Patricia Morse ’60, and Howard I. Scher ’72 shared with their colleagues essays on the topic of “The Meaning of a B.A. Degree.” Their talks were a prelude to the Trustees’ overall planning discussions.

The four essays presented an engaging range of thought and perspective. Catharine Stimpson, who is director of the MacArthur Fellows Program in Chicago, had this to say.

My job is to talk about “The Meaning of the B.A. Degree.” Frankly, this rubric roils and ruffles my pluralistic soul. What, I muttered to myself, one meaning for all B.A. degrees? Nonsense, impossible. The United States has about 3,500 institutions of higher education that award degrees to millions of degree-seeking students. These numbers alone insure a multiplicity of individual and institutional meanings for the B.A. degree.

However, one meaning of the B.A. degree is pervasive. For nearly everyone, it signifies the completion of a rite of passage. Like all end points to a rite of passage, the degree has its myths, rituals, and symbols. Graduation is a grand, time-honored ritual. On an elevated level, this particular rite of passage ends in moral, intellectual, social, and psychological growth. The B.A. degree represents the gaining of wisdom, consciousness, conscience, membership in new communities, and character. My last two sentences, of course, are the staple of graduation speeches. Indeed, versions of them have often dropped like paper petals from my rosebud lips.

On a more pragmatic level, where most students live, the B.A. degree — like its siblings the B.S. and pre-professional degrees — is the end point of a rite of passage to the middle classes, professional classes, and economic opportunity. In her impressive 1995 Bates Convocation address, the historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz elaborates on this idea. Undergraduates are right to interpret their degrees in such a material way. They are also right to believe that the more prestigious the undergraduate institution, the greater the currency and bankability of their degrees. In 1993, college graduates earned 57 percent more than non-college graduates. Only the earnings of the possessors of graduate degrees, unobtainable without an undergraduate degree, outstripped inflation over a twenty-year period.

One of my favorite songs is Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” People might well ask of me, “Is that all there is to a B.A. degree? Economic opportunity?” I would respond that economic opportunity is no mean thing. Higher education should be proud of, not apologetic about, providing upward mobility, good jobs, careers, and security. But, I would go on, institutions can endow a B.A. degree with other meanings as well. Like all endowments, it must be worked for. As a community, Bates must raise the endowment of meaning.

What is my endowment target? What do I want a B.A. degree to mean? Many things, but let me focus on one: A B.A. degree ought to promise that its holder has a life-long, abiding, active devotion to education itself. In other words, being educated ought to mean doing education always. Similarly, being in love ought to mean doing love always.

I must caution people that my vision of doing education may be out-of-fashion–not old-fashioned but out-of-fashion. For me, doing education entails acting on five beliefs:

  • It is right to provide education for everyone to the limit of her or his capacities and desires. In turn, this calls for a spacious, inclusive notion of who is capable of learning.
  • Education is good for individuals, institutions, and civil society. Education “adds value” to our lives.
  • Education is a public as well as a family responsibility, which both public and private institutions must meet. This obligation has moral, social, cultural, and financial dimensions.
  • Research matters as well as teaching. We must extend the philosophical and intellectual legacy that encourages us to search for knowledge as energetically, even as relentlessly, as possible.
  • Education is a source of hope for people and society.

To amplify my last point: On October 25, 1995, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a dinner at Rockefeller University in New York City. The major speakers were Richard W. Riley, the United States Secretary of Education; W. Ann Reynolds, the Chancellor of City University of New York; and Ruth J. Simmons, recently inaugurated as president of Smith College. All were eloquent, but President Simmons movingly evoked a picture of education as a source of hope. Education, she said, had been essential for her, the youngest child of a large, black sharecropper’s family, who had become the first black president of one of the Seven Sister colleges. Now she stood behind the podium in Rockefeller University to inspire an audience of men and women of all races with her reminder of what a force for good education can be.

Please do not mistake my final words. I believe in private institutions, fiscal accountability for all institutions, and the free market, albeit a market with a well-woven security net. Today, to my regret and anger, I see holders of B.A. degrees who scoff at my vision of doing education and who are damaging the institutions that the United States has built up over the centuries with such care, dedication, sacrifice, and trust in human possibility. These destructive acts include:

  • The Edison Project, led by an ex-president of one of America’s most powerful and important universities, which is attempting to turn elementary schools into profit centers and little children into the basis of entries on the plus side of an accountant’s ledger.
  • Medicare reform measures in the 1995 Congress, which threaten to destroy the research and teaching hospitals that are a glory of global and American medicine.
  • Efforts to end federal support for public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two invaluable sources of our common culture.
  • The constant denigration, often for short-term political gain, of schools and educators.

I beg for a B.A. degree in the future that will promise that its holders will not abandon the doing of education for all of us, be we young or old, who are going through the rites we call the passage of our lives.

Members of the Bates community who would like a booklet containing the text of all four Trustee essays should write to the President’s Office, Bates College, 2 Andrews Road, Lewiston, Maine 04240, or e-mail Claire Schmoll of the President’s staff