Welcome Remarks at Convocation 2020
Good afternoon. Welcome to the opening convocation of the new academic year. We do not know how this year will unfold, and we continue to live, in all aspects of our lives, with more than the usual quotient of trepidation and uncertainty. Yet I hope you feel, as I do, the energy of this moment and the anticipation and excitement of new beginnings.
Of course, we would prefer to be gathered on the Historic Quad, but as with so many things, we will adapt to the present circumstances and maintain what matters most—celebrating the new year together and welcoming our newest members to the Bates community.
First, I want to welcome new faculty and staff. I am sure that you did not anticipate, when you were considering coming to Bates, that you would arrive under the conditions we all face at the moment—figuring out how to operate a college safely during a pandemic. But we are so glad you have joined us.
Returning faculty, this opening of the academic year is unusual, as I know that many of you have seen very little break in the action since last spring. You have had intense summers as you have redesigned your courses to fit the modular semester and teach in multiple modalities. Many of you, as well, have been deeply engaged beyond your department and courses in working with colleagues across campus on the extensive planning required to prepare for this academic year.
Staff, you have worked very hard for months to adapt literally every aspect of life and work at the college. Everyone at Bates has changed the way they do their work, and some of you have been involved in a wholesale re-engineering of college operations. You have reconfigured dining, established new cleaning protocols, measured college spaces for social distancing, built a testing center from the ground up, and established and communicated an array of public health measures and community expectations to give us our best chance to have students remain on campus and keep everyone safe and healthy. I cannot possibly thank staff and faculty adequately for the extraordinary work that you have put into getting us to this point.
Returning students—we have missed you terribly. This place is truly not the same without you. I want to offer a special welcome to the newest members of our student body. Class of 2024, this Convocation marks your formal induction into the Bates community and the community of scholars. It also serves as a bookend to Commencement four years later, as Convocation and Commencement are the only two times in your Bates career that you come together as a full class. Things are a little different this year, of course, and I fervently hope that when you graduate in May 2024, we will all be gathered in person with your families and loved ones on a glorious sunny morning on the Historic Quad.
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I would like to take a moment this morning to offer a few thoughts about the liberal arts in the age of COVID.
We begin the new academic year at a time characterized by dislocation, stress, and distress that extends from Lewiston across the globe, and that is personal to each and every member of this college community. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has confronted all of us with fear and uncertainty and altered the most basic rhythms of daily life. It has also, in the words of one commentator, served as a kind of x-ray of our society, allowing us to see all the broken pieces—“the racial inequities, the poisonous partisanship, the governmental incompetence, the disrespect for science, the loss of standing among nations, the fraying of community bonds.”[i]
One of the most striking divides, directly exposed by the pandemic, is the differential impact of the disease by race and ethnicity. When adjusted for age, Black, Indigenous American, and Latinx people die at more than three times the rate of White people.[ii] As if to underscore this stark fact, this spring and summer have also confronted us, repeatedly and relentlessly, with police killings of Black people and the ongoing devaluation of Black lives. We began the summer with the brutal killing, on May 25, of George Floyd, by Minneapolis police. Notwithstanding three ensuing months of public outrage, protests across the country, widespread acknowledgement of systemic racism, calls for reform, and promises of change, we ended the summer as it began—with a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back while his three young sons looked on. These are deeply distressing times for anyone who cares about our country and our fellow human beings. But these are particularly heavy times for the Black, Indigenous, and Brown students, faculty, and staff who are members of our community.
What does all of this have to do with the liberal arts? Understanding the coronavirus pandemic and its implications means knowing something about biology, chemistry, history, literature, politics, Africana, economics, psychology, sociology, statistics, philosophy, ethics—basically all the subjects we teach. And it’s not just the “what” that matters—the breadth of subject matter—it is also the “how.” We teach our students that hard problems do not admit of easy answers. That sound decisions are based on the conscious integration of evidence, values, and judgments about the impact of our actions on the lives of others. That unequal access to resources and power magnifies deep inequalities in the opportunities of different groups to access education, healthcare, housing, employment, and capital, and, as we keep being reminded, in the ability to be secure in one’s basic personal safety.
We see every day in the news that the issues and challenges presented by the pandemic are, like most hard problems, fundamentally interconnected. We have learned through bitter experience this summer that if we don’t get the science right, we won’t get the economics right. If we substitute ideology for expertise, we lose our bearings. Without a commitment to facts and evidence, we abandon the fundamentals of discourse, debate, and meaning making. This causes us to get policy wrong and hurt people. It causes us to substitute violence for persuasion. Dealing with the challenges posed by the wicked problems we are up against depends on highly specific expertise, but it requires, in equal measure, the ability to take in information from various domains and form integrated frameworks to guide policy and action.
More important, a liberal arts education, at is core, prizes the relationship between knowledge and values and asks us to invest in the lives of others and the world we walk through together. The education we offer is not merely the accumulation of knowledge and skills, but the cultivation of the ability to enter imaginatively into the lives of others so that we will act in the world based on a vivid and informed sense of our common humanity.
Students, this year, by sheer circumstance, you will approach your college experience more consciously and intentionally than students in previous years. With all that is going on around us, I hope that you will see more readily how your courses connect to events in the world. I hope, as well, that the knowledge and habits of mind you gain here at Bates will help you shape, with conscious intention, how you will move through the world over your lifetimes.
I’d like to leave you with one final thought for the Fall of 2020. A liberal arts education has many purposes. A particularly salient purpose at this moment is the notion that democracy depends on having an educated citizenry, capable of distinguishing truth from falsehoods, of engaging in informed debate, and of discerning and acting in service of a common good.[iii] As Cicero famously observed over 2,000 years ago, “[W]hat greater or better service can I render to the common wealth than to instruct and train the youth.”[iv]
The concept that a core purpose of the liberal arts is to educate citizens for democracy is so ancient and seemingly self-evident that we tend to take it for granted. Yet it could not have more urgency. In an essay he wrote shortly before he died scarcely six weeks ago and asked to have published on the day of his funeral, the late Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis put it this way: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”[v]
Thank you, Class of 2024, for choosing Bates as your place to figure out what you wish to learn and how you will act in the world. Thank you returning students, faculty, staff, families, and other guests for being with us today. Out of respect for John Lewis and his lifelong fight for voting rights, I urge all of us, on November 3, to do what should be, when it is not deliberately made difficult, the simplest, yet most powerful, act available to citizens of a democracy and vote.
[i] Wright, Lawrence, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – and Open Minds,” The New Yorker, July 13, 2020.
[ii] APM Research Lab Staff, “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity, August 18, 2020.
[iii] See Robert Reich, The Common Good (Knopf, 2018)
[iv] De Divinatione. M. Tullius Cicero. C. F. W. Müller. Leipzig. Teubner. 1915. English (William Armistead Falconer, 1923)
[v] New York Times, July 30, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html