We gather today to welcome in the new year. Not with the strains of Auld Lang Syne ringing in our ears or a telecast from Times Square on our TV screens. We gather in the age-old way of academic communities, with pomp and procession, with regalia and rhetoric, to mark the real new year, the one that begins here each fall. This year we gather—we convocate—in a very special place. As I mentioned earlier, thanks to the wonderful work of our Facilities Department we return to an enhanced and expanded Goodhart Hall, a space that invests our actions with its own grandeur.
We come together today as a renewed community. Over the last week, we have welcomed many recent additions with the arrival of our new students, our new faculty and our new staff members. This is a moment to celebrate the community renewal that their coming represents. Many are also returning to Bryn Mawr from research trips, sabbatical semesters or summer study projects. All of this brings reinvigoration and replenishment to our academic life together. But most especially today we convene to salute our seniors as they embark upon the culminating year of their Bryn Mawr lives.
Seniors, as you stand on the threshold of this final year at Bryn Mawr, please let me say a few words to you about Bryn Mawr’s special place in the world of American higher education and about ways that this senior year can be a particularly fruitful time for you.
As a student at Bryn Mawr do you realize how rare your education is? Later next week, I’ll give a speech about American higher education to the heads of all the universities in the United Kingdom. Preparing for that has led me to explore the extraordinary richness and variety of postsecondary education in this country and to think about Bryn Mawr’s place in this vast landscape. I’ll sketch that landscape as quickly as possible. Slightly more than 18 million students—15 million undergraduate and 3 million graduate and professional students—currently attend 4,100 universities, colleges and community colleges in the United States. Public institutions enroll about 80 percent of these undergraduates, with about half of that enrollment being in community colleges.
This represents a significant change over the last half-century. At the end of World War II, private institutions educated about 50% of US college and university students. During the last 60 years, however, attendance at postsecondary institutions has increased exponentially, particularly in the public sector. Even as the proportions between publics and privates were shifting, liberal arts colleges themselves were changing. Many of them, in an effort to sustain enrollments, began offering more professional and pre-professional programs, resulting in fewer liberal arts majors. A recent assessment estimates that the number of students who attend a selective, residential college where most major in the liberal arts is less than 100,000. As the authors of this study famously observed, that whole population wouldn’t quite fill a Big Ten football stadium. In other words, for every 150 American undergraduates, there’s only 1 who can attend a school like Bryn Mawr. Although you live on a campus that Hollywood and Bollywood like to film as a quintessential American college, it’s not the typical collegiate experience in this country. It’s an increasingly rare privilege.
Why do I sketch this landscape for you? Why do I cite statistics on this warm August afternoon? Perhaps, in part, it’s to remind myself how very lucky I am to lead an institution like Bryn Mawr. More importantly, however, I think it’s wise to remember what Bryn Mawr, as a small, elite, scholarly environment, can be to you in your senior year.
For even within the group of highly selective liberal arts colleges, Bryn Mawr is special. The model of scholar/mentor is widely represented within our faculty. As you advance in your studies with dedication and seriousness, faculty begin to view you as junior colleagues and the teacher/student relationship evolves to a genuinely collaborative mentorship. This was brought vividly home to me last spring, as I hosted a series of dinners for seniors at Pen y Groes. Inevitably, our conversations turned to the thesis research with which the seniors were currently occupied—and preoccupied. I was astonished at the quality of these conversations and the research sophistication that they revealed. Clearly, the faculty guidance that you will receive as seniors is the best available to college students anywhere. In one memorable exchange, two seniors, one majoring in art history and the other in archaeology, got into a spirited dispute about the repatriation of museum artifacts. It was great fun to sit back and simply let that debate rip.
I’m already looking forward to the same experience with you next spring, to lively conversations that will capture the exceptional range and quality of the research in which your faculty will mentor you this year. But I’d also like to suggest another way in which you can enrich the integrating and culminating character of your senior year. To do so, I’ll quote from a little book that I’ve treasured since I was a teenager:
Do you want to do intellectural work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worth while.
Doesn’t that passage sound odd? In our contemporary culture of frantic busyness and information overload, what strange suggestions these are! The book itself, first published in France almost 90 years ago, and titled simply The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, is a far cry from the current literature on achieving college success. Yet it remains remarkably relevant because it speaks to deeper movements of the mind and heart than books like Making the Most of College or Getting the Best Out of College or even Been There, Should’ve Done That—useful as those volumes may be. It suggests that the work of intellectual integration and intensification, the work that as seniors you will undertake this year, requires periods of patient solitude and the willingness to persevere through the doubts and disappointments, the ambiguities and deviations that a true scholar inevitably encounters.
So as you stand on this special threshold, I hope that you will look forward to moments of strength and moments of silence, that you will relish the generous support of your dedicated faculty mentors, and that you will add your own intellectual luster to this incredible institution. On behalf of the faculty, the administration, the staff and all of your fellow students, I wish you a wonderful senior year!
31 August 2009