Your Liberal Arts Education

Dear Members of the Class of 2021,

Let me be among the many who welcome you to Bates and tell you how much we look forward to your arrival on campus. I write as you prepare to register for fall semester courses, to describe what we think is distinctive about your educational experience at Bates, and to offer some advice on how best to succeed during your time here. We want you to flourish.

An Education in the Liberal Arts at Bates

Whatever academic field you choose to pursue at Bates, you will be studying liberal arts at a residential college. What are the “liberal arts”? The word “liberal” does not convey what we think of today when we hear the word in contemporary political discourse. “Liberal” comes from the Latin word liberalis. This word described a free male citizen of the Roman Empire. Liberalis was used with ars (pl. artes) “arts or skills” to describe an education appropriate for a free male citizen of the Roman Empire who would become a leader in his community. The world has changed since ancient Rome, of course, and an education in the liberal arts is no longer restricted to a select group of men.

Indeed, democratic societies around the globe share the conviction that all their members do not simply deserve an education, but require an education in order to exercise their rights and fulfill their civic obligations. This conviction was one of the motivating ideas behind the foundation of Bates College. Freewill Baptists, abolitionists who fought to end American slavery, established the College to insure that a liberal arts education would be available to all Americans. Bates College has always admitted and educated students without regard to gender and race. One of the few American Colleges to admit women and African Americans from its inception, Bates College was founded on the idea that a liberal arts education for all Americans was vital for the development of American democracy. You are about to become an heir of this extraordinary tradition, as captured in our mission statement:

Since 1855, Bates College has been dedicated to the emancipating potential of the liberal arts. Bates educates the whole person through creative and rigorous scholarship in a collaborative residential community. With ardor and devotion — Amore ac Studio — we engage the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action. Preparing leaders sustained by a love of learning and a commitment to responsible stewardship of the wider world, Bates is a college for coming times.

At Bates College, the liberal arts are deliberately democratic, egalitarian, and transformative. Whatever field of specialization you pursue, every course in every field will require you to think critically and to argue clearly and honestly; to question each idea and each person you encounter with respect and curiosity; to develop the confidence and creativity to change your ideas and yourself in dialogue with others; and to act with integrity and commitment to the good of your community. These skills are the prerequisites for effective citizenship in a democracy. When we imagine you as a leader in coming times, we think that regardless of your party or ideological opinions you must pursue the skills that democratic global citizenship demands. That’s the liberal in “liberal arts.”

Some Advice on Pursuing Your Education at Bates

Once you arrive at Bates College, remember that the educational journey on which you are embarking is yours. Your choice of major, courses, teams and other extracurricular activities are your responsibility. You will not make choices on your journey, however, unaided and alone. At Bates, you will find academic advisors, faculty, peers, and staff mentors. Your families, moreover, might have a piece or two of advice they’d like you to take to heart. We will all answer your questions and offer our honest opinions whenever you ask. At the end of the day, however, the choices you make, and their consequences, will be your own.

Bates requires, in addition to the major, a number of general education requirements. The faculty spends considerable time debating, defining and reviewing these requirements. You can’t graduate unless you fulfill them. It is up to you to decide how to satisfy requirements. During your first year at Bates, the professor who teaches your first-year seminar will be your academic advisor and work with you so that you understand the general education requirements and are steadily working towards fulfilling them. In addition to the professor of your first-year seminar, a member of the Student Affairs Office will also serve as your support advisor. Professors will be best prepared to offer advice on academic matters, while advisors from Student Affairs Office will know the most about extra and co-curricular activities. Sometimes, you’ll have general questions about matters other than courses and co-curricular activities. Don’t be afraid to ask any of your advisors for information or help. They’ll figure out who has the best information and make sure that you meet them.

The best advice I can offer you as you start to make choices about your education is to ask for help and ask for advice.  It is, by nature, hard for anyone, especially anyone who is new to a community, to admit they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Success, however, is often the consequence of overcoming your reluctance to acknowledge your own uncertainty. If you ask any member of the faculty or the Student Affairs Office, “what’s the most frustrating thing about working with first-years?” the answer will always be, “they wait too long to ask for help.” The sooner you can bring yourself to stop by your professor’s office to ask for help on a problem set or paper, the sooner you will start to flourish at Bates. The sooner you can bring yourself to make an appointment with your Student Support Advisor to ask for help, the sooner you will start to flourish at Bates. We want you to flourish. Ask for help when you are uncertain.

The next best advice I can offer you is to choose your courses widely as well as wisely. Students often begin college without a complete understanding of the range of fields of study and modes of inquiry that they can pursue. Your first-year courses should not mirror what your high school offered for AP credit. Take some time to read through course descriptions in the Bates Catalogue. If something seems interesting, check to see whether the course is being offered in the fall. If it is, go for it. Your intellectual interests will spark your intellectual passions. Your intellectual passions will drive you not simply to academic success, but also to intellectual fulfillment. The same advice applies to extra-curricular activities. Try new things. The psychologist of children’s development, Jean Piaget, believed that the purpose of education was to foster the growth of individuals “who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” When we survey graduates who have gone on to careers in the medical and STEM professions, for example, they repeatedly tell us that they wish they had taken more courses in foreign languages and the arts when they were in college.  Don’t wait 20 years to figure this out.  We want you to flourish. Try new things.

Here’s another piece of advice: trust your strengths. You will succeed at Bates. You are here because we believe there is nothing that limits your capacity to excel. Do not undersell yourself in order to protect yourself. Don’t take the “easier” or lower level of course, if you’ve done well in that field in high school. You’ll only be bored, and the bored student is the student who sleep-walks into a lower grade. We want you to flourish. Push yourself.

I have a parallel piece of advice: remedy your weaknesses. You have a sense of some academic areas where you don’t feel you’re a particularly strong student. “I can’t write.” “I’m not a math (or science) person.” “I’m bad at languages.” If you have said something like this about yourself, you must consider the statement the beginning of your story, not its end. To be an effective citizen (much less employee), you will have to know how to read critically, write well, analyze quantitatively, and communicate effectively. If you think you have some deficits that will prevent you from doing so, address them now. Start with introductory courses. If the course material sparks your interest, keep going. If you’re satisfied that you’ve to come to the level of competence you’ll need in this area and would like to move on, do so. Don’t let what you think are your weaknesses prevent you from pursuing your dreams. If you want to be a doctor and you haven’t had a lot of luck in math courses, you’ll need to build up your math skills before you take calculus. You might need to go to the Academic Resource Commons or Math and Statistics Workshop for some help on your assignments in addition to working with your professor during office hours. Do it. The dream is yours, and we want you to achieve it. We want you to flourish. Ready yourself.

The most practical advice I can give you is: learn how to manage your time. Your first year in college is a perfect storm of amazing opportunities and the absence of the daily structure that organized your time when you were in high school. You’ll want to take extra courses, play two sports, and join five clubs during your first week at Bates. This desire is perfectly normal. Pursuing it is disastrous. Remember, it is always pleasurable to add something new to your routine. Having to give up activities and interests that you’ve invested time in when the reality of midterm exams strikes, however, is always an unhappy experience. Make a schedule of your week. Add time for naps and sleep (you’d be amazed at how many students forget to include time for sleep). Block out chunks of time to study during the day, as well as after your naps, your club meetings, your practices, and your dinners. Throw in some time to do nothing or to do whatever you want: read a novel, go for a run, call your family. If you can think about your time structurally from the beginning, you will spend your time in pursuits that nourish your mind, body, and soul. If you don’t, you’ll waste a lot of time and have an unhappy week when you get your midterm exams and first papers back. When you choose how to spend your time, you’re investing in yourself. We want you to flourish. Choose wisely.

My last piece of advice is to think. Think about what you think, believe, and value. Take courses that will challenge your assumptions about how the world works and what the meaning of life is. Socrates, the first great ethical thinker in the western tradition, frequently urged his listeners to “know thyself.” I’m not going to challenge Socrates, but at Bates, we also think a good piece of advice is to “know someone and something different from yourself.” We believe that you will one day lead the world. We want you to do so in a deeply thoughtful and intentionally ethical way.  You are fortunate enough to have four years to take the time examine your assumptions. Such time is a luxury that most people in the world cannot even imagine. You are fortunate enough to be able to interrogate ideas that are different from your own and form friendships with people whose lives have been radically different from the one you’ve enjoyed. We believe that such experiences will transform you and that through them, you will be leaders for coming times. We want you to flourish. Question, reflect and grow.

Welcome to Bates,

Kathryn Graff Low,  Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty