2003 Convocation remarks

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen

Thank you, Aaron Miller, and thanks to all of you—Bates students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, friends and neighbors of the college—for joining us as we begin the new academic year and welcome the Class of 2007.

As members of the Class of ’07 know, I invited each of you to write to me over the summer about yourselves and your expectations for life at Bates. I thank those of you who took the time to respond. While we mean what we say about personal attention and close relationships at Bates, there is only one president for over 1,700 students, their 3,500 or so parents, almost 20,000 former students, close to 200 faculty, and about 500 administrators and staff, and so I value your letters for helping me advance my efforts to become acquainted with at least a few more of you.

I enjoyed learning about the unique adventures of our newest class and can report that you bring us a wonderfully rich variety of experiences. I also learned that you have some important and not very surprising expectations in common—including the universal expectation that you will become involved in what one of you refers to as “an endless range of activities.” This spirited desire to plunge into the myriad opportunities that await is part of what makes a prospective student look attractive in the admissions process, and part of what attracts the strongest students to Bates: intense engagement is an integral and historic element of the institutional character. First-year students join the ranks of committed, active, industrious, indefatigable go-getters.

With this in mind, while most of you were naturally focused in your summer reading assignment [Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11] on what Thomas L. Friedman had to say about the Middle East, I confess that I was struck by an early column entitled “Cyber-Serfdom.” Here Friedman identifies another kind of global problem exacerbated by the technological revolution and likely to be of special concern to the passionate people of Bates:

 “. . . [W]e now live in an age of what a Microsoft researcher, Linda Stone, called continuous partial attention. I love that phrase. It means that while you are answering your e-mail and talking to your kid, your cell phone rings and you have a conversation. You are now involved in a continuous flow of interactions in which you can only partially concentrate on each.

‘If being fulfilled is about committing yourself to someone else, or some experience, that requires a level of sustained attention,’ said Ms. Stone. And that is what we are losing the skills for, because we are constantly scanning the world for opportunities and we are constantly in fear of missing something better. That has become incredibly spiritually depleting.” [1]

All of us here today surely recognize our lives in this description of the age of “continuous partial attention” and “device creep.” This makes it all the more important to remind ourselves, at the start of this new year, that four years at Bates offers you the time and the resources for cultivating the skills of sustained attention. We all have the capacity to develop these skills, or we would not be here today. But to use and not be used by technology, to be fulfilled, to achieve all that we have said we want to achieve and have the power to achieve, we have to nurture and exercise that capacity. I know again from the letters I received that some of our newest students are already worried about how to juggle all their interests and ambitions, how to get involved in everything but also manage time well and be mindful. Worrying about it is a good first step. This afternoon I want to offer just a few very simple further thoughts about the aerobic practice of sustained attention:

1. Many of you who are just joining the Bates community have already had meaningful experiences of paying attention, whether or not you have thought about them in these terms. One of you, for example, wrote to me about helping to build a family house from the foundation up, and about the transition from seeing manual labor as “boring” to realizing that “I was actually applying physics I had learned in school even on simple jobs like pulling a nail from a piece of wood or tightening a nut with a wrench. The most important thing I have learned from all this hard work has been to open my eyes and to look for knowledge behind these ordinary jobs.” Looking for knowledge behind the ordinary is one way of paying sustained attention, and as each of us reflects on our own experience, we find our own moments and modes of attentiveness that we can draw upon as we seek to hone habits of attention at Bates.

2. The necessity and the joy of paying sustained attention applies to the formation of relationships and communities, of course, as well as to the quest for knowledge about things, processes, and ideas. Almost everyone who wrote to me about his or her expectations for life at Bates talked about wanting to meet many new people and make lots of new friends, and several admitted to some concerns about this aspect of the future. As another of you said, “I’m not into superficial relationships. I like to form bonds with people and establish deep emotional ties.” This will happen, I promise. Bates graduates know how to commit themselves to other people. Through consulting and accommodating and sometimes confronting and always respecting others, we develop the skills needed to form fulfilling lifelong friendships and build successful communities.

3. Bates faculty are all people who know how to concentrate, and the curriculum at Bates, from first-year seminars to senior theses, demands the progressive development of each student’s powers of concentration. Through introductory courses and the fulfillment of distribution requirements, you have a chance to “scan the world for opportunities,” and see what might be fulfilling, and then in choosing a major you commit yourself to paying closer attention to certain things in particular ways. If you become an English major, you pay sustained attention to words, phrases, sentences, and other verbal structures. If you become a sociology major, you look deeply and closely for patterns of meaning in other kinds of human constructions, ranging from institutional policies and demographic statistics to everyday interactions. If you become a chemistry major, you carefully observe the design and rules of the elements that construct natural life. Whatever specific fields you study now and after Bates, paying sustained attention, keeping your eyes open, is the ultimate aim of a liberal education and a fulfilling life, as we understand it at Bates.

4. While it is commonplace to observe that the technological revolution seems to have markedly increased the chances that we will pay only partial attention to the world, the dangers of distraction and inattentiveness are neither new nor limited to the allure of e-mail, surfing the Web, and computer games. As part of practicing sustained attention in the era of cyber-serfdom, you can look to other times and to other places to find models that celebrate and replenish the spirit depleted by the continuous flow of information. The Odyssey, to take just one familiar example, is a well-known, foundational western story worth rereading for what it says about the hero who must resist the flow of tempting opportunities in the wider world in order to find his home, his family, himself. And on my vacation this summer, while visiting the island of Kaua`i, I ran into a less familiar but, I thought, quite refreshing story that also spoke to the virtue and the possibility of paying attention. In the Limahuli Valley, on the northern coast of Kaua`i, my family swam and kayaked and hiked and picnicked in the shadow of the mountain that played the part of Bali Hai in the film South Pacific. The mountain’s real name is Makana, which means “gift” in Hawaiian. A small upright outcropping standing sentinel on one side of the cliff gives rise to the legend of Pōhaku-o-Kāne:

Long before humans discovered Kaua`i, a family of three huge rocks, two brothers and a sister, were seeking a new home. They rolled across the ocean floor, visiting several islands and atolls before finally arriving at the north shore of Kaua`i. As they approached the shore, they were refreshed by the fresh water of Limahuli Stream. Breaking the surface, they saw that they were on a reef surrounded by fish. The colors of the land, ocean, sky and clouds delighted them.

O`o-a`a, the sister, was enchanted with this spot and decided to stay. Basking in the warm sun and lulled by the sounds of waves, she soon fell asleep. The brothers, wanting to go inland, rolled onto the sandy beach. After a while the younger brother, Pōhaku-loa, stopped to rest in the shade of hala trees. Enjoying the rustling leaves and cool breeze, he decided to stay. Although his older brother pleaded with him to continue up the mountain, Pōhaku-loa contentedly fell asleep.

The older brother continued alone, intending to climb to the top of the mountain. When he reached the pali [cliff], his strength and determination were not enough. He faltered and fell. Again and again he tried to reach the top, refusing to give up. Eventually, the great god Kāne noticed this ambitious rock and went to investigate. He asked the rock why he was struggling so hard to reach the top. The rock replied, ‘Because I want to be where I can watch the world below.’

Kāne pointed out that it didn’t matter where the older brother was, for he would surely fall asleep as his brother and sister had. The older brother insisted that he would remain awake. Kāne decided that this determined rock would never give up, that he would continue to climb and fall until all that remained of him was dust. So Kāne and the rock made a deal. Kāne lifted the older brother and placed him on the top of the mountain ridge. In return the rock promised to stay awake and watch and remember all that went on below him. Then Kāne said, ‘When I come again, you must tell me what you have seen. When you are ready to go, the island will sink beneath the water and the waves will climb up to you. Then you and your brother and sister may begin to travel again. Until then, watch and remember.’

To this day, Pōhaku-o-Kāne sits wakeful on the mountain top, and all is well.” [2]

A rock is one of the least likely symbols of engagement, concentration, and fulfillment that you might have expected me to offer, but as Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. We humans are lucky enough to have many more resources than the little rock had in order to help us scale the cliffs and stay awake, and we also have many more distractions. In the era of continuous partial attention, I wish you all the strength, determination, and ambition of Pōhaku-o-Kāne. At the convocation of this new academic year, Bates invites you to watch, remember, and stand ready to say what you have seen when the gods come to ask.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002), p. 22

[2] Nancy Merrill, Limahuli Garden: A Window to Ancient Hawaii (brochure; Kalaheo, Hawaii: National Tropical Botanical Garden, 2000).