2008 Convocation

Wellesley College Convocation 2008
President H. Kim Bottomly

September 2, 2008

Our Intellectual Community

A year has passed since I stood here last; a year in which I have learned a great deal about this community, and I have come to respect and admire it even more than before. As I stand here today looking at all of you, I can’t help but reflect on the incredible extent of raw native ability spread before me. There are almost 3000 of you on campus, all scholars or nascent scholars, all smart. If we could convert this brainpower to physical energy somehow, we could become a carbon-neutral campus by tomorrow.

Yet I wonder if we are doing all we should to benefit from the amazing array of talented minds we have. I am not convinced that we are, and doing more is what I want to talk to you about today.

As George Walker wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, “individual achievements may not be as individual as they seem …. intellectual energy and passion are triggered by engagement …. Ideas are both magnets for an intellectual community and products of it.” 1 Do we have a fully functioning intellectual community at Wellesley, one as good as we are capable of having? I don’t think so, and I want to start a dialog about what we do, and what we might wish to do. Of course there is intellectual community at Wellesley; we have Ruhlman, we have the Tanner Conference, we have the summer research program; we have interacting subgroups everywhere. But we don’t have as broad and encompassing a community as we can and should have. We need to correct that. Intellectual communities don’t just happen by putting bright, hardworking, scholarly people together. They are dependent on planning and structure, and collaboration.

Why should we care? Those of us who have served on too many national disciplinary committees may want to agree with Carl Jung. Jung said, “... the collection of a hundred good intellects produces collectively one idiot.” But this is not an accurate statement if that collection of intellects is a true intellectual community. For evidence of that we have only to look at the history of intellectual and artistic salons in previous centuries, themselves an earlier form of intellectual community.

Intellectual salons are not a new invention. One finds salons throughout history, though under differing names. The notion of the value of an egalitarian and respectful forum for the sharing of ideas and political views has been with us in the western world at least since Ancient Greece. It is generally believed that the French Revolution might have happened far later if not for this effect of French salons.

The Paris salons of the 17th century, like those of Madeleine De Scudery, were even influential in the advancement of women. De Scudery played a seminal role in advancing the educational level of women in France. She was not shy in voicing her belief that if women could attend salons and be respected as valuable contributors to the intellectual rigors of salon life, then they could very well take on positions in public life. 2

Interesting history, perhaps, but why do we need them now? There are many reasons, both global and local. Let me point to two.

The information revolution has diminished our ability to make sense of the world outside of our narrow specialties. We have lost the appreciation of the value of using conversation in a community of thinkers as a means for generating ideas that organize this surfeit of facts and data.

T.S. Eliot, in his Choruses from the Rock , asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Richard Wurman, in Information Anxiety , writes “We are like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant.” 3 We need coordinated thinking, thinking that crosses the boundaries of disciplinary specialization and ideological focus. We must have specialists today, of course, but more than ever we need broadly informed thinking. We need people who can rise to the challenge of providing synthesis, who can bring together, as appropriate, the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts and thus help us integrate all this information into knowledge and all this knowledge into wisdom. We need conversation more than ever, and conversation of the type that occurs only in a true intellectual community. We need salon-type thinking.

Charles Darwin didn’t have an available intellectual community in proximity, so he created his own by incessant letter-writing to correspondents in a wide variety of fields. Almost 2000 of those letters survive today. It paid off for Darwin in many ways, and helped refine his thought. He tells us (in one of those letters) that he even developed the idea of natural selection as a theory to organize his biological findings following inspiration garnered from discussions of Thomas Malthus’ Essay on Population . This is a perfect illustration of the power of broad intellectual conversation—no one would have referred a biologist to a demographer to improve his work. Darwin informs us that his reading and discussion of Malthus were, initially, “for pleasure.” Good conversation in an intellectual community is indeed a pleasure, but it is also a valuable and irreplaceable resource.

For an example of a specific area where the contribution of an intellectual community could be crucial, let’s consider the problem of energy/sustainability, a problem we have taken on locally. It is no longer possible for any reasonable person to doubt that we have a serious problem. Colleges and universities around the world must and will play a crucial role, not just because of the research and education that happens there, and not just because they will lead the way with recycling and other efforts, but also because of the intellectual communities that exist there. As Yale economist Bill Nordhaus put it in his book, A Question of Balance , “… the challenge of coping with global warming is particularly difficult because it spans many disciplines and parts of society. Ecologists see it as a threat to ecosystems, marine biologists as a problem of ocean acidification, utilities as a debt on their balance sheets, and coal miners as a … threat to their livelihood. Businesses may view global warming as either an opportunity or a hazard, politicians as a great issue as long as they do not need to mention taxes, ski resorts as a mortal danger to their already short seasons, golfers as a boon to year round recreation, and poor countries as a threat to their farmers as well as a source of financial and technological aid.” 4 Nordhaus makes it clear that determining how to balance the social and economic costs today with the benefits for tomorrow will require salon-like thinking, not just interdisciplinary research. We, here at Wellesley, have a group of scholars and students who have actively taken this on. In 2005, we formed a Sustainability Advisory Committee of students, faculty and staff from many majors, disciplines, and areas. This group has already made improvements to our practices, launched a series of projects and has developed a set of aspirational goals that will shape our initiatives and policies in the coming years. Beth DeSombre’s Environmental Studies class did Wellesley’s first greenhouse gas audit, allowing us to quantify our emissions now and in the future. Individual and groups of students are thinking about and participating in sustainability efforts in many ways across campus. I am delighted at what these hard-working groups have accomplished. I hope we continue to pursue local efforts, but I also hope that along with our quite practical focus, we expand our focus to embrace discussions of the incredible complexity of this problem, and that we draw many more of you into those discussions—even those of you who don’t think it is a problem, or who don’t think it is a problem that admits to local solution. This issue is just one of many issues today that cry out for salon-like thinking.

I said there were two reasons to work on broadening and refining our campus intellectual community. The second is a purely local one. We need to have an intellectually energized Wellesley College community. To be a good Liberal Arts college, to truly deserve our reputation, we need a salon-like spirit to pervade the campus. We need to nourish what currently exists and develop what does not. This endeavor shouldn’t lead to another mandated activity but should be instead a seductive force that draws people in.

What exactly does an intellectual community require? A recent Carnegie-funded study, “The Formation of Scholars,” 5 has reinforced the well-known connection between intellectual community and learning. This report on a five-year study of 84 programs in six fields found unexpectedly strong evidence of the importance of intellectual communities, those intense exchanges of ideas and perspectives that are “knowledge-centered but relationship-based.” Where they exist, the report finds, they create environments where both students and faculty flourish. The benefits to faculty are substantial—recent studies of junior faculty have documented that they will choose this kind of collegiality over salary (this is a generational change). Senior faculty are more satisfied with their jobs in the presence of a true intellectual community. Students become more attached to places that provide an intellectual community, and such communities help students make that crucial transition from “learning about” to “learning to be.” Good intellectual communities share ideas across disciplinary boundaries, but they are more than that; they are diverse, they are respectful, they always include a wide range of challenging opinions, their members genuinely love unfettered discussion, and—most importantly—their members are joyous and welcoming at the discovery of a point of view very different from theirs; their members see disagreement as an opportunity for engagement and a chance to broaden their own perspective and sharpen their focus. The Carnegie report notes, “Scholars who are not actively involved in an environment of diverse viewpoints and healthy debate … find their work intellectually malnourished.” True intellectual communities also allow risk and failure and encourage visionary thinking.

The creation of physical spaces for intellectual community is also crucial. Research on organizational culture shows the value of informal interaction. It also shows that the chances that informal interaction will happen rise dramatically when there are both formal venues as well as physical places for informal exchange to occur.

I think that our working to maintain a true intellectual community is a more important thing to do than ever before, since societal trends are pushing us in the opposite direction, and intellectual communities are becoming more scarce than ever.

The trends of which I speak are well known to you faculty members. As Carol Schneider pointed out, in the course of the 20th century, most scholarly disciplines in the arts and sciences “became absorbed in their own scholarly questions and drew back from overt concern with the broader aims of liberal education such as civic engagement, ethical reasoning, or integrative learning.”6 She didn’t mean that arts and science faculty in the United States no longer valued these things, nor did she mean that they didn’t think the college experience should include them. She meant instead that faculty members began increasingly not to see these broader aims as their individual responsibility or as the role of their individual departmental curriculum. They are just busier than ever, and intangibles, however important, often get lost in the hurly-burly of time management. Faculty intellectual communities, when they exist, are increasingly disciplinary ones. This is one of those phenomena where everyone believes that something should happen, but no one sees it as their individual responsibility to ensure that it does.

Students, for their part, have become much more focused and pragmatic than in the past; students today have many demands on their lives, many choices to make. Where will they find the time to have those extended conversations, to participate in salon-like activities, in wide-ranging debates like I did as a daily part of my college experience? We need to create the opportunities. We need to talk to one another about how we can do it.

Higher education has lost something very important—not just important to us, but important to society—and we must get it back. At Wellesley and at other liberal arts colleges, we have remained somewhat counter to this trend in many respects, but not as much as we should have. And the existence of a true, broad-based intellectual community, and the culture that accompanies it, is crucial.

We have amassed a remarkable collection of talent here at Wellesley. We can do better. We can figure out how to increase, to enlighten and to broaden faculty interactions. We can figure out how to better connect curricular life and extracurricular life. We can figure out how to better configure campus events, how to have more events that faculty and students attend as participants rather than as spectators. We can figure out how to turn dormitories into more useful intellectual fora. In short, what we need to do is work to make the life of the mind the unchallenged centerpiece of campus culture. We are a privileged group here at Wellesley—we must be sure we put that privilege to good use.

What do we need to do? I have some ideas, but I need yours. I have the pulpit and I have some resources. I challenge you to bring me ideas about good uses of those resources, and of my pulpit. I have in front of me today all of the talent one could possibly need to figure this out for Wellesley College.

I urge you to think about this, to talk about our intellectual community on campus, to come up with ideas. I will make resources available to develop ideas, large or small, for activities that will contribute to our intellectual community. I hope to hear many good ideas from faculty, from students, and from faculty/student partnerships. I hope all of you will leave today more committed than ever to doing your part in maintaining and sustaining a true intellectual community at Wellesley College.

Yale librarian Rutherford Rogers said, “We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.” 7 He was correct. Rescue us. Nourish us. And have a good year.


1. George Walker, et al., The Importance of Intellectual Community, The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 14, 2007
2. Benet Davetian, The History and Meaning of Salons, The Sociology Web, www.bdavetian.com
3. Richard Wurman, Information Anxiety, Doubleday, 1989
4. William Nordhaus, A Question of Balance, Yale University Press, 2008
5. Walker, ibid.
6. Carol G. Schneider, “Liberal Education: Slip-Sliding Away?” in Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow (eds.) Declining By Degrees, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 68.
7. Rogers, New York Times, February 1985