2008 Baccalaureate address

‘To whom or what do you feel responsible?’

It is a privilege and an honor for the president to be invited to speak at the Baccalaureate ceremony, a distinctive ritual created and largely performed by the talented members of the Class of 2008.

Your invitation offers me my last opportunity to speak to your whole class, assembled in one place and in the mood to attend and reflect. The pressure to say something worthy of your attention is as daunting as it is welcome, however; I know from experience on both sides of the podium how hard it is to listen and take in the kind of weighty pronouncements speakers tend to offer on occasions like this. And so I work very hard to find something that you might want and be able to remember, be it a single striking image, an indelible phrase or a story that might be unforgettable.

President Hansen, framed by the traditional gateway festooned with prayer cards for the graduating seniors, speaks at the Baccalaureate service.

The first time I spoke to the entire Class of 2008, at Convocation in the fall of 2004, I offered an extended analogy, and I can’t help wondering if any of you remember today what I said then. I had just returned from two weeks on the Jersey shore, where I had spent as much time in front of TV, it seemed, as I had on the beach. The weather had been rainy, and there had been a lot going on in the Garden State, in the nation and in the world. Gov. James McGreevy had just come out and resigned; Hurricane Charley, a harbinger of worse storms to come, was devastating Florida; and the games of the 28th Olympiad.

With the latter in particular in mind, I spoke at your first Convocation about the American television coverage of the Olympics, which offered me rich fodder for some opening humor to capture your attention. I recalled the NBC commentator who helped us understand that the underlying psychological reason for Alexander the Great’s alleged dislike of sports was sour grapes. A sprinter in the original Olympics, he in fact wasn’t very fast, the commentator said, adding, “As an athlete, he might have been Alexander the so-so.” This same commentator reminded us of the timeless lessons of Greek drama: “Oedipus, as you know, is the tragic Greek king who killed his father and married his mother, a sequence of events that seldom turns out well.”

But setting aside the dubious historicism and the rampant commercialism, the doping scandals and the judging errors, I went on to talk to you about a potential analogy between the four years that an athlete spends preparing for the next Olympics and the four years you were about to spend in college. I charged you to emulate some of the Olympic ideals in your time at Bates: the principle of a sound mind in a sound body; the celebration of international friendship and understanding; the valorization of hard work, focus and dedication; the quest for balance between individual initiative and obedience to the group; and between pride in national origin and commitment to notions like excellence and fair play that transcend naïve patriotism.

At Bates, you are preparing yourself not to nail the single performance of a lifetime but to create nothing more and nothing less than a sustainable future.

I also noted some fundamental differences, however, between the rush for Olympic gold and the pursuit of the gold standard of a liberal arts education today, a Bates degree.

While there are only three medals in any given event, we stand ready to hand out as many diplomas as there are matriculants. At Bates, we hope you learn to compete above all with yourself. Moreover, while the kind of focus and hard work that Olympians embody is a worthy means to achieving goals that you may have, your ends are broader and far more complex. At Bates, you are preparing yourself not to nail the single performance of a lifetime but to create nothing more and nothing less than a sustainable future.

With the 2008 games in Beijing starting in a couple of months, I was tempted to pick up on the Olympic analogy and talk today about both the recent spectacle of “passing the torch,” with its metaphoric and political meaning today. But I’ve decided to go in a related but different direction to talk instead about what it will take to create that sustainable future. And I’m going to offer you something I hope you can remember, an eight-word question: “To whom or what do you feel responsible?” Now let me tell you why I think this question matters to the future, and how some of you have actually already answered it.

My question is inspired by a new book, Five Minds for the Future, by Howard Gardner, a psychologist and educator most well known for his groundbreaking work in the 1980s on multiple intelligences. Gardner’s latest book begins with the unexceptionable premise that the world is changing more rapidly than ever, and he argues that therefore the survival of humanity will depend, more than ever, on five mental capacities.

According to Gardner, the first essential disposition for the future, the disciplined mind, has attained mastery in at least one distinctive way of thinking, be it “a scholarly discipline, craft, or profession.” It is also “disciplined” in another sense of the word — this mind “knows how to work steadily over time” to achieve its ends.

Second is the synthesizing mind, which sorts through the ever-increasing mountains of information available, makes good judgments about what’s accurate and relevant and then organizes information from disparate disciplines to make meaning and solve problems.

When I first read Five Minds for the Future, I was struck as you may be by how many of these five mental capacities are in fact cultivated by a Bates education.

The third mind for the future, the creating mind, builds on discipline and synthesis to go further — to ask new questions, to offer surprising answers to see and explore fresh ideas.

The last two minds for the future are not exclusively cognitive dispositions but involve human interaction. The fourth mind, the respectful mind, is essential to a world where old borders have been breached or dissolved and human culture is truly global. To survive, let alone flourish, human beings can no longer be trained to reject or even merely tolerate those who seem alien and other; we need unprecedented interpersonal skills that actively and respectfully embrace differences between individuals and groups.

Fifth and last, the ethical mind is about a more abstract response to this same new imperative to think globally, to recognize that we are all members of a single human community sharing one earth. The ethical mind thinks especially about the responsibilities associated with professional and political life, focusing on “how workers can serve purposes beyond self-interest and how citizens can work unselfishly to improve the lot of all.”

When I first read Five Minds for the Future, I was struck as you may be by how many of these five mental capacities are in fact cultivated by a Bates education, in ways we can more or less articulate and measure. Your transcript testifies that you have completed at least one major in at least one discipline and that you have also synthesized disciplines through interdisciplinary courses, programs and research (and going forward, the new general education concentrations will develop the synthesizing capacity, we hope, even more explicitly and consistently). You have had and taken many tangible opportunities to be creative, not least of all in your thesis, where you built on discipline and synthesis to approach “fresh ways of thinking.”

The College’s roots in principles of inclusiveness and the common human dignity of men and women of all colors, creeds and religions have nurtured our commitment to diversity today, and our practical emphasis on teamwork and partnership, whether through student-faculty research or peer-assisted learning or study abroad or in countless hours of community service, provides concrete evidence that a Bates education exercises your capacity to engage other perspectives and persons with the respect they deserve.

Colleges may be failing to cultivate the ethical mind for the future.

And what about the ethical mind? The capacity to think and act ethically is arguably the most distinctive outcome of a Bates education, and yet it is the hardest to measure and demonstrate. You won’t see it on your transcript. I could name scores of alums I have met whose lives attest to the past success of Bates’ efforts to educated principled leaders. But Howard Gardner presents some worrying evidence from his research that colleges may be failing to cultivate the ethical mind for the future, and so it behooves us to ask whether our strong roots are adequately nourishing the growth needed to sustain us tomorrow.

In a study of young professional workers, Gardner and his colleagues found that today’s more fragmented, divisive world adversely affects the choices and attitudes of the brightest young people. All of the recent college graduates he and his team interviewed knew what ethical work was, but “too many of them” also thought that ethical work was:

…a luxury that they could not afford at this early state of their career. On their own accounts (which could have been accurate reports or hyperbolic projections), their peers were hell-bent on achieving success and would cut whatever corners were necessary. Our subjects were not willing to cede their own chances. And so, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes with insolence, they declared that they, too, were going to do what it takes to make their mark — even if it involves pretending to verify the source of a news story, failing to carry out a necessary experimental control or reinforcing a hated stereotype on the theatrical stage. Once they had “made it,” then, of course they would become exemplary good workers.

If it’s true that more young people believe today that the ethical mind is a luxury they cannot afford, then educational institutions have to sit up and take notice. And so I decided to test Gardner’s hypothesis by asking a small sampling of Bates students and recent alums I know well enough to answer a highly personal question, the one that Gardner says is the first thing the ethical mind must interrogate: As you think about the next stages of your life, whether it’s work or graduate school or professional school or whatever path you take, to whom or what do you feel responsible? The answers I received were striking.

As you think about the next stages of your life, to whom or what do you feel responsible?

Some of you told me first that you were confused and intrigued by my question, and your responses were in some ways all over the map. This I take to be a good thing: We have not given you a pat formula. As one respondent said, “If four years at Bates has taught me anything, it has taught me to be critical and to look long and hard at the question before even beginning to formulate an answer.”

Some of you agree with Gardner that college students today enter a world at a point in history where, as another senior put it, “many of the traditional ethical mores and societal structures are no longer serving as such strong guiding posts…. So instead…[we] are largely left to ourselves to make our own moral decisions and to define our ethical standards to live by.” For this reason, some of you feel particularly “disenfranchised” by government and other institutions.

Most of you also believe, however, that one institution, Bates College, has given you opportunities to think about ethical standards through both coursework and conversation, and you believe you are leaving Bates with “stronger values.” You say collectively that you feel responsibility to a wide range of individuals and institutions:

  • to your families and friends who have supported you thus far, and especially your parents;
  • to “those who are less fortunate” — it’s time “to give back,” as one of you said, “to stop being a “selfish” student, and to become a “citizen” instead;
  • “to care for the Earth, and to live in a way that does not put such a great strain on the earth’s resources”;
  • to yourself: as one very young alum wrote to me, “You cannot be a good servant to society without first meeting your own needs”;
  • and last but not least to Bates — both to individuals you have met here, including teachers, members of the staff and administration, and fellow students, and to the institution whose existence is a precondition of your learning and your friendship. As one senior puts it quite simply, “I’ve had such a wonderful time here and I know it’s extremely important to give back in any way I can”;
  • and another imagines giving back might mean passing the question along: “I guess that. . .the best way that I can be responsible in the coming days, months and years [is] to continue to think critically and do effectively. I hope to continue the lifelong learning of a Bates education (an education that is unbounded and everchanging). In terms of being a effective doer: I have chosen to pass your question on to the next generation and be a teacher myself…so that maybe someday one of my students will have a more declarative answer to your question, or perhaps just a more interesting and articulate interrogative one.”
A Bates education is not about the bottom line or the short term; it is about being in it for the long haul and doing the right thing.

I could go on; I wish, in fact, that I could read you every word of the generous, thoughtful, moving responses I received to my question, so that you could be as inspired and hopeful as I feel today.

Needless to say, I am reassured by my selective sampling, as I was reassured by Brendan Jarboe’s empassioned speech at the Senior-Ffaculty dinner on Thursday night, that Bates is cultivating ethical minds for the future. A Bates education is not about the bottom line or the short term; it’s not about doing things faster or cheaper or even solving today’s problems as much as it is about being in it for the long haul and doing the right thing. If we have succeed, those of us who are faculty and staff members today will never know it because our success is no more and no less than the rich legacy that each of you will I know leave and the better future I know you will build.

In the right here and now, I hope each and every one of you is having a wonderful time, as the two worlds you have thus far lived in — the old family you grew up in and the new family you’ve joined at Bates — come together in one place to honor all you have been, are and will be. I also hope you will take a moment to consider now and on future moments of reflection the question that ignites the torch of the ethical mind: To whom or what do you feel responsible? Everything depends on your answer.