This past week, Bowdoin students had the opportunity to hear from two of Bowdoin’s most prominent alumni, U.S. Senator George Mitchell ’54 H’83 and Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson ’07. Both men expressed their grave concern for the current state and direction of American politics and society. Yet despite their dismay, both men expressed a fundamental optimism about the future of our country.
When so much seems wrong with the world around us, optimism is hard to muster, and when hopefulness does arise, we dismiss it as naive and misplaced. As Mckesson himself noted, pessimism has become cool, and a fatalistic apathy, rather than hope, is championed as a more pragmatic attitude towards a political system that has yielded disappointment after disappointment.
But the lives and stories of these two alumni, both of whom are living proof of the manifold ways that we can do real and immediate good in the world, should combat this fatalism. Though it may seem trite to note, their celebrity should not obscure the basic fact that both these men, though from vastly different backgrounds, were once Bowdoin students just like us—both were provided with the enormous resources of the College and both were faced with the daunting decision of how to make the most not only of their four years at the College, but also with their lives after graduation.
In an interview with the Orient, Mitchell shared the following lesson with students; we think it is vitally important that it be heard. He said, “Life is a never-ending search for respect—first, and most important, self-respect and then the respect of others. There are many ways to achieve it, and in most people there’s an innate drive to do well, to achieve what some call fame and fortune and recognition … But my life experience has taught me that while it’s entirely appropriate to work hard to earn an income to support yourself and your family, the more one gets of things, the more one realizes that there has to be more to life than that and that real fulfillment will come not from recognition or acquisition but from working with all of your spiritual and physical might for a cause that is larger than your self-interest, that helps other people.”
Though not every Bowdoin alumni will become the majority leader of the United States Senate or the face of the largest social protest movement of a generation, every Bowdoin student has the choice to answer Mitchell’s charge to place the well-being of others over his or her own immediate self-interest. Perhaps the notion of the Common Good, overused to the point of oblivion, now rings hollow in our ears. But if we hope to revitalize it, there is no better place to start than with the stories of this week’s speakers. We are thankful for their model, and yes, even optimistic that their influence can lead to real good.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Rachael Allen, Anjulee Bhalla, Harry DiPrinzio, Sarah Drumm, Ellice Lueders, Ian Ward and Allison Wei.