Bates Matters

Commencement came and went amidst the sights and sounds of three year-long construction projects: the new dining Commons, new student housing, and Alumni Walk. During this season of steel and brick, I’ve begun to see architecture and building as metaphors for the design of a well-educated life.

For example, in both construction and educational development, we labor over the foundation. Before the visible edifice begins to arise, the builder takes care of underground steam and sewer lines, stormwater catch basins, and other necessities we rarely notice again, unless things go wrong.

The more ambitious the structure, the firmer the substructure must be. St. Augustine underscores this aspect of our metaphor when he speaks of building a virtuous soul: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

The men and women who graduated in May spent many years establishing basic habits, fundamental skills, and well-grounded principles of mind and soul that will support them every day of their lives. With this foundation in place, they are ready to do great things.

To build something new and beautiful it is often necessary to destroy something old. The entire process, albeit “constructive,” can appear unkempt, and the work sites at Bates look messy: chain-link fences, heavy machinery, porta-potties, rubbish heaps, dusty ruts, and forlorn stumps. Bulldozers have obliterated part of the world we were used to and loved.

Though our 2007 graduates emerged intellectually sleek and polished — all those theses neatly printed and bound — I am sure that they too endured untidy moments while building a strong life of the mind. Some things had to be destroyed; others may have been lost. In fact, we are never finished making a mess. At every stage of the self-fashioning that has come before and lies ahead, the old begrudges the new; seamless and painless transitions are rare.

As great architects are able to keep their eyes on the big picture, so it must be in forming a life. Our architectural consultants began by showing us broad strokes and rough sketches. Indeed, Strunk and White observed in another context that “design informs even the simplest structure…. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision and a cathedral from another.” We flounder when we don’t know where we are going — whether in a paper, a project, or a relationship.

But while we need the overarching vision, we also have to care deeply about detail, accuracy, and precision. The building can’t just look good; it has to work good, too. Anyone who has ever lived in a room where someone put the electric outlets in the wrong place knows why we spend so much time and effort in construction projects thinking about the smallest item, checking and double-checking. So, too, an exciting grand scheme may be foiled by a minor problem, a minute wrinkle, a mere small matter.

A building’s architectural design expresses our values. Consider these questions: Why is the new dining Commons so big? What does the large main dining area say about Bates? Why is the ceiling made of recycled wood? Why does the fireplace lounge have moveable walls for displaying art?

Each answer affirms the idea that architectural elements reflect careful choices based on what we, the Bates community, tell the architects about our principles and aspirations. We want to be a richly diverse group of individuals, but we also want to come together daily to eat and socialize in one space. We care about sustainability. We invite the provocative, even the outrageous, but we think they should occupy a place where people consent to the educational value of being provoked and outraged.

As architecture expresses values, the things we do in life express our goals and values. The hope is, of course, that the education we’ve designed at Bates makes a difference not just in the facts students know or the skills they have, but in the quality of their character as well.

Finally, a site under construction gives little clue as to what the finished product will look like. Even as we begin to use our new spaces daily, our judgments of them will evolve, and only time will tell us whether these buildings are great or just good. Similarly, graduation caps and gowns conceal the unfinished nature of our graduates. They have a lot of growing to do, and I hope we will remember this fact — about them, but also about ourselves and others — before passing judgment, before declaring victory, or before admitting defeat.

President Hansen adapted this column from her 2007 Baccalaureate address.