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2007 Baccalaureate address

John Fleming
Louis W. Fairchild '24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature Emeritus
Princeton University
June 3, 2007

Class of 2007, soon to bear a name yet greater, I greet you with a paternal affection. I greet also your parents, grandparents and friends who have done so much to bring you to this day. And I greet my faculty colleagues, the administrative officers and the trustees who work tirelessly and sometimes effectively to advance the truly noble aims of our common cause. On the lintel of a hearth in Procter Hall in the Graduate College is a Latin inscription that reads "Enter Good; Exit Even Better." The positioning of the epigraph is perhaps ambiguous, as I presume that it is the graduate school experience rather than the actual fireplace that is meant to effect the amelioration, but you get the idea. And that is just our graduate students. One day chiseled into the stone wall of this holy place will be an inscription that reads: "They entered this sacred fane on Baccalaureate Sunday as the Great Class of 2007. They marched out the Princeton Class of Destiny!"

You have done me a very great honor in inviting me to give this Baccalaureate address. Ordinarily the invitation follows the fame of the speaker. You have reversed the process, making me famous by issuing your invitation. Truth in advertising requires a somewhat fuller statement. In years gone by, I was actually a nonvoting adviser to the student committee that recommends the Baccalaureate speaker. (I hasten to add that unlike President Tilghman, who was a member of the selection committee that chose herself, I was not a member of this year's committee.) But I know how things work. The committee makes three recommendations, and the president chooses by single transferable vote. There is one intergalactically famous political figure. There is one internationally famous media celebrity. Then there is a safety candidate whose modest virtues are minimal ambulatory power and availability. My guess is that Hillary's pollsters were skittish, and Larry King laughed at the honorarium. The rest is history — and you are there.

Unless I mistake myself this is actually the second time I have had the honor of addressing you as a class. On a warm September evening in 2003, from a temporary podium facing Cannon Green, I was the warm-up act for an eminent politician and alumnus who talked to you at an "Integrity Assembly." I remember the event but dimly, and the fact that you have invited me here today suggests that you remember it not at all. Still I regard it as a great success. I told you to be good, and lo, you have been good, very good. Can it work a second time?

This talk will be about you, but it must begin with a few words about me. I am 71 years old. Last June I retired after 40 years on the Princeton faculty. I suppose that means that you are swifter than I am by a ratio of 10-to-1. In retirement the sense of vital connection with the daily life of the institution erodes rapidly. I shall spend the whole of the next academic year away, and when I return that sense will be wholly erased. Hence, 2007, you are the last Princeton class I ever will really know. Some of you were my freshman or sophomore academic advisees. Some of you took a freshman seminar on Dante with me. Quite a few of you took upper division courses with me. Hence I am swimming in that same bittersweet sea of emotionality in which you are bobbing about during this long weekend.

The word "baccalaureate" of course refers to the bachelor's degree you will receive on front campus two days hence. This will be a sacramental action, a sacrament being the "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." The degree is an inward and spiritual grace conveyed by President Tilghman by the authority granted to her by the trustees. Its outward and visible sign, the diploma, you will pick up on Cannon Green. Don't forget to get yours. Even though it's only outward and visible, it did cost well over a hundred grand. Baccalaureate is a Latin word invented in the Middle Ages by translating the Old French bachelier. A bachelier was an apprentice knight, a warrior of such modest means that he fought beneath the banner of a superior knight. The etymology of bachelier is obscure, but we think it might derive from sub plus chevalier. This would mean "someone beneath a horseman." Being beneath a horseman, though perhaps preferable to being beneath a horse, still strikes me as a less than exalted status. Other associations of the bachelier are suggested by Chaucer's description of his squire, son of the knight, of whom he writes:

With hym ther was his sone a yong SQUIER
A lovyere and a lusty bacheler …
So hoote he lovede that by nyghtertale,
He sleep namore than dooth a nyghtyngale.

As readers of "Romeo and Juliet" will remember, the nightingale is a dirty bird. And you have Chaucer's word for it that bachelors, of whatever gender, are hot.

Within a hundred years of its first appearance in English, its semantic field had expanded to include its academic meaning and its more common and current sociological one — a man as yet unmarried but ripe for the marital state. This suggests, doubtless, that the closest social analogies to medieval warfare must have been undergraduate life and matrimony. But the implication of a preliminary stage, a transition beyond adolescence but not too far beyond it, remains. Hence the perfect fit of Baccalaureate and Commencement itself. In every Commencement address I have ever heard — or given, for that matter — it has been pointed out that the word "commencement" clearly denotes a beginning, not an ending.

Of course there is an ending, and I must warn you about it. Beginning on Tuesday at noon, you are no longer the younger generation — and it's all downhill after that. The plenary valorization of the youthful, the contemporary, the innovative, the preference for 12-year-old violinists and 19-year-old metaphysicians, and the appetite for all the daily Apple updates, these are necessary features of American dynamism; at your age I embraced it completely, but I find I have grown in wisdom wonderfully in the last five decades, and I think you will do so soon. I now realize that at the very least the quintessence of the here-and-now must be tempered with the wisdom of the ancients, meaning something written, thought or said sometime before the day before yesterday.

When I was an officer of the English department I went on occasion to cocktail parties in New York at which I sometimes encountered minor celebrities and glamorous young women in publishing. At one such event, with one such glamorous woman, I fell into literary conversation concerning various contemporary novelists. I read a lot of books, and I did swimmingly for a medievalist — until we arrived at John Updike. She asked my opinion of his latest book, the title of which I shall not soon forget: "The Coup." Now just for the record I have — and had — read several books by John Updike. But I had to tell her that I had not read "The Coup." "What a pity!" she said, all tentative interest in me draining from her face. "It's been out for six weeks." But even as she turned in search of someone more interesting, I had the wit to pose a question of my own. "Have you read the 'Consolation of Philosophy' of Boethius?" I asked. This actually stopped her in her tracks. "The what of philosophy?" she asked. She hadn't even heard of it. "No? What a pity!" I replied. "It's been out for one thousand, four hundred and fifty-three years!"



From this elevated pulpit my view of the class of 2007 is one of extraordinary uniformity — hardly surprising, given the fact that you are all wearing the same uniform, the uniform of a bachelor of arts and sciences. Yet I know for a fact that the black robes are covering a near riot of individuality. You are an allegorical tableau of the philosophical problem of the one and the many, and the social and spiritual challenge of the individual and society — subjects which you have undoubtedly touched upon in your careers here. Neither as a nation nor as a university have we got this one fully worked out yet. It still says on the penny "E pluribus unum" with the emphasis clearly on the unity. For the last 20 years in the academy we have been extolling the "pluribus" part.

The magic word here is "diversity." "Diversity" aspires to the status of a terminal good and therefore a terminal goal. What does it mean, and what does it not mean? Actually academic "diversity" has a quite delimited range having to do with obvious racial, ethnic, sexual and religious distinctions: Some folks are black, some white; some straight, some gay; some are Hispanic, some Asian-Americans, some Methodists, some Muslims. "Diversity" does not mean that at Princeton we have many students of below average intelligence, or many who are illiterate, or quite a few who are dying of AIDS. I will not go on with a list of the underprivileged but very real categories of world diversity, but I will ask you to think, as Princeton graduates, how you are and how you are not like everybody else in the world.

From the 18th century we have inherited in 18th-century language, the doctrine that "all men are created equal," and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," then enumerated as including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Incidentally, the feel-good phrase "the pursuit of happiness" was a last-minute substitution for "the possession of property," and it was a mistake. The pursuit of happiness is the stuff of dreamers. The possession of property is the stuff of lawyers.

The stealth appearance of the Deity in our Declaration of Independence has proved something of a political embarrassment, abused by some on the so-called religious right as a charter of theocracy and by others on the so-called secular left as, apparently, a typographical error. As a Christian believer, I am less bothered than some of my colleagues by Jefferson's mixing of genres. Our founders were wise legislators, and one mark of wisdom in a legislator is a healthy appreciation of what law cannot do, no less than of what it can do. Legislation could not make of the whole world a family of brothers and sisters. The recognition of the universal fatherhood of God one day might. Hence the messianic requirement to "respect the dignity of every human being" belongs where it is in the baptismal covenant, but not in the New Jersey statutes. Where do Princetonians stand with regard to the universal equality of all humankind?

I see from U.S. News and World Report that Princeton is an "elite" university. The specter of elitism has haunted all my years here. Who wants to be an elitist? Many of my faculty colleagues are appalled by elitism. They combat it valiantly by wearing blue jeans to work, by sharing first-name terms with their students, and by maintaining rigorous neutrality concerning the competing moral and aesthetic claims of "Paradise Lost" and "Spiderman III." But wait a minute. What "elite" means is chosen, selected or elected out of a group. Its adjectival synonym is "choice." An opening for an assistant professorship in the humanities here may garner several hundred applications, all of them from people with Ph.D.s. Of this group, four or five may be invited to campus for public ordeals not unlike the old Iberian autos-da-fé. This process yields one assistant professor who six years later in the tenure process faces a scrutiny yet more intensive. If she can walk on water there is a good chance she will at least be proposed for promotion by her department. The name then goes to a ferocious committee in Nassau Hall. Its members are all hyper-elites, but they do not act until they have weighed the solicited opinions of, literally, the greatest experts in the world. It's a little hard to credit that a successful candidate is actually just one of the boys and girls.

Not long ago I was on an appointments committee reading the recommendations of job candidates. Concerning a certain candidate one letter said that this person's work was "always exciting and often brilliant." The adverb "often" spelled his doom. What? Only often brilliant? Princeton professors are brilliant 24/7. Reee-jected! These are the professors who moan about the evils of "elitism."

And you people, you Class of Destiny, you are if anything even worse — meaning in this instance, naturally, even better. What it took to get into this institution is exceeded only by what it took you to get out. My career at Princeton was not paralyzed by self-doubt. I modestly considered myself capable of handling not merely my job, but any job in the place. But to one height I knew I could never ascend. I could never, ever have gained admission to the freshman class — yours, or any other Princeton class. I simply don't have what it takes. I had never done any of those things that you wrote about in the autobiographical statement of your admissions packet. I never backpacked through the Carpathians. I never made a papier-mâché model of the New York subway system. Not even with an unrusted nail did I perform an emergency tracheotomy on an asthmatic camel in the Gobi desert, thus saving myself and my companions from certain death. I did not in fact ghostwrite the enabling legislation for the most sweeping program of environmental remediation ever undertaken by the Ohio State legislature. My big "extracurricular" was the 4-H Club.

Under these circumstances I have always been awed by Princeton undergraduates. It didn't used to surprise me that a lot of them did very well in their course work. But the Class of Destiny had been here but a single year when the powers-that-be determined that you lacked one last full measure of elitism in the form of dog-eat-dog competitive grade grubbing. About a quarter or so of you transcendental geniuses ought to be getting C's. This was called "combating grade inflation." The combat was brief but sharp. In relation to its peers, Princeton was suddenly catapulted into a stratosphere of hyper-elitism. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, faster than the dollar has fallen against the euro, the Harvard "A" became the Princeton B+. The famous Yale "gentleman's C," that capacious and tolerant grade that has enabled the careers of our incumbent chief executive and so many other great American leaders of state and industry, disappeared from the Princeton scale altogether.

So I am afraid that your elite status is simply a fact beyond dispute. For the moment, you are the most elite Princetonians in history. And a Princeton degree comes in a package of privilege. As compared with most Americans you will make more money, enjoy better health, live in better housing, have better prospects for your children, go to the Caribbean more often and to the state penitentiary less often. Some of your privilege is defensible; much of it is not. For I am not describing social justice, just sociology, something altogether different. To deny the privilege is nonsense, to inveigh against it churlish and usually hypocritical. No, what you have to do is face up to it.

Some of you doubtless have parents who sometimes give you advice even when unsolicited. My mother, dead these 20 years, was such a parent. She used to say things like "You may live to regret that!" and "Handsome is as handsome does." Her apothegms annoyed me intensely. What annoyed me most of all was that what she said was invariably true. You may now marvel at the effortless transition or seamless segue with which I move to the heart of this Baccalaureate address, the true and annoying part. This involves the ancient maxim "Noblesse oblige." That meant, roughly, that social privilege demanded social obligation. The English version is that from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.

Last year, in an odd reversal, a comedian gave a fluffy Baccalaureate address, while a public figure, former President Bill Clinton, gave a very profound Class Day address. Its theme was not partisan; the Republican leader of the Senate, who was in the audience, applauded with abandon. Mr. Clinton asked the seniors to reflect on three questions. What kind of a world do you now live in? What kind of world would you like to live in? Finally, what are you — you personally — ready or able to do to move from that first world in the direction of the second?

I can suggest an approach to the first question. The world as a whole is very different from the one you view in this magnificent cathedral or will view from beneath the pleached canopy of front campus on Tuesday. For a very quick summary of the world you live in, you could do worse than visit the United Nations Millennium Development website.

I presume you have at least heard about the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the latest exhortation from that international body that we should address the terrible problems of poverty in much of the world. I shall mention only one goal, one of the easiest to understand. The second Millennium Goal, solemnly undertaken by the world's leaders, with our national leaders prominent among them, is that by the year 2015 — two Princeton student generations from today — every boy and girl in the world will have the opportunity to "complete a full course of primary education." If that's the goal, what is the current reality? The current reality is that in the developing world a quarter of the population — approaching a billion people — is illiterate. There are more than a hundred million children who never go to school at all. Nearly half the girls in the world's poorest countries have no access to any education.

I fear there is not a ghost of a chance of fulfilling this second goal by 2015. The problem is not money. The estimate is that it would cost about $10 billion a year. That is chump change. That is half of what Americans spend each year on ice cream. No, the problem is that my generation, though appalled by these statistics, is too tired, or too timid, or too distracted to come up with the requisite imagination and will. We don't want to live in a world where a hundred million kids have no chance to go to school, but we are leaving it up to you to do something about it.

Any of you who used to read my newspaper columns will remember, probably with the disapprobation that used to win me fulminating e-mails, that I am not your typical faculty pious liberal. So set aside for a moment everything preachy, warm and fuzzy about the second Millennium Goal. Think locally and even think selfishly. Is there anybody in this large audience who does not realize that universal primary education for the children of the world would be a far greater concrete contribution to the national security of the United States than is the war in Iraq? I hasten to add that I am not so simple minded as to think that the money, though a necessary prerequisite of a solution, is itself a solution. The world's mess, like the world's grandeur, is infinitely complex. Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. That great Virgilian line — "Happy is the one who can know the causes of things" — is carved over a mantle in Frick. It is a golden sentence, and it is addressed to you Destinarians, you physical scientists and you engineers, you probers of complex systems, and to you economists, and political and social scientists, you explorers of human community, and to also you historians and students of art and literature, cartographers of the human past and of the human heart.

One mark of the mature elite sensibility is the capacity to experience gratitude and the power to express it generously — in action as well as in word. So I hope even amid so much exuberant emotion you are grateful for this place and, above all to those in many generations whose support, encouragement and not infrequently sacrifice allowed you to be here. I myself leave the place realizing that for me it has been a kind of terrestrial paradise, surrounded as I have been with marvelous colleagues and marvelous students. For me the best that colleagueship has to offer is represented by my friend of 40 years, Robert Hollander '55, among the two or three elitest Danteiste in the world. Professor Hollander yesterday issued you an indirect challenge when he received the Alumni Council's top award for service to the University. Who in your class will be the first to merit that prize? And surely you can do it in less than the 52 years it took him.

In thanking you students, too, I must mention a few representatives of the larger whole. You probably have no idea what pleasure you bring to your classmates and faculty friends, quite apart from your official academic work, through your talents as displayed in public performances, of which I have seldom experienced fewer than three a week for the last four decades. I thank all of you Princeton athletes, and especially the members of the football and baseball teams, men's and women's basketball, women's softball — which happen to be the groups whose exertions I have most often viewed. I thank all you theater people, actors, designers, technicians, producers of plays, musicals, dance recitals, at "Intime," at 185 Nassau St., in the Berlind Theatre, in the college theaters. I thank all you writers and editors at The Daily Princetonian, the Nassau Weekly and the numerous fugitive literary magazines. My final and most special thanks go to the musicians — beginning with the Marching Band but (thank God!) not long lingering there. There are the many singing groups with cheesy names, like the Tigerspoofs and the Nassaloonies. Above all there are the amazingly accomplished classical musicians who have turned the Taplin Auditorium into a kind of permanent Princeton Festival, and who have created within the University a symphony orchestra that is the worthy peer of any to be found in the cultural centers of our country. One group — our superb Chapel Choir — is here to be thanked in person.

So, Class of Destiny, we must be on our separate ways. As you go, be sure to take with you not merely your diploma but your whole education. I shall hope to see you around. That is a platitude, but then this is a Baccalaureate address. Besides, it's a platitude plus. One of the particular pleasures of long service as a Princeton professor is that just about half the time I am in or on my way to a really interesting place, I am likely to have a chance meeting with an old Princeton student. I have had such encounters at the Louvre, at the Santa Fe opera, at the Cleveland art museum, on a jogger's trail in Holland Park, at a tiny trattoria in Siena. Sometimes these sudden meetings are as mysterious as they are strange. Once, in O'Hare Airport, a man in a business suit practically jumped over the security barrier to accost me. "Professor, uh, Professor!" he screamed. "You changed my life, Professor uh!" he continued, as the crowd formed. "You taught me 'Money and Banking!'" Well, I try to take the larger view. You cannot expect that a fellow who takes a course called "Money and Banking" when he is 19 years old will be particularly sharp when he is 49. Perhaps the firing of the synapses was slightly out of time, but the heart was in the right place. He knew that I was from Princeton, and that someone there had taught him something. Another time, in London, I was walking along the street next to one of those Victorian hospitals that look strikingly like the abandoned factories observable from the train just south of Secaucus Junction. A doctor in complete gear — green scrubs, rubber gloves, nifty hairnet and dangling stethoscope — rushed out of the building and accosted me. "Professor Fleming," he began, "you probably don't remember me, but. …" Chances of remembering him would have been slightly better without the surgical mask.

So, class of 2007, I shall hope to see you, unmasked, around the Rialto in Venice, or at Ankor Wat. I'll hope to see you in the Library of Congress, if you read books, and, if not, I can look for you in Congress itself. I shall hope to see you at Yankee Stadium, or maybe at the speaker's podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and naturally I'll be looking for you in the P-rade. Until then, Destinarians, take my advice: Be good. In Domino vos saluto. 

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