2009 Baccalaureate address

‘Do I contradict myself?’

At Commencement tomorrow you will hear from five wise honorands who have led lives of highest aspiration and deepest accomplishment. But today’s ceremony is created and performed by the aspiring and accomplished members of the Class of 2009, and in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, for the last several years I have rooted my remarks in what I can learn by asking a few wise seniors a “big question.”

This year, I posed a very broad question indeed: What are the purposes of a Bates education?

President Hansen reviews her remarks before offering the Baccalaureate address. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

The absence of a common understanding of the purposes of education today as a fundamental reason for its failures.

The question is difficult, especially when you are still immersed in the heady flow of senior year, but it speaks to an urgent problem today for education in general — at the local, national and increasingly global level. Teaching and learning are part of a narrative of decline, and there’s a general call to school our young people better. But there’s very little conversation let alone consensus about the fundamental purposes of schooling — better for what, and for whom? Is education about imparting skills or knowledge? Are we seeking to transmit information or shape character and values? And in either case, which information or whose values? Does an elite private education promote individual gain or public good?

Amid the messiness and sprawl that is public discourse about education today, we hear mostly about test scores and costs, together with dissenting arguments about practices and policies that might raise the latter and lower the former. There is a resounding silence about purposes.

Why is this silence disturbing? In a recent internal white paper, the president of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Tony Bryk, points to the absence of a common understanding of the purposes of education today as a fundamental reason for its failures. Without a change in how we think about ultimate ends of “the kinds and levels of learning needed today,” Bryk writes, we’ll never develop “a shared, energetic resolve to make change.” As Nietzsche said, “To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.”

The Bates seniors I polled, however, not only confound any narrative of decline through their own accomplishments, but also have much to tell us about the urgent question of purposes. I wish I could share all of your responses in their entirety — in any summing up too much is lost.

The dualities and tensions inherent in a great liberal arts education are critically important to our purposes.

Taken together, your reflections suggest, of course, that the purposes of a college education are multiple and diverse and often even contradictory. And the more I thought about what you said, the more it seemed clear that the contradictions in particular — the dualities and tensions inherent in a great liberal arts education — are critically important to our purposes. These contradictions and tensions will seem troubling if we are trying to reduce the purposes of education to some unitary, easily measured goals. But they cannot be ignored, because they are in fact at the very heart of what makes Bates a highly complicated, interesting and creative place for educating complicated, interesting and creative individuals.

Today I invite you to consider five familiar contradictions that are held in creative tension by your Bates experience: the curricular vs. the extracurricular, academic intensity vs. “friendliness,” success vs. failure, vocationalism vs. “learning for its own sake,” and private gain vs. public good.

Curricular vs. extracurricular

A Bates education challenges any clear opposition between the academic curriculum and the many activities that in more conventional thinking about education fall under the heading of extracurricular. “What sets Bates apart in my mind,” writes one member of the Class of 2009, “is that here you are encouraged to excel in your area of focus while passionately pursuing any other academic or extracurricular whims you have.” What happens in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom are not the same, but they are deeply linked by, among other things, that concept of passionate pursuit — “I haven’t met many people here,” writes this same student, “who settle for halfway measures.”

Academic intensity vs. friendliness

At the same time, this sense of passionate focus and intensity is balanced and sustained by its own opposite. “What I love about Bates,” this graduating senior goes on to say, “is that in spite of its academic intensity, there is also an aura of laid-backness, where once again, people are genuine and down-to-earth and really know when it’s time to let loose.”

At Bates, then, something as ordinary as the friendship of down-to-earth people is essential to the passionate pursuit of extraordinary scholarship and discovery. Competing with yourself, not others, you join each other and our dedicated and brilliant faculty in an intellectual fellowship. This caring camaraderie encourages you to try the new and the difficult, to bite off more than would seem possible to chew elsewhere.

Friendliness doesn’t mean bland harmony and contentment; it means support for discord and risk-taking.

Every contact with a member of the Bates staff — from Admissions to Dining Services, from the librarian to the custodian — reinforces this sense that it is the people here who make it safe to take risks. As another senior wrote, “Bates supports its students; that is the purpose of Bates: to push students to take on things that seem big or scary…to have them take risks, to have them have their voices heard…. Bates gives students courage and essentially says, ‘If it can be done here at Bates, it can be done anywhere.'” Friendliness, moreover, doesn’t mean bland harmony and contentment; it means support for discord and risk-taking: “Differences of opinion are welcomed and the risk of making mistakes is respected, so long as you own them and learn from them,” writes another senior.

Success vs. failure

Supporting and encouraging students to take risks also means blurring the boundaries between success and failure. Sometimes this means learning from mistakes and being willing to try and try again. Rejected as a Junior Adviser on her first try, one student came back from her junior year abroad to become an Residential Coordinator. Denied a summer grant the first time she applied, that same student was encouraged to try again the next year; on a second try, she was awarded the grant for an internship that she now describes as “the single most influential experience I have had in my life.”

Sometimes the redefinition of success and failure also means persisting in an activity you love, even if you aren’t the best. Another student spoke about the value of learning to play both a musical instrument and a sport that he had never played before. In four years he hasn’t become quite proficient enough to play in the orchestra and has never been a starting player for the team, but “where else, he said, “would I have been not just allowed but encouraged to do something not because I was going to be a star, but because I loved to do it and I was here to learn and stretch?”

Vocationalism/instrumentalism vs. learning for its own sake

Perhaps the most irreconcilable contradiction in everyday thinking about the purposes of higher education today — and one that is heightened in the current economic moment — turns on the question of utility: Are we training students for more successful careers, or are we cultivating more learned minds for the sheer joy of learning? Like the tension between academics and extracurricular activities, this long-lived debate simply evaporates when you listen to Bates students. “Learning to think,” as one student succinctly wrote, “has many practical applications.” Another adds, “Believe it or not I have a great job lined up for next year, and I know it’s because Bates taught me to write, to think on my feet, to be curious about everything and to think of learning as serious fun — so I know how to teach myself and challenge myself — how to find out what I don’t yet know.”

Private gain vs. public good

One Bates senior spoke of her experience as “a reoccurring process…of perspective shifts.”

Closely related to this question of whether the purpose of education is instrumental or an end in itself is the question of whether the value of a liberal arts education is located in the private, personal development of the individual student or in public, social benefits — producing an educated workforce and an informed, engaged citizenry.

Perhaps even more clearly than the other dualities we have explored, this one has always been conjoined by the purposes of a residential liberal arts education. From my work with so many Bates alums over the years, I know that they are successful individuals with rich private lives who are at the same time committed to making and supporting good public choices. One Bates senior alludes to this educational purpose — learning to see oneself as whole and unique and yet part of something bigger than self — in speaking of her experience as “a reoccurring process…of perspective shifts,” moving through her time at Bates as a member of many different teams. (And as the late lamented David Foster Wallace put it in a graduation speech a few years ago: “I submit that this is what the real, no bulls**t value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”)

“Do I contradict myself?”

I don’t want to leave you thinking that these tensions and contradictions inherent in a great educational experience are always perfectly healthy and easily resolved. Sometimes the dual demands of intense academic and extracurricular pursuits can stretch a student too far, and quite often what’s good for the individual is not what’s good for the group. At Bates, and throughout life, we normally have to give up one thing or the other and make hard choices between competing goods. And tolerating ambiguity does not mean moral relativism. But tensions and contradictions embraced as part of real, complicated life make us human and humane.

This principle has been woven into the unique fabric of Bates from its beginnings. Before you set out into the 21st century, come back with me to 1855, when Oren Cheney founded this college for educational purposes that were at odds with the dominant practices of the day. Cheney intentionally opened Bates up to tensions elsewhere avoided by the complete separation of what were then seen as irreconcilable opposites: black and white, male and female.

Still in that amazing year, 1855, and perhaps not coincidentally, the notion of creative tensions was also invoked in the first edition of that great American epic of inclusion, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The persona who wants to be one and many sings —

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine….

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won….

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me.…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

A few weeks later, in July of 1855, the well-established New England sage Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to the obscure Whitman, praising Leaves of Grass and its celebration of contradictions as quintessentially American — for as Emerson himself had said in an earlier essay, “The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.”

Back in 2009, you graduate into a time of historic upheaval and uncertainty, financial meltdown, recession, and panic. In such circumstances, understanding and sustaining the enduring purposes of a Bates education are more important than ever. The 21st century needs leaders like you who know that the world should not and will not be reduced to either/or, to blue states and red states, to warring camps or contending parties; no important problem can be solved if we see things too quickly as true or false, good or bad, or even mine or yours. The day after tomorrow, you will join thousands of Bates alums who serve the state of Maine and who spread hope around the world. Like them you will create new businesses and you will serve great nonprofit causes. You will preserve the best of the past even as you teach the next generation and lead change in the future. You will endure illnesses and you will save lives. You will sometimes fall, and you will gain many days.

So let us go ahead and contradict ourselves. The purposes of a Bates education are large and contain multitudes, and here you have expanded your capacity to flourish in a world that is “all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.”