Remarks by President Emeritus Robert H. Edwards at the Dedication of the Edwards Center for Art and Dance

More than 120 people gathered in Main Lounge on Friday, October 11, as the College officially dedicated the new Robert H. and Blythe Bickel Edwards Center for Art and Dance, located on South Street in the former Longfellow Elementary School. President Emeritus Robert H. Edwards, who served as president of the College from 1990 to 2001, followed Blythe Edwards at the microphone.


Barry, you and the Board have done a kind and understanding thing, recognizing the passionate engagement, which you well understand, of people who are responsible for one of these uniquely American institutions. Blythe and I first ducked when we heard—not us!—but we’ve we’ve gotten used to the idea.  And to see old friends around here, this is an amazing occasion. It’s an extraordinary gift and we are astonished. But I’ve got to be just a little serious about how we got here.

We’re also astonished, even transfixed, by the leap in academic curriculum that’s taken place in our lifetimes. When I was at Princeton 60 years ago the expressive, creative and performing arts—theatre, dance, painting, music—had no place in the curriculum. They were recreational. There was art history—its styles, development and schools; music theory and history; the texts of ancient, Elizabethan, Restoration and modern theatre. But the only academic approach to them was analytical and critical; the objective was a student’s close reasoning and understanding. And why was this so?

I brooded on this. You have a certain amount of time to brood when you’re living in Edgecomb, Maine. No easy answers, but the rise of the West had much to do with the rise of science and the shift to empiricism and objective thought from religious belief, however closely reasoned. And curriculum and social change have always been related to one another: Oxford had great battles between the classics and the “mods”—modern language and literature—and this battle was surely linked to Britain’s shift from an introverted aristocracy to a commercial, international democracy? Closer to us, the post-war and the Cold War instilled in the rhetoric of American academic leaders that the goal of education was, first of all, to produce loyal, productive citizens—through close study of the sciences and the social sciences and the humanities. The arts were either in the college museum or provided by visiting troupes. And of course we were a good deal more obedient to our academic masters in the 1950s. Blythe would, I think, say that things were pretty much the same at Wellesley.

…our whole culture has come to believe that doing, not just thinking and understanding is a critical modern economic value. The arts do.

What happened? How and why have the arts—what used to be called the fine arts—risen so powerfully in academic legitimacy and appeal? Some easy answers: the 1960s blew things up—and over the longer term loosened intellectual structures, as Bowdoin faculty and students will testify. Equally important, women arrived and brought with them their history as artists, musicians, writers and patrons as they suffused and transformed the cultures of higher education as faculty and students.

But I think some deeper things were going on.

  • First, the human mind began to receive a lot more respect. Freud, psychiatry, psychology accorded new autonomy and significance to the individual mind, and its moods, aspirations and creative capacities began to receive academic attention. It became reasonable to ask if educating a student’s mind should require not just the study of but the experience of creativity.
  • Additionally, the branches of knowledge ceased to be intellectual silos and began to think across disciplines. (How wildly different was our design of the Druckenmiller Science building from the old Searles Hall, which sealed physics. chemistry and biology off from each other.) Economists found they need to understand psychology and sociology; political science needs to comprehend anthropology and history—and maybe medicine does too, if a Western doctor is to provide effective therapy to a Somali. Fresh intellectual frames—imagination, creative thought, the willing embrace of things never imagined—have become the elements of an effective life, professional and personal—and of higher education.
  • Finally, our whole culture has come to believe that doing, not just thinking and understanding is a critical modern economic value. The arts do, and, if anyone is looking for entrepreneurship, let him read a letter I received from a Bowdoin student, George Ellzey, who created and choreographed an hour long modern dance as an honors project last year.

All this, then, is why even an academic conservative would gradually come to believe it unthinkable for colleges not to give the creative arts an equal–even an essential—place with the sciences, social sciences and humanities. And so it is that Bowdoin has provided the arts with a new home—elegant, differentiated and yet tied, both in curricular design—a new distribution requirement—and in course design, to the evolving mission of a modern liberal arts college.

Bowdoin has provided the arts with a new home—elegant, differentiated and yet tied, both in curricular design…and in course design, to the evolving mission of a modern liberal arts college.

The crucial issue is doing it well. Bowdoin is blessed to have an academic dean of the highest quality and a president with the discernment to capture her for Bowdoin. Cristle Judd’s academic field, I discovered, is music—theory and performance—perhaps the most stringent and disciplined and yet the most demanding of invention of all the arts. Music rests on a strong academic foundation—beginning with its place in the medieval Quadrivium. Dean Judd has written that the arts can be “ornamentation, escape, even therapy,” but she requires that they be an integral, excellent part of the Bowdoin academic and co-curricular experience. It is clear that, under her leadership, the arts at Bowdoin will never be a haven for student self-indulgence or willfulness, but through eternal vigilance and the selection of strong, creative faculty, and serious students, the arts will be a fresh, demanding and joyful force in the College.

Barry, you’ve framed Cristle’s vision by doing so much—as Blythe says—for the physical reinforcement of artistic understanding at the College. The intelligence and invention of the art museum’s expansion and of the Studzinski Recital Hall—not to mention the gleaming cube of the Buck Center that illuminates the campus at night, giving it this wonderful, vibrant heart—are all design triumphs. They have lifted this campus, and Barry, it is you who have done it to heights that Blythe and I could never have imagined.

We are profoundly honored that you and the Board have considered our names worthy of association with Bowdoin’s new and brilliant mission in the arts. We thank you.