Princeton University's 2012 Hooding Remarks
Posted June 4, 2012; 06:45 p.m.
2012 Hooding Remarks
June 4, 2012 — As Prepared
Dean Russel, distinguished faculty and guests, and especially you degree recipients who today are being formally initiated into the global 1 percent — more about which in a moment.
It is my privilege to inflict upon you the last lecture you must endure at Princeton. The last, and briefest. Brevity is not only the soul of wit — and the essence of lingerie — it is mandatory on occasions such as this, when the speaker stands between eager young people and the world that is, they are sure, their oyster.
The world is, indeed, a welcoming place for you to whom Princeton has given a large ability to add value to the world, which you will soon do. What I want to urge upon you is a particular stance toward the American society, or whichever society you come to call home. The stance I recommend — for your sake, and for society's sake — is one of modest elitism suitable to the intelligentsia in a democratic society.
My theme today is your relationship, and that of the elite you have joined, to a democratic society. My point is not to celebrate democracy; we have quite enough of such celebration already. Rather, my point is to urge you to keep in mind that you will do your life's work at the sufferance of democracy. So you should be prepared to consider how the people — the demos — perceive you.
Let me begin retrospectively.
When I graduated from Trinity College — 50 years ago this week — the baccalaureate speaker was my father, Frederick L. Will, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois. He took as his text, and took aim at, the just-published Webster's Third International Dictionary. It was more permissive — you might say more democratic — than Webster's Second edition. The Third International Dictionary's philosophy was:
If people have begun treating as interchangeable some words that really are not, well, let the people have their way. Vox populi, vox dei, and all that.
My father was particularly incensed that the new dictionary treated "disinterested" and "uninterested" as synonyms. My father thought the editor of the dictionary should be taught the difference by being hauled in front of an uninterested rather than a disinterested judge.
Today the democratic approach to the English language is causing the disappearance of the distinction between adjectives and adverbs. I do not know if you watch ESPN — I watch little else — but if you do, you constantly hear it said that some baseball player is pitching "excellent" — not "excellently" — and that some quarterback is passing "accurate" — not "accurately." It will be just a matter of time, and not much time, before anyone insisting on the distinction between adjectives and adverbs, or between "disinterested" and "uninterested," will be stigmatized as an elitist.
In fact, it is elitist to defend standards that are dismissed as out of date. As has been well said, standards are always out of date; that is why they are called standards. Which is why it is the business of elites to uphold them.
Elitism is not a vice; it is not even optional. The question in any society is not whether elites will rule; rather, the question is which elites will rule. Today, with momentum imparted by Princeton, you ascend into the nation's and the world's intellectual upper crust. But this lofty position is not as secure or enviable as it was for preceding generations.
In the 44 years since I received my Princeton Ph.D., one of the most striking developments has been the estrangement of the academic world from the larger American society that still sustains academia, but might not do so forever. This estrangement derives, in part, from the fact that the interests of the intelligentsia, and the language in which these interests are discussed, have become unnecessarily unintelligible — even to educated laymen.
Increasingly, the intelligentsia seems to have gone to earth on campuses, where it talks to itself, and only to itself, in the private language of a clerisy. Hence mutual incomprehension has grown between the academy and the society. As a result, each side adopts an adversarial stance toward the other. This is unhealthy and unnecessary.
It is unhealthy because unless society maintains respect for what the intelligentsia is doing, society will not generously use its surplus to sustain the intelligentsia. And an adversarial stance is unnecessary because, no matter how recondite your labors may be, and no matter how arcane some of the language you use in those labors, it must be possible to communicate to the supporting society why its support is merited.
Most of all, you should be able to communicate the sheer fun of the intellectual life. Concerning this fun, let me give an example concerning something that was, I dimly recall, important to my life at the Graduate School in the mid-1960s. That something was beer.
The founder of one of Princeton's sister institutions, the University of Pennsylvania, Ben Franklinm said, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Perhaps.
Be that as it may, it is arguable that civilization — of which Princeton is, of course, the pinnacle — was created by beer. Indeed, the Discovery Channel has so argued in a program titled "How Beer Saved the World." Watching it, the scales fell from my eyes.
The argument begins with some actual evidence that humanity, which had its priorities correct from the start, began brewing beer before it began baking bread.
For 3 million years, give or take a bunch, human beings went about the business of evolving from lower primates. And they did so without the assistance and comfort of alcohol.
By about 100,000 years ago they were recognizably human, more or less, but had not developed agriculture. To find food, they had to keep moving around as hunter-gatherers to find food. Occasionally they gathered wild barley.
One day, according to the beer-centric theory of civilization, when some hunters were away hunting, rain fell on some barley they had stored in clay pots. The rain made the barley soggy, which was bad. But it also — with the help of natural sugars and other ingredients of the grain — started fermentation, which was very good indeed.
The hunters came home thirsty from their exertions. They took a sip of the fluid in the clay pots. And humanity's era of involuntary sobriety came to an end, forever.
One sip led to another, and to the desire for a steady supply of beer. This required lots of barley, which required systematic agriculture. So humanity foreswore its nomadic ways, settled down, and developed the plow and irrigation.
And humanity developed the wheel for carts to get surplus barley to markets.
And humanity developed writing to record such commercial transactions at the markets.
And humanity developed mathematics to enable land sales and other commercial computations.
Eventually, humanity even developed the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All this to keep the beer flowing.
An inscription on an Egyptian tomb says that 1,000 jugs of beer is about the right amount to take into your tomb as provision for the afterlife. The toiling masses who built Egypt's pyramids were paid in beer chits; these were sort of early debit cards. Beer was not only a staple food and a kind of currency, it also was a medicine. Traces of the antibiotic tetracycline were found by puzzled archeologists in mummified bones in Egypt. Yes, several millennia before tetracycline was invented — or so we thought — in 1948, it was a residue of beer.
Beer also rescued the Middle Ages from one of that era's worse scourges — water. Living long before the formulation of the germ theory of disease, people in the Middle Ages drank pond water fouled by human sewage, defecating ducks, butchers' offal and other unhealthy stuff.
Brewing, however, removed many micro-organisms that made people sick. So people back then drank an average of 300 liters of beer a year — six times today's consumption by American adults.
Speaking of America, this nation was, of course, founded on beer. Within two years of the founding of Jamestown in 1608, that settlement wrote to London asking that a brewer be sent out because "water-drinkers" were no basis for a colony.
The Mayflower, which set out for the New World carrying a lot more beer than water, was actually searching for a landing much farther south but it put passengers ashore in what would become Massachusetts because, according to William Bradford's journals, "our victuals being much spent, especially beer."
America also was founded by brewers of beer — including Sam Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The greatest Princetonian, James Madison, who arguably was Princeton's first graduate student, relaxed his aversion to big government enough to suggest that the federal government should run a national brewery as a means of weaning Americans off whisky.
Beer was crucial to the American Revolution because taverns were the Internet of the day — a communications network. It was in Boston's Green Dragon tavern in 1773 that some beer-drinking patriots decided to go down to the harbor and toss cases of tea into the water.
The new nation needed a national anthem and got one when Francis Scott Key put new words to an old drinking song. The song, which everyone knows is difficult to sing, sometimes had served as a sobriety test: If you could sing it, you could have another tankard of beer.
Before milk was pasteurized, beer was. Beer could spoil because it was alive. It contained a hitherto unknown life form, bacteria, which could make beer sick — and people, too. Hence the cornerstone of modern medicine-germ theory flowed, so to speak, from beer.
So did the factory system, for which Henry Ford is mistakenly given credit. The factory system was devised for the production of beer bottles, which led to the automation of the glass industry. This hastened the end of child labor, which was especially prevalent in that industry.
Lager became America's favorite beer, and because lager must be brewed slowly and cold, the national thirst for beer spurred the invention of refrigeration, which solved mankind's perennial problem of food storage.
Making brewing more efficient led to a supply of beer that exceeded demand. So, to enlarge demand, beer gave rise to advertising, which led to the television series "Mad Men."
I could go on, but you get my point.
I have just assigned to beer the role usually played by God — that of being the first cause of all good things, any list of which would certainly include Princeton. But my brief and beer-centric history of civilization is intended to be playful in order to underscore the point that the life of the mind should be fun — even playful.
And the fun should be infectious: The world beyond the gates of our campuses, the world of taxpayers and other supporters, should be able to see that what they are supporting — what they are making possible — is pleasant and attractive.
Now, in my history of civilization as a by-product of beer, I have exaggerated somewhat and simplified a bit. Never mind. The things I have just said about beer and everything else may be true or may be false or may be a bit of both. But all the propositions I just uttered are testable.
Testable by inquiring minds, of the sort Princeton produces — minds weighing evidence from the physical and social sciences. And, because I have cast beer in a role competitive with the Deity, the minds of theologians should be involved. All those minds should be able to explain to the interested society what they are working on and why it matters.
Which is why I hope that you will consider it your vocation to reconnect America's intellectual One Percent with the nation's civic life. A lot depends on this reconnection, including the nation's willingness to devote a generous portion of its scarce resources to the institutionalized elitism of its great teaching and research institutions, including Princeton.
I do not know what brought each of you to Princeton. I know that my connection began for reasons that perhaps were not properly serious. My connection to Princeton began because of the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the spring of 1964, while finishing my second and final year at Oxford, I successfully applied to a distinguished law school, and to the Princeton philosophy department's doctoral program. I had been in England for two years and was ravenous for baseball, so I chose Princeton because it is located midway between two National League cities. Otherwise I would today be a lawyer. Talk about life's close calls.
I intended to be an academic, and briefly was, until I turned to journalism — or, as my professor father put it, before I sank to journalism. For many of you, your professional trajectory is clear. For others, there will be unanticipated destinations.
All of you, however, will, I hope, feel one constant. I hope you will feel forever connected to Princeton — and especially to your academic departments — by cords of affection and gratitude.
There is a way for you to reciprocate Princeton's affection for you, and to repay your intellectual debts to this institution. It is by remaining involved with the University here, and with others who have gone forth from the Graduate School to seed the world with trained intelligence.
Fifty years ago, when Yale conferred upon President Kennedy an honorary degree, Kennedy said: Now I have the best of possible combination — a Harvard education and a Yale degree. The president was mistaken.
You receiving your hoods today have the best the world has to offer — a Princeton degree attesting to a Princeton education.
Let your good fortune be manifested in your endless involvement with this University.
That said, only this remains to be said: Congratulations. Enjoy your membership in the intellectual 1 percent.
Now, go forth from here and have a beer. You have earned it.