Remarks at Convocation: Fall 2017
I cannot remember a time in my professional experience when matters of context and principle have intruded so insistently into the project of teaching the next generation of students. This year, in the midst of our rituals of welcome and celebration, we find ourselves confronted with brazen displays of racism, anti-Semitism, hatred, and violence in Charlottesville, with frequent accounts of racially motivated killings in cities across our country, and with a national discourse driven too often by impulse rather than informed thought and laced with intolerance, dishonesty, and verbal violence.
It suddenly feels urgent to bring to consciousness — for ourselves and our students — the values that shape the education we offer here at Bates. Some of these values are the foundational commitments of the liberal arts, which we take for granted at our peril. Other values may be, in fact, unexamined assumptions about what and how we teach that can have a distorting impact on both the content of the curriculum and the success of our students. Only if we examine our animating values can we hope to understand what is at stake in the current national context and how we can play our part in putting things right.
The Bates mission statement frames the project of education in a radical and distinctive way. We invoke the “emancipating potential of the liberal arts,” and we invite our students to engage “the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” These principles were revisited and restated by the Bates community in 2010, and I would suggest that they need to be brought to the surface with fierce attention in the fall of 2017.
Expertise matters, because it brings the promise of making lives — and life on this planet — better.
We believe in truth. We believe that knowledge is hard won, and that meaning is a personal struggle that each of us tackles in our own way. We believe that learning is more powerful when it happens in community with the inspiration of dedicated teachers and scholars and the solidarity of friends and fellow travelers.
We understand that hard problems do not admit of glib or easy answers. Rather they are solved incrementally and over time, often with painstaking work that builds on the knowledge of previous generations and gains strength through the insights of contemporary colleagues. This is called expertise. It is developed in institutions like colleges and universities, and it is safeguarded by respect for standards of inquiry and expression. Expertise matters, because it brings the promise of making lives — and life on this planet — better.
We teach our students to reason from evidence. We believe that facts matter. A college campus is a culture that depends on persuasion and reason-giving, not on authority derived from power or position. We give reasons for believing that something is true, because we trust in the good faith and agency of others, including the agency to freely disagree. These principles make open and robust discourse on a college campus possible, they make democracy possible, and they make it possible for us to cultivate our common humanity.
Bates was founded on the principle that education is meant to develop the full potential of every human being. We achieve this goal by treating all persons as equal and worthy. An offer of admission to Bates is a validation of talent and ambition and a vote of confidence in the ability of every student to engage the full promise of a Bates education. As we have learned repeatedly, and painfully, over the past several years, however, there remains a gap at Bates between our ideals of equality and the lived experience of some of our students. It is imperative, therefore, that we persevere in the hard work of examining our curriculum and teaching, together with the formal and informal structures that define student life, to make sure that we cease to perpetuate assumptions or practices that exclude groups of students or diminish their experience.
We believe that engaging with difference is a powerful force for good. In education, it is a source of growth and transformation — whether difference is encountered in the person or point of view of another human being, in a difficult text, or in a problem set or experiment using tools and methods new to us. We encourage our students to approach ideas and each other with openness and generosity.
This is not a time to lose heart — it is a time to take up our work with new resolve.
We are explicit, at Bates, that we mean to educate the “whole person.” The liberal arts have always been about head and heart, knowledge and wisdom, expertise and empathy. As Bryan Stevenson’s riveting memoir, Just Mercy, so powerfully illustrates, what we do and the choices we make matter every bit as much as what we know.
As we move into the new academic year, we have our work cut out for us. Never has the humanistic project of the liberal arts been more important. Never has this form of education been more needed — or more challenged. This is not a time to lose heart — it is a time to take up our work with new resolve. It is inspiring to work with students as they learn to find their way and begin to ask themselves what they can do to make the world a better place. This is the promise of Bates, and it is up to all of us, as a college and a community, to carry it forward.