In Last Lecture, Seniors Encouraged to Find Inspiration in History

Charles Bassett Teaching Award Winner Arnout van der Meer on speaking truth to power in anxious times

The Class of 2022 turned out in force to hear Associate Professor of History Arnout van der Meer present the Last Lecture in the Page Commons Room in Cotter Union.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Caitlin Penna
May 18, 2022

As members of Colby’s Class of 2022 prepare to venture into the future, historian Arnout van der Meer wants them to know one thing. Life isn’t a linear path. In fact, it can be rather messy.

“We have this notion that life is intentional, a simple series of actions and consequences,” said van der Meer, associate professor of history. “Life doesn’t work this way.”

But if history and teaching have taught van der Meer anything, it’s that students will find their way to an unexpected destination. And they’ll be fine. Even in the uncertain times in which we’re living.

These words of optimism and hope anchored the “Last Lecture,” presented by van der Meer, winner of the 2022 Charles Bassett Teaching Award, chosen by the senior class. A Colby tradition now in its 30th year, the Last Lecture brings together the senior class as a bridge between exams and Senior Week.

“The Charles Bassett Teaching Award honors a Colby professor for exceptional, positive influence and contribution to the lives of Colby students,” said senior class co-president Ellie Batchelder. “And with that, there is no better professor to give this award to than Professor van der Meer, who has taught at Colby for the last eight years and specializes in Southeast Asia studies,” co-president Morgan Honor said as the full house in Page Commons erupted in applause.

Associate Professor of History Arnout van der Meer holds the Charles Bassett Teaching Award, presented to him by the Class of 2022 on May 16, 2022.

“This is an incredible honor,” van der Meer said of the award. “This is really meaningful because I come from a family of educators.” His grandmother, mother, sister, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins all worked as teachers. “I dedicate this award to all of them,” he said, “to my whole family of educators.” 

van der Meer’s lecture began with a sketch of the last “dramatic and tumultuous four years.” It’s a period marred by a global pandemic, the most polarized American election in history, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and the inevitability of human-induced climate change, along with other recent troubling trends.  

“These were not easy years,” he acknowledged. “And yet here you are, ready to graduate. In a way, you might be on a precipice. You’re standing here at the end of your college education, looking toward an uncertain future.”

As a way to prepare for that future, he said, we can turn to history for lessons, inspiration, and insight.

There are various ways, however, to view the past, or to hold different historical awareness. On one side are people in or searching for power, such as politicians, nationalists, and authoritarians, said van der Meer. These people see the past as functional and use it to justify power in the present. On the other side are professional historians who aim to understand the past through exploration and discovery—historians such as van der Meer and his students.

Three of those students were in the audience and had recently completed honors work in history. van der Meer gave each of them a shout-out and pointed to their research as examples of how to dissect narratives of power and discover ways to speak truth to that power.

  • Clarisse Allehaut ’22 showed how the history of French patisserie is tied directly to histories of colonial exploitation and slavery in places such as Haiti, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar.
  • Jason Leong ’22 examined how historical manipulations as a result of British colonialism in Myanmar led to the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya people. 
  • Blair Sullivan ’22 argued for the importance of international aid organizations understanding the complexities of past foreign policies and how recipient communities perceive them. 

These student projects fit into larger histories rife with courageous individuals who stood up for what is right and just, who asked critical questions to move closer to the truth, and who possess qualities van der Meer sees in Colby students.

“There’s a reason I’m optimistic despite an uncertain future,” he said. “It’s all of you.”

“You’re amazing critical thinkers who care about the pursuit of knowledge, who ask relevant questions, and who care about a particular kind of historical awareness that’s profound but understanding.”

Associate Professor of History Arnout van der Meer to the Class of 2022

Standing on the precipice, van der Meer implored students to trust themselves and to rely on the skills they’ve learned at Colby.

Go out into the world, he said, and jump into the unknown with confidence.