‘The Challenge of Community’: Remarks at Convocation, Sept. 2, 2014

Good morning. Welcome to the opening convocation of this new academic year. Members of the faculty, welcome back after what I hope has been a restorative summer. Welcome, members of the staff — it is exciting to see so many of you here. I know you have worked very hard all summer to make sure that the campus is ready once again for the return of our students for the new year.

It is my particular pleasure to welcome you, members of the Class of 2018, to your first semester at Bates. By now, most of you have said goodbye to your families, moved in, met your roommates, gone out adventuring with your AESOP group, and made those initial efforts to get to know your classmates, your teammates, and the campus that will be your home for the next four years.

This occasion is one of many “beginnings” in these early days. This morning we call you together to constitute you formally as the class of 2018 and to mark your entry into the academic community that is Bates College. The next time you will be together as a class — just you — will be in late May 2018 when you walk across this stage to receive your diplomas. So think of this convocation and your commencement as the bookends of your college experience.

Before I turn the podium over to other speakers, I want to offer a few brief thoughts on “community” that I would like to direct, in particular, to the class of 2018.

I, like you, am a relative newcomer to Bates — this is my third year here — and like many of you, I expect, I made a very conscious decision to join this community. I was responding to something that struck me as real and powerful about Bates – the openness, the care for one another, the conviction that embracing difference is a transformative experience, the affirmation that engagement with community extends beyond the boundaries of our campus, and, perhaps most important, the shared sense that life on this campus is less about individual competition than about the ties that bind us together.

It is easy to throw the word “community” around, and we often do it in self-congratulatory ways. It is harder to grasp that our community is, among other things, the embodiment of the set of choices that each and every one of us makes every day about who we are, what we do, and how we move through the world.

The Bates community is not something “out there,” into which you will be absorbed if you fit, and against which you will struggle if you don’t fit. It is not a group of like-minded people whose collective will you somehow need to figure out if you wish to blend in. Instead, it is an ever-changing dynamic that is defined and redefined on a daily basis by all of us, but, most important, by you, the students. Think about it. You in the class of 2018 redefine the Bates community simply by showing up. You are a quarter of the student body, and you bring to the mix, by definition, new experiences, new expectations, new aspirations, and new ways of being in the world.

Creating community is an active project that I hope you will approach with reflection and intentionality. Here’s what feminist writer Bell Hooks has to say about it:

All too often, we think of community in terms of being with folks like ourselves: the same class, same race, same ethnicity, same social standing and the like …. I think we need to be wary:  we need to work against the danger of evoking something we don’t challenge ourselves to actually practice.1

“We need to work against the danger of something we don’t challenge ourselves to actually practice.”

What would it mean to “actually practice” community? At one level, it means actively struggling against the powerful human tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them.” Look around at each other. Look around at everyone you can see in this room. We are all “us” — not because we are all alike or are all here for the same reasons, but rather because we have chosen to be part of a community that is on one hand capacious and encompassing, and on the other united by a sense of good faith and common purpose.

At another level, to “actually practice” community is to be conscious of how we treat each other — it means  that we encounter each other with openness and respect. Philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said that “to like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.”2 In one sense, this is what college is all about — creating bonds of friendship that will nourish and sustain you throughout your lives. But we can’t do this in a lazy way — simply with the people who look like us, who come from the same backgrounds, with whom we are most comfortable.

This is where respect comes in. At its root, respect is an act of imagination. As Wendell Berry put it, it is “the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls”3 — to embrace “the transformative power of our differences.”

If you put openness and respect together as your touchstones for moving through this new world that you have chosen, I can assure you that we will have a stronger and more welcoming community for all of you students and for the many people on this campus who make it possible for the rest of us to be here, to do our work, and to live our lives. And if you do this consistently you will find that you have the solidarity and support of community not only in the good times, but also in times of worry and anxiety, regret or longing.

So let me challenge you to assume, as Bertrand Russell suggests, that it will be thrilling to encounter with ease and joy the people you see on this campus every day — your fellow students, your professors, the staff in the dining hall, the custodians in your houses and dorms, the guys maintaining the grounds. Make eye contact, greet people, get to know them. And let me challenge you as well to engage in the act of imagination that looks for commonality in difference — that seeks out the “us” in any potential “them.”

Welcome to Bates. Welcome to the company of scholars. Welcome to the community that we will together make and remake every day.

1. Bell Hooks, “Spirituality in Education.” Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 163.

2. Bertrand Russell, “Is Happiness Still Possible?” The Conquest of Happiness. London: Routledge, 2006, p. 108.

3. Wendell Berry. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993, p. 173.