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When we forget about greatness

April 25, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

As the author of “Imagining Bowdoin” wrote in 2009, “If there is a yearning I see in the students, faculty and staff here, it is a yearning to believe that we dwell, and that Bowdoin students will forever dwell, in a womb capable of birthing great human beings.”


Last week we had Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) elections. Here are the three goals in the candidate statement of our newly elected President:

1. Improving the readiness of Bowdoin students to enter the job market

2. New York, Boston, Portland Shuttle Service

3. Social programming during breaks

BSG elections are far from the only example of recent conversations around Bowdoin culture that lack any articulated desire for anything greater. It seems that yearning for greatness is far from most of our minds.

This is ironic considering how much, well, greater our student body has become. In 2009, our acceptance rate was 24.4 percent, three times this year’s eight percent. Our median SAT score has risen by 50 points. In 2010, six of our graduates became Fulbright scholars, a fraction of last year’s 23. If you pitted our current sports teams against their 2009 counterparts it would be a slaughterfest. I could keep citing examples but the point is that the quality—or at least the output—of our student body has risen significantly.

Still, it seems that most of us aren’t exactly aiming for the stars. I think that’s because the models of greatness we once aspired to no longer seem feasible. How many of us feel some yearning to do something in the world but see few meaningful avenues left to do so? What are the would-be journalists supposed to do? The media is dying! What about the aspiring authors? Nobody reads anymore! We’re left without stars to shoot for, and so we apply for that Boston Consulting Group job instead.

Here’s another way of putting what I’m saying—we don’t know how to be great anymore. We doubt it’s even possible. This leaves places like Bowdoin a bit confused. We flail, searching for a foothold. We try to corner niches of excellence like Arctic Studies. But we no longer believe in our ability to be more in this world than middle managers, so most of us don’t even try.

And look, maybe this is OK. We live in a democracy—shouldn’t the objective be to be good, not great? Isn’t a place like Bowdoin’s yearning for individual greatness just a dreg of aristocracy that we should be quite glad is draining away? We seem to be doing a pretty good job at settling into an identity as a place that educates students to become decent human beings and citizens. We’re generally pretty happy here, most people have very nice things to say about the character of our alumni, and we have quite comfortable postgraduate outcomes.

I have a few things to say about this.

First of all, when we settle for “meh,” it makes me wonder what I’m doing 3,000 miles from home in the middle of nowhere, spending half the year under two feet of snow. I’ll tell you what my favorite moments of Bowdoin have been as of late: Watching the ASA fashion show, seeing the birth of a literal star at Dylan Richmond’s dance performance, hearing my friend’s efforts to get a piece of legislation passed in the Maine statehouse and seeing an aspiring campus poet proclaim on Instagram that he wants to be the “best writer ever.”

Second of all, in the words of John F. Kennedy, I have to wonder, “if not us, who?” Elite liberal arts institutions are meant to proliferate the future leaders of society. Call it aristocratic but it’s true. In reconciling this with the providential fact of equality, our solution shouldn’t be to abandon this mission; it should be to remove the barriers of entry that have too often reserved the spots in this pseudo-aristocracy for only the white and wealthy. If we abandon this mission we will be left lacking great societal leaders who can take the reins from the forces that be that threaten to drag us along toward disaster.

I think each of us can see this urgency for greatness in the issues we care about. Students of international relations know that we need truly great diplomacy now more than ever to alleviate rising tensions. DCS, computer science and philosophy majors recognize the need for stewardship of AI development to steer us away from disaster.

I’m not claiming that Bowdoin students will be able to reach the great heights needed to resolve these issues, but I am claiming that these issues need Bowdoin students to reach these great heights if they are going to be resolved. So we can’t stop trying. Because if the 1,800 of us that are here have decided to give up on reaching these great heights, then I don’t know why the 1,800 at Williams or the 4,000 at Harvard or the couple hundred in the local public honors college should do any differently.

We can’t stop aiming for greatness now. Unfortunately, I don’t have a cure today for our lost drive. But I can at least offer a cough drop.

I urge you to read “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When it was published it was among the most widely circulated poems in the country. We’ve since forgotten it, I suspect, due to the overly sweet taste it leaves on our modern-cynic mouths. I share it with you because it calls us to something greater, and it’s written by Bowdoin’s very own. That makes it baked into our school’s very DNA.

Longfellow is just one of quite a few footprints on the sands of time that we find up here in Brunswick, Maine. I can’t help but wonder where in this world people will still feel compelled to do great things if we can’t even feel so inspired here.


Aidan Sheeran-Hahnel ‘26


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