Will Alexander ’12, Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner, delivered the address, “Under the Microscope,” at Bowdoin’s 207th Commencement, held Saturday, May 26, 2012.
President Mills, Members of the College, Family and Friends, Welcome. I have wanted to stand here and talk to you since I first arrived Bowdoin four years ago. But three months ago when I got the letter inviting seniors to submit speeches, I found myself, quite literally, speechless. I thought that by now surely I would have something to say, something profound that I’ve learned about myself and about the world over my four years here. After all, didn’t I come here to learn how to think? If that was the case, why couldn’t I think coherently enough about my time at Bowdoin to condense it into some piece of wisdom, four pages double-spaced?
It turns out it’s precisely because, in some ways, this is what Bowdoin has taught us not to do. When you think you’ve arrived at a simple conclusion, Bowdoin says “ah yes, but…” We are taught that no subject is simple, nothing is a clear yes or no. But being able to grapple with this depth of knowledge, to come away from it with a new, deeper, yet still concise understanding has been the true value of a Bowdoin education for me. Here’s an example.
A few months ago a friend of mine wanted me to watch her do a cricket dissection in her neuroscience lab. Being a religion major, I tend to stay away from labs and I did not know what to expect when I came to hers. Why would dissecting a cricket be impressive? It’s just a bug, its not like she’s dissecting something big and complicated. And when I first saw what she was doing, I have to say – it was thoroughly uninteresting. But, then I looked through the microscope. At once I saw my friend as a professional surgeon, intricately pulling out the stomach and lungs to get at the nerves that she was testing. She showed me what certain things were, and how easy it would be to mess up the experiment. What at first seemed like a simple problem, under the lens of the microscope became something much more intriguing.
As Bowdoin students, we have all encountered this phenomenon every day. A professor will ask a seemingly easy question. Where is the original Bible kept? How does insurance work? What does an apple look like? At first, all simple enough questions. But when we look through the microscope, each one has layers of complexity that seem never ending. As soon as you reach the end of what you believe to be a flawless argument, there comes a chorus of “but wait, what about this…”
What will this mean for us as we leave Bowdoin? Will we forever be lost in the seemingly infinite abyss that is the grey area between yes and no? Well, as a Bowdoin student I will have to say: it depends. I have moments where simply the decision of which of the 943 kinds of deodorant truly represents my inner man is just too much for me. But there is always a conclusion to be reached. For instance, in case you were wondering: There is no original Bible, by aggregating consumers and determining their expected utility, and like an orange but more apple-y. Sure, these answers are perhaps an oversimplification, but behind each one is hours of debate, definitions, and analysis. Boiling down complexities this way is the key skill that we have cultivated here, and many of us have had to use this skill a lot recently applying for jobs. Having to condense and describe not only my four years at Bowdoin, but who I am as a person, at first seemed impossible.
For example, on one application, I ran into a question that went something like this: “If you suddenly became financially independent, what would you do with your time?” And then I was given two lines on which to respond. Two. But there were so many possible ways to answer this question. So I began to look at it through my Bowdoin Microscope. Financially independent. Does that mean I am not reliant on others but still need to work? In that case I would spend my time working. But no, they must mean you are wealthy enough not to work. Suddenly. Suddenly financially independent? I’m tempted to figure out how I suddenly got all this money, because I may need to spend my time hiding from the authorities. I scrutinized this question so much that I forgot to step back and look at it. What they were really saying is what do you like to do? Simple enough question. And I think that in reflecting on my time at Bowdoin I finally have an answer for that. I like looking through the Microscope. I like finding complexities. But more than that, I like dealing with them – taking an immense amount of information and simplifying it to a solution. Of course on the application I said something or another about travel, because “simplifying confusing stuff” just didn’t look right.
But isn’t that really what we’ve been doing here? I believe, in the end, that this is the value of the Bowdoin education, both inside and outside of the classroom. First we complicate, then we simplify. And in doing so, we arrive at a far more meaningful conclusion. I’ve done my best to condense my Bowdoin experience into a short speech, but this is just my take on it. You ask the Bowdoin Class of 2012 about their last four years here, and you will get 450 different answers. You will get an essay, MLA, Chicago or “Potholm” style, or a poem, a sculpture or a song. The hard part for us now, for this class of 2012, is answering the question we’ve been asked nearly every day these last few months: What next? We’ve been presented with yet another problem, and at times, it has seemed like the most complex one yet. The problem of the rest of our lives. And I thought the cricket was daunting.
But this problem, like every one we’ve encountered at Bowdoin, is not insurmountable. Of course it’s easy at first to get caught in the complexities. We start thinking that from today on, we are headed down a certain trajectory; that any deviation beyond this point will be impossible. We are taking one giant leap up to the “rest of our lives”: an abstract and unchanging plateau. But this is not the real problem. Thankfully, we don’t need to have it all figured out now. Because to tackle this kind of problem, here, now, at age 22, simply might not work. So we need to step back. After recognizing what makes this problem so difficult, we must recognize the way to solve it. How will I end up doing the right thing? Keep course correcting. For some of us, it may take more changes than others. And thankfully, the problems won’t stop coming. And even though we aren’t at Bowdoin anymore, that doesn’t mean we can’t look through the Microscope at each one as it comes up, and solve it (eventually).
But before the next problem comes — likely how I’m going to fit my life into my car when I leave Brunswick — I’d like to take this opportunity to thank a few people. To the Bowdoin faculty and staff, thank you for giving us the Microscope and helping us learn how to deal with what we find through its lens. To our friends and family, thank you for being there to support us with all our problems, big and small. And to my fellow Class of 2012, good luck, and thanks for making the last four years the best I’ve ever had. Congratulations Class of 2012. Thank you.