2009 Convocation address

Good choice

Fellow students and fellow educators, I am pleased and honored to open our 2009–10 academic year by thanking the Class of 2013, transfer students, and newly hired faculty and staff members for bringing your varied and different experiences as well as your common intelligence, exuberance, and commitment to Bates. You join a community of individuals with a wide range of talents and interests, opinions and convictions — speaking with one voice for this community on any topic is risky business. But on behalf of the entire Bates community — a couple hundred faculty, more than 500 staff members, 1,200 or so returning students, 40 members of the Board of Trustees, and more than 20,000 living alumni — I believe I can safely say one thing: Good choice.

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen, as she follows Professor of Sociology Sawyer Sylvester, who carries the College’s ceremonial mace, smiles in anticipation of Convocation. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

Those of you who are joining us this year have made a brilliant decision about where to pursue the next and very important phase of your life. For some of you it was easy to make this choice, and you already feel like you have arrived somewhere you belong; for others it may have been much harder, and you may still be waiting to see how things work out. On the basis of past experience, I can reassure you that it will be fine, that the vast majority of new students in particular are about to embark on four years that will confirm how good you were at making one of the most important, high-stakes, anxiety-producing choices that young people today are obliged to make.

And this is just the beginning of a long lifetime of making choices. In just the next four years, you’ll have to tackle more potentially life-changing decisions, like what do I want to major in and with whom do I want to be friends? And finally, sooner than you think, you’ll be seniors, asking even bigger questions with new urgency, like what do I really love to do, and who do I want to be?  

Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, says our choices “show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This is an interesting thought for the brightest and best first-year college students to consider: Your abilities (and I assume some very good fortune) brought you to Bates, and we have no doubt that those abilities are adequate to the task of successfully meeting the intellectual challenges ahead. So it is now your choices that become the more interesting subject of consideration and revelation.

Your abilities brought you to Bates. Now your choices become the more interesting subject of consideration and revelation.

Fortunately, the educational model of the residential liberal arts college in the 21st century, in defiance of the frantic pace and constant distraction and pressure that is the new normal, still presupposes the importance of having the time, the space, and the resources to explore options, to try new and different things as a way of develop strong decision-making capacities. This is an old educational idea —  a century ago Alfred North Whitehead described the “time out” model of the university as offering young adults critical opportunities to be right and to be wrong, and to be free for a time from the immediate and practical consequences of certain choices.

Whitehead also supported the notion that we ought to have opportunities to seek out what is hard, complicated, and uncertain without worrying too much, for a time, about the risks; as he also said, “In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path” — the path of least resistance and easy self-indulgence, that is — “leads to a nasty place.”

To put this notion of choosing “the steep and thorny way to heaven” in other words that are more apt for the times we live in, I suggest to you in the first half of my remarks today that the purpose of a liberal arts education, in expanding your capacity and willingness to make difficult choices, is to prepare what I will call “liberated” consumers (or, if you prefer, “citizen-consumers” or “competent consumers”).

I use the word “consumer” in a general sense, setting aside for now specialized uses of that term and the theories that attend them, but mindful of the fact that to say we live today in a “consumerist” society is to state the obvious. We cannot avoid being consumers in the broadest sense; each of us is consuming all the time, in order to exist. Moreover, many of the most pressing issues of our day turn on the question of how to support and manage our massive needs for consumption — of food, of natural resources, of information — and the social, public consequences of human consumption that are so difficult to see, complicated to understand, and seemingly impossible to control.  

As individuals it is necessary, and seductive, to be focused on our personal consumption and our private choices. But as a society we must also somehow make better collective, public, social choices about what and how we consume —despite the difficulty, the complications, and the impossibility of doing so without inequities and trade-offs. What I am calling the “liberated” consumer is no more and no less than someone who does not think he is free from the necessity of consuming — she is maybe even someone who likes to shop — but does not succumb to the pressure to consume mindlessly. This consumer is then “liberated” or free, in particular, from what Benjamin Barber, in his book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, describes as “an ethos of induced childishness: an infantilization that is closely tied to…our radical consumerist society today.” The liberated consumer is interested in and capable of joining in the enterprise of making public choices about social goods with a sense of agency and self, what Barber refers to as “a moral being embedded in a free community.”

Attending a liberal arts college like Bates is not the only way to become a liberated consumer. Individuals in all walks of life, with all kinds of educational backgrounds, are engaged in efforts to free themselves — from both the “induced childishness” of our consumerist society and from the addiction to craving more things that can never, by definition, be satisfied. But at liberal arts colleges today, several common practices and principles directly and intentionally support this mission of preparing liberated consumers. Let me identify some of these characteristic elements and ask you to look for them in your experience at Bates.

  • We value complexity, difficulty, and relative slowness (as opposed to what is simple, easy, and fast — see Barber).
  • We privilege the production (of ideas), participation (in knowledge making), and making and doing in general as opposed to passive spectatorship or the busy work of consuming goods and services manufactured by others. Experiential and hands-on learning — in the lab and the studio, say, as well as in co-curricular pursuits like athletics and civic engagement — are integral to our liberal arts college mission for precisely this reason.
  • We sustain “friendship” and human connections as opposed to relationships with brand as a substitute for human relationships. The intentionally small scale of the Bates College community fosters relationships and is, of course, essential to our singular style of teaching and advising.
  • Related to this, we learn in communities of practice — in residential communities or in work- or issue-based communities — where self is part of something bigger, in an institution, a town, or a country that needs educated, thoughtful citizens.
  • We take that “time out” I mentioned earlier — welcoming opportunities to explore broadly, to plunge in with a certain degree of abandon, to be able to start again, to try another path, to be experiment and fail — again to be right or wrong without immediate consequences.
  • And finally, and in different ways integral to all of the above, we cultivate focus in what Thomas Friedman has termed a world of “continuous partial attention.”

Let me expand for just a moment on this last, very important idea. In a recent New Yorker article on “the secret of self-control,” Jonah Lehrer reviews the findings of the well-known marshmallow test — a longitudinal study demonstrating that young children who can delay gratification and trade one marshmallow (or other treat) now for two later tend to have greater success in later life. As Lehrer writes, “For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life…[but this study shows that] intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework.”

This is an age-old strategy: Think of Odysseus, tying himself to the ship’s mast, so that he could not yield to the music of the Sirens.

The Stanford professor who was in charge of these experiments, Walter Mischel, says, “This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it…. Every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control?” The crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow — the “hot stimulus” — the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street. Their desire wasn’t defeated — it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place…it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings.” (This is an age-old strategy: Think of Odysseus, tying himself to the ship’s mast, so that he could not yield to the music of the Sirens.)

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

Similarly, in a critique of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a powerful study of how successful people owe their success to the opportunities they are given, their social bonds, and their cultures, David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, points out that there’s another factor: most successful people have an unusual ability to focus their attention: “Control of attention is the ultimate individual power,” Brooks writes. “People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to chose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it…. It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.”

Institutions need to make choices, too. They need to be able to focus and formulate strategies and see problems from fresh perspectives.

This thought provides me with an apt segue to my second topic today: our current institutional planning process. Institutions need to make choices, too. They need to be able to focus and formulate strategies and see problems from fresh perspectives. Newcomers, you arrive at Bates at a time when many people have been working hard to make some intentional, collective, institutional decisions about what we do in the next few years to take our educational vision and practices forward into the 21st century. We have been asking ourselves what makes Bates great, what would make us greater, what kind of facilities will be needed to support the campus community for at least the next 25 years, and how we will secure the resources needed, going forward, to keep Bates at the forefront of academic accomplishment and social responsibility.

I am delighted now to introduce faculty members from each of last year’s three initiative teams to speak to you now in more detail the ideas they have been exploring.

Leslie Hill has been a member of the Department of Politics since 1988, researching and teaching about women, gender, and politics; women in the global political economy; and black women’s studies. She has chaired the women and gender studies program and has also served as division chair of interdisciplinary programs. Since 2007, Professor Hill has occupied the newly created position of special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion. With faculty members Pam Baker and Joe Hall and staff members Judy Head, Laura Juraska, and Andrew White, Professor Hill worked on the Learning Initiative team co-chaired by faculty member Margaret Imber (classical and medieval studies) and Tedd Goundie, dean of students.

Associate Professor of Politics Leslie Hill, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, listens to President Hansen’s address. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

Professor Matt Côté joined the Bates chemistry department in 1991. His teaching fields include physical chemistry and quantum chemistry, and his research combines optical spectroscopy and scanning tunneling microscopy to probe the electronic states of semiconductor and metal nanostructures, and he uses laser and molecular beam techniques to study the intramolecular dynamics of isolated molecules. Last fall, Professor Côté joined the Dean of Faculty’s office for a term as associate dean. He co-chaired the initiative team exploring Natural Sciences and Math in the Liberal Arts with professors Hong Lin (physics), Pallavi Jayawant (mathematics), and Rebecca Sommer (biology).

Kirk Read, a specialist in early modern French literature, has been teaching at Bates for almost two decades. His courses focus on pre-revolutionary France as well as Francophone North Africa, and he has developed a course in oral French that that combines his interests in language, culture, and theater. His current research project, “Birthing Bodies: Inscription of Reproduction in Renaissance France,” investigates gender, sex, and sexuality across literary genres. Professor Read also currently serves as division chair for humanities at the College. With co-chair Kerry O’Brien, assistant dean of the faculty, and professors Rebecca Corrie (art and visual culture) and Carol Dilley (dance), Professor Read took on the leadership of the team exploring the initiative Arts in the College and the Community.

Professors Hill, Côté, and Read have helped to lead a process that by its very definition is intense, messy, energetic, passionate and rigorous — and one that therefore offers the most promise for these complicated times. We hope this dynamic environment of sharing and collaborating, of crossing traditional divides, provides a powerful model to our students — a real-world tool that increases your capacity for similar kinds of interaction you will put into practice during your years on campus, and over the course of your lives as “liberally educated and liberated” consumers.

Thank you for your good choices and your patient attention, and please join me how in welcoming Professors Hill, Côté, and Read.