The Way of Bilbo

Central College President Mark Putnam, with 2022 graduate Abigail Lowry.

J.R.R. Tolkien captured the emotional experience of setting out on an unexpected journey. Our “The Hobbit” hero, Bilbo Baggins, was not eager for the quest placed before him and seemed to resent and resist the thought of setting out beyond the sheltered walls of Bag End. Still, he possessed an unrelenting yearning to explore the unknown outside his limited experience and test the resolve within himself.

In the end, what sustained Bilbo through the most difficult days of his journey was a deeply held desire to be of service, to seek justice and to simply do the right thing. Each of us can see ourselves through the eyes of Bilbo as we are initially gripped by fear with a new opportunity and yet step forward in eager anticipation of something more — something bigger than the scope of our present interests.

When we set out for the college experience, we bear our own expectations and are further burdened with the expectations of others. These are often conflicting thoughts that yield a plague of questions. As the journey unfolds, the assumptions we’ve relied on seem to be less sure in our thinking. New experiences give way to fresh thinking and the resulting self-discovery dislodges us from previous choices.

It also happens that life gets in the way. The decisions of others can affect our own. The consequences of a single choice can open or close access to opportunity; delay or advance our next steps; sharpen our focus or lead us to greater ambiguity.

We speak often of this journey at Central College. As a community of learners sharing a common space and a common experience, we are in many ways the same. The overall patterns are remarkably similar. The individual journeys, however, are each completely unique. The task of education is to balance these communal aspects of learning with the individual needs and interests of each learner. It’s a messy process, but rich in experience.

What makes a difference in finding our way on this journey is being in the presence of others. While our situation is uniquely ours, we gain confidence from the example of others who have found their way forward. Hearing their stories and telling ours, sharing in the exchange of ideas and benefitting together from advice and counsel provides a sense of confidence knowing that the journey is ours, but it can never be pursued alone.

Bilbo made many mistakes along the way. If not for the steady guiding hand of the wizard, Gandalf, the companionship of the dwarves, and the intervention of a few strangers along the way, he would have never completed his journey.

The way of Bilbo is the only way to go.

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