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Baccalaureate 2012 Address: President Barry Mills ’72

 

At Bowdoin’s Baccalaureate ceremony marking the official close of the academic year, President Barry Mills addressed the role of a liberal arts education in the context of a new information environment, and shared words of wisdom with the Class of 2012, their families and the Bowdoin community in Sidney J. Watson Arena May 25, 2012.

Barry Mills

We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to begin officially our Commencement activities — the time when we honor and say farewell to the members of the Class of 2012 who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.

It is a time for celebrating all that you — our seniors — have accomplished, and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on Bowdoin’s proud traditions, particularly our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education and our commitment to serving the common good.

It has been my custom at Baccalaureate to speak to important issues affecting our College generally. Today I continue a discussion that I began last fall at Convocation when I spoke about “information.”

“Information” — how it is gathered, sorted, stored and disseminated in our world today. I discussed the role of a liberal arts education in the context of this new information environment and how technology could allow us to become an even more sophisticated institution in this 21st century.

The ideas were not designed to bend the “cost curve” of what is already a very expensive Bowdoin liberal arts and residential life program. Rather the concepts were designed to encourage our community to think in incremental ways about how we might expand our offerings and college experience utilizing technology.

In the last six months, implementation and experimentation by others of these concepts have accelerated with the announcements by Stanford and Harvard and MIT of on-line courses in many different disciplines. One need only browse the website Coursera.com for an impressive list of online, web-based lectures and course offerings by important and talented teachers from the word’s most respected institutions.

The news media has touted these developments as the birth of an education revolution. David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, among many others, are predicting in articles and op-eds that this disruptive change will make education universally accessible, more efficient, and possibly less expensive.

Skeptics, representing the conventional wisdom, argue that this new portal for education lacks the “credential component” necessary to validate knowledge and achievement. They ask, “How do I get credit for taking the course?” “Will I get a diploma or merely a certificate of completion?”

I suggest that this issue may very well diminish over time as society values competency and knowledge more than credential and pedigree and as the barriers to entry in our business and creative enterprises become much less institutionally based. In the future, completing 32 credits may matter very much less than the knowledge learned from the best professors and from a vast variety of sources, whether or not that professor and those sources are on hand physically or offered from very far away through technology.

Of course, I recognize that this notion is not all that comforting to those among us who worked so hard to earn the Bowdoin credential that will be awarded tomorrow.

Don’t worry, I suspect that our important form of education has staying power for a long while, and that it will continue to be recognized and highly valued in our society. But it is entirely possible that these new forms of education will be relevant – and possibly even dominant, long before your own kids are applying to Bowdoin.

So how do we continue to be an institution where the most talented and sophisticated students come to learn and grow? How do we ensure the preeminence of our liberal arts model of education and residential experience that is so important to our success and to the success and education of our students?

I believe we maintain and even enhance our position by being mindful of the opportunities to leverage the vast store of information and knowledge available through technology. We also should consider as our responsibility how we make our form of education available to all of those learners in the world who don’t have the privilege of spending four years at our College.

The fact is that knowledge and information are fundamental, but they are not enough. One must also possess the wisdom and judgment necessary to interpret the information and to execute on the knowledge. And that is where a Bowdoin education excels. The development of judgment, analysis, critical thinking, and wisdom are at the heart of our mission here, and, in my view, these important attributes are — and always will be — developed most effectively through close personal interaction between students and gifted educators at a college and on a campus like Bowdoin.

That said, we cannot afford to stand still, and Bowdoin never has. And, as we think about the importance of liberal education in this age of information, it is important to remind ourselves about how our mode of thinking, inquiry and expression has evolved and continued to evolve.

We tend to think our form of liberal arts education has remained mostly static in the 210 years since the doors to Massachusetts Hall first opened. At our beginnings, our mode of education was liberally grounded in concepts linked to religion, with a heavy dose of the classics — Latin, Greek and Hebrew. This model of education was heavily reliant on rote memorization, and it sustained generations of Bowdoin students all the way through the late 1800s when President Hyde led a revision of Bowdoin’s education into an era when the modern American university was born.

The fundamental model of liberal education has remained the same these two centuries, even as new disciplines have arisen with every generation.

When I was a student at Bowdoin — and that was 40 years ago — I graduated with the first classes of biochemistry majors.

In our relatively recent history, we have seen new disciplines arise in Africana Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, Environmental Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Neuroscience, Earth and Oceanographic Science and many more.

Our curriculum has clearly expanded, but in large measure, the variety of modes of inquiry among the disciplines has remained relatively static along with our concept of what it means to study in the liberal arts tradition.

Which brings me finally to my message for today — computational thinking and the fundamental position that this mode of inquiry now inhabits in the liberal arts. This is the world of algorithms, space, time, connectivity and relationships. It is a mode of inquiry that has been part of our curriculum for many years, but limited to a large extent to mathematics, physics, and more generally to computer science.

With all due respect to our scholars, teachers and students in computer science, math, and physics these are worlds and a way of thinking that seem to us mere mortals as reserved for the uniquely talented — not particularly relevant to those of us who do not write code, solve complex equations, or build computers or robots.

But, I ask you to think about the image and related concept created by Steve Jobs — the intersecting street signs of technology and the liberal arts.

It is this computational mode of inquiry that Jobs depicts as a guidepost for us all — a guidepost linked both directionally and substantively to the liberal arts. For educators, students, and citizens, it is a compelling message.

Jeannette Wing, the President’s Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, provided a description of computational thinking in the March 2006 edition of “Communications of the ACM,” an important monthly published by the Association for Computing Machinery.

“Computational thinking” she wrote, “is thinking recursively. It is parallel processing. It is interpreting code as data and data as code. It is type checking as the generalization of dimensional analysis. It is recognizing both the virtues and dangers of aliasing, or giving someone or something more than one name … It is judging a program not just for correctness and efficiency but for aesthetics, and a system’s design for simplicity and elegance.”

It is “using heuristic reasoning to discover a solution. It is planning, learning, and scheduling in the presence of uncertainty. It is search, search, and more search.”

“This kind of thinking,” she writes, “will be a part of the skill set of not only other scientists, but everyone else. Ubiquitous computing is today what computational thinking is to tomorrow. Ubiquitous computing was yesterday’s dream that became today’s reality; computational thinking is tomorrow’s reality.”

Our reality at Bowdoin is that computational thinking, this mode of inquiry, is not at all limited to the classrooms and lecture halls of Searles Hall that house computer science, math, and physics. Our faculty, our students and our staff also engage computational thinking and analysis in sociology, art history, biology, chemistry, economics, history, philosophy, English, dance, music, the environment, art and on and on. The power of computational thinking and its counterpart technology are today grounded in our contemporary liberal arts tradition.

For those of you focused on the outcomes of a Bowdoin education in terms of jobs, think about the businesses, professions, services and artistic endeavors that are fundamentally different today, in part, because of people who bring these computational skills, talent, and this way of thinking to their work. And, even if they are not proficient in these skills, it is becoming ever more difficult to become effective without understanding the vocabulary of the current age. It is our role to grow leaders with those skills and knowledge and to educate everyone about a vocabulary that is central to our world society today.

At Bowdoin, we have an opportunity to become an ever more special place in the emerging educational landscape. Simply put, think about educating generations of students who are able to navigate this computational world — graduates who are also capable of expressing themselves clearly through speech and writing; men and women who have an appreciation and understanding of the humanities, the social sciences, the arts and the sciences, and also — in their bones — a commitment to the common good. It is a very powerful position for our College that can sustain us well into the future.

There is little doubt that this future will demand an educated citizenry that understands the vocabulary of computational thinking, but also possesses the wisdom, judgment, and ability and passion to continue to learn that comes with a liberal arts education.

What I describe is an exciting challenge for Bowdoin and the entire liberal arts sector. It is a challenge distinct from simply grappling with the growth and expansion of technology with which it is often linked, because it asks us to integrate our recognized and time tested strengths with a rapidly changing landscape of data, information and knowledge.

It is, in my view, a challenge that is fundamental to the future of the liberal arts, and one that history tells us Bowdoin can and will meet.

Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty: Thank you all for your dedication to your students, to your scholarship, and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research, and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the fall.

To our dedicated and fantastic staff: Thank you!

To our graduating seniors we wish you all the very best as you prepare to leave Brunswick. We are proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you on the Quad tomorrow morning.

Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with “The Offer of the College,” those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:

To make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends.

To the Class of 2012 — you future artists, leaders, statesmen, and stateswomen — to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come, I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.