‘The Project of Truth-Seeking’: Remarks at Convocation, Aug. 31, 2021
I would like to think with you this morning about a project that is central to everything we do at Bates and, I hope, central to what you wish to get out of your college experience: the project of truth-seeking.
By this I do not mean a search for universal or immutable truth. Rather, I mean acquiring the motivation to seek, and the tools to discern, important truths, multifarious as they may be. This means figuring out what is and isn’t true about the world, through the knowledge you will gain and the connections you will make across multiple kinds of problems and ways of knowing. It also means figuring out what is and isn’t true for you—who you are, what you’re interested in, what you value, and how you plan to move through the world.
These two projects—figuring out what is and isn’t true about the world and what is and isn’t true about you—are linked. That’s what we mean when we say that our mission at Bates is to educate the whole person. Because only you, following your interests, thinking things through on your own terms, and discussing your theories and ideas in the classroom and in conversation, can develop an authentic and coherent view of how you want to live your life.
This is no easy task in the world as we find it today. We are reminded again and again, as we are barraged with different versions of reality through myriad separate channels, that we cannot afford to take at face value the facts, theories, or solutions that are offered up as truth. Nor can we afford to assume that the values reflected in the Bates mission statement or the fundamental norms of a liberal arts education will endure if we do not tend to them.
One often hears academic leaders say—and I am guilty of this myself – that college campuses are microcosms of society. It is true that campuses mirror trends in the larger society in any number of ways. Yet we are not, strictly speaking, a microcosm of society. We are first and foremost an educational community, charged with a particular task—supporting you, our students, in a developmental project that is about you. It is an important project, and it is hard. As the poet e.e. cummings has observed, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
Our role as a college—your college—in this project of truth-seeking is to create the conditions that will guide and support you as you make choices about how you will live your life. Beginning now, with the choices you make about the courses you will take, the friends you will make, and how you spend your time during these next four years at Bates.
As I have learned in my own life, it is hard to figure out at any given moment which decisions are the authentic and correct decisions for you. It is easy to measure your own success against the impressive lives and careers of the people you admire—whether they be Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Dr. Fauci. Yet these compelling life stories emerge only when you look backward over a life. The problem with your own life, however, is that you have to live it looking forward, not backward, and you don’t know what it looks like from the front end. It has no shape. Your path is not carved out—there are no trail maps or handy signposts. As a famous scholar of religion and myth, Joseph Campbell, once said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”
If your path is not clear, how are you supposed to make authentic decisions, you might ask. Here, I would suggest that you need to focus not on the big question, “what should I do with my life,” or even “what should I major in,” which can be downright paralyzing. Rather focus on the “how” of making each decision as it arises. You may have heard the saying from Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, at any given point, you’ll probably make better decisions if you keep it simple and ask, “Does this feel like the right next step for me?”
Here, your best guides are your curiosity, your thirst for connection, intellectual and human, and the courage to take some risks. I urge you to explore courses in fields you’ve never been exposed to before, to sit at a table in Commons with people you don’t know and introduce yourself, or to try out for a play even if you’ve never been on a stage in your life.
We, the college, carry out our part of the bargain if we live out and model for you our core principles as an educational community. We are a culture of persuasion, not dogma. We honor the fact that complex problems are in fact complex, that solving them depends on persistence, precision, evidence, and bringing to bear multiple sources of understanding. We distinguish rationalizations used to justify our views after the fact from reasons that allow us to develop informed views in the first place. We celebrate the understanding that comes from analysis and substantive debate. We pressure-test ideas, as well as proposed approaches for accomplishing the things we want to accomplish. And we recognize that everyone on this campus—be they student, faculty, or staff—is on a journey that is best supported by a culture that values curiosity, openness, and generosity.
As our mission states, we prize engagement with difference as a source of strength and transformation. Difference takes many forms. We have differences in disciplinary expertise, viewpoint, identity, life experience, and access to opportunity, power, and resources, to name a few. And we produce better solutions on our own campus, in our work, and for the world at large, when these differences are the starting point for conversation, not barriers to good faith questioning and discussion.
Unless we treat difference as the starting point for authentic discussion, we have little hope of achieving the goals of equity and belonging that are central to an education that is meant to transform lives. No student can learn and grow or realize their full potential unless they are seen and valued, and in turn feel that they belong at Bates and Bates belongs to them. This only happens if we’re willing to question, and modify, our inherited norms in what and how we teach, in how we see and portray ourselves as an institution, and in how we organize or support all aspects of college life. Creating an educational community that is equitable and inclusive, and producing graduates who have experienced college this way, is, I believe, our best hope for making progress toward a more just society.
Each one of you in the Class of 2025 has a different path that has brought you here. Some of you may have spent your first week at Bates looking around at your fellow students and worrying that you won’t belong here, that you don’t know the unspoken rules, that you won’t like the people, or that they won’t like you. Then again, some of you may be absolutely sure that you do belong here. You may be one of those people who has waited your whole life to sit in a philosophy class to consider humanity’s most basic ideas and learn to build an argument; in a politics class to understand how power is defined and distributed in different societies; in a physics class to ask fundamental questions about the origin of the universe.
Whatever thoughts and fears may have been knocking around in your heads these past few days, I encourage you now to relax, and to stop holding fast to the things that got you here—the narrative that you are pre-med, or will major in history, when you haven’t even taken your first college course; the identities that have defined you throughout high school; the assumption that if you don’t hurry up and find a small group of like-minded “peeps,” you are doomed to a life of social isolation. Think of these next four years as a time to try new things, to step back and broaden the frame. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “The point is to …. [l]ive the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
As you meet new people and dive into your classes this week, begin to think consciously not only about the subject matter you’ll be learning, but also about the assumptions and values that are reflected in the way your classes are constructed, in the kind of material we ask you to grapple with, and in the ways your professors invite you to express yourselves.
Finally, I urge each of you to take heart from the fact that the differences that make Bates vibrant and exciting are matched in equal measure by our common bonds as human beings on a quest. You are young, you are curious, you are new to most fields and ways of knowing. And you are just beginning your journeys as adults making choices about where to focus your attention, your labor, and your search for meaning, contribution, and human connection.
This is a thrilling place to be. It is all yours, but you are not alone. We are here to help you carve out your own path and to walk along with you as you embark on this next phase of your life’s journey.