Inspiring Traditions and New Beginnings

Harold T. Shapiro
Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and
President, Princeton University

Delivered at Opening Exercises
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey
September 10, 2000


Today, I would like to discuss with you, for a few short moments, how the hopes, aspirations and efforts of students like yourselves interact with the great traditions of this academic institution to produce an ever greater vibrancy within our university.

While Princeton is over 250 years old, its vitality continues to depend on an energetic and dynamic interaction between the old and the new, between tradition and change, between faculty and students, between friends and colleagues, and between the great ideas and cultural artifacts of the past and the new ideas and innovations that are so characteristic of contemporary life.

One of the defining features of a university is the opportunity to constantly renew itself. Each year we have a new opportunity to take the best of our past, add all the talents and energies that incoming students and faculty bring to the campus, and rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of a deeper knowledge of the world around us. This interaction between the past and the present, the faculty and students, can help lead us to a fuller understanding of ourselves and to a capacity to endow all our endeavors with greater meaning.

You are entering this university at a time of transition in your own lives. However, it is also a time of rapid change in societies everywhere.

Throughout the world, the revolution in information technologies has already dramatically altered the ways in which people think, and work, and interact with one another. An expanding global economy is bringing people together in ways that are blurring and even challenging traditional historical, political, cultural and ethnic identities. Moreover, contemporary reactions to these developments are sufficiently confused so that many are uncertain, for example, as to whether we are becoming more globalized or more particularized. Finally, we are only beginning to appreciate the extraordinary impact that new biological insights will have on human life and human society and the profound ethical questions they will pose.

It is within this exciting backdrop of change that all of us must prepare to draw inspiration from the past as we simultaneously find new ways to construct a life that is full of meaning to others and ourselves.

It is for this reason that we at Princeton have chosen to sustain a diverse academic community where intellectual life is both informed by tradition and inspired by a fuller understanding of previous human efforts, but whose fundamental commitments are to teaching, to the development of new knowledge, and to a deeper understanding of the human condition. As a result, we are committed to providing students an opportunity for both intellectual and personal growth and an academic and extracurricular life that supports this commitment.

This year we will celebrate two important events, one in the area of campus life and one in the area of education and scholarship, that symbolically reflect this dual commitment. In the area of campus life, we will celebrate a major new initiative that I believe will profoundly change the Princeton experience &emdash; in a very positive way &emdash; for all members of the University community. It is the opening this week of the Frist Campus Center. For the first time we will have a place where undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty, staff, and visitors can meet together for activities, for meals, for discussion, for fellowship and to attend performances in theatre, dance, music and film.

This is one of the most thoroughly thought-out projects that Princeton has ever undertaken, given that we started planning for it in about 1926. However, if you have seen Frist, I think you will agree with me that this exciting and vibrant place may even have been worth the wait. A remarkable architectural achievement by our alumnus, Robert Venturi, and his colleagues, it integrates an historic physics building, whose halls were once walked by Albert Einstein, with dramatic modern construction. It blends an array of dining, social and recreational spaces with classrooms, lecture halls and areas for student organizations, performance and quiet contemplation.

Frist was designed to host a heavy schedule and a broad range of activities, and yet we anticipate it will also serve as a magnet for informal interactions and impromptu conversations. You are the ones who will first enjoy Frist, and I hope that each of you will contribute to making it a true center of campus life. I hope that each of you will use this new venue to put aside time to enjoy new friends and to expand your horizons by learning about and from each other.

Your greatest opportunity here at Princeton, however, is to take advantage of the academic richness of this university. Princeton enjoys a worldwide reputation as a scholarly community. Each year our faculty and graduate students make many important and significant contributions to the world of scholarship. We are very proud in particular of the achievements of our graduate students and the great honor they have brought to this university.

In this respect, we will celebrate a very important moment in Princeton's history this year as we mark the centennial of our distinguished Graduate School, whose founding completed Princeton's transition from a small liberal arts college to a great modern university. Actually, in an informal way, graduate education at Princeton has a much longer lineage. In fact, James Madison, of the undergraduate class of 1771, is generally considered to be Princeton's first graduate student, having stayed on past his commencement to study Hebrew and ethics with President Witherspoon.

Today, the Graduate School is a primary force in the intellectual life of the campus, and our talented graduate students are, with their faculty mentors, leading a new generation of pioneers in so many areas of discovery.

For our entering students, Princeton will offer you a wealth of opportunities ... a tremendous array of academic offerings and extracurricular activities, a chance to establish lifelong friendships and an empowering mandate to serve others.

Above all, however, I hope your experience at Princeton will help you avoid the dilemma faced by the Peanuts cartoon character Charlie Brown. Let me set the particular scene I have in mind. Charlie and Linus were on a cruise ship. Charlie was explaining to Linus that some passengers liked to position their deck chairs looking forward to see where they were heading, while other passengers positioned their deck chairs looking towards the stern so they could see where they had been. As Linus was trying to figure out what this all meant regarding one's philosophy of life, Charlie went on to explain that his own dilemma in life was that he could not figure out how to unfold his deck chair!

One of the central objectives of a Princeton education is to enable each of you to unfold your deck chair and place it in a manner that enables you to look forward thoughtfully because of your understanding of where we have all been.

However, beyond all this, it is my greatest hope that your Princeton education will give you the desire and ability to engage in the kind of vigorous moral discourse that gives meaning to all our lives. In your years on this campus, as your knowledge blossoms, so correspondingly will your power to effect change, and as a direct consequence your ethical responsibilities to the well being and interests of others will increase. Opportunity and responsibility are companions in life's journey.

As one's knowledge and opportunities grow so too do one's ethical responsibilities. New opportunities give us an ethical obligation to concern ourselves with the interests of others, to focus on what we will create next, what role we will assume in the future, how we can prepare ourselves for the task ahead, and how dedicated we will be to its achievement. Each of you will have to decide how you will fulfill these obligations and how you will prepare yourselves to live moral, ethical, productive and fruitful lives in the world beyond our campus gates.

Each year we think carefully about the music that is played during Opening Exercises since music, even older music, can speak so directly to our experiences, to our feelings, and to our understanding. As George Eliot noted, "Music seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain." Great music like great literature can be transforming, and we certainly hope your years at Princeton will, at least in part, be transforming for all of you.

You may have recognized that today's processional music, as well as the music for the Hymn we sang at the beginning of these Exercises, came from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony &emdash; a watershed work in the history of Western music, which not only introduced the human voice into the world of the symphony, but was a fitting culmination of Beethoven's ethical and symphonic achievements.

Beethoven's was one of the most compelling musical voices to emerge from the revolutionary social and political upheavals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the music of what has come to be called his "heroic style" has always been heard not only as the sound of emancipation through struggle, but as an acknowledgment of the difficulty and glory of efforts long sustained in a worthy cause. That is why the Ninth Symphony was featured in a famous concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Ninth Symphony demonstrated that music can be heard as expressing humankind's highest hopes -- a kind of universal idealism -- which is one of the reasons that I wanted it played at today's Opening Exercises.

While the expansive nature of Beethoven's music has accommodated a wide variety of interpretations of this work, from militaristic and political motifs to themes of peace and freedom, I associate the music of his Ninth Symphony with the forces and themes of progress, modernity, and individualism that have done so much to create the modern world and shape the modern university.

In a manner of speaking, Schiller, the great German dramatist, poet and literary theorist and a contemporary of Beethoven, also has an indirect presence at this year's Opening Exercises. It was Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" that Beethoven used in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. I bring this up as an excuse to mention one of my favorite quotes. Schiller had the following to say about literature: "Only literature…occupies head and heart, insight and wit, reason and imagination in a harmonious bond." For myself, music has similar possibilities. Whether or not literature or even music can accomplish all that for each of you, I cannot say, but I hope your experience at Princeton will allow you to bring your ability for thoughtful and reasoned analysis closer and closer together with your capacity for imagination and feeling, and I hope that during your time at Princeton you will forge many different types of what Schiller referred to as harmonious bonds.

Finally, I would like to say that I understand that your next years at Princeton are bound to be a time of hard work, expanding horizons, and many new achievements. It will be a time of accomplishments, new friendships found and old values reconsidered. It will also be a time, however, that will call on your endurance in order to achieve your objectives. In these contexts the great cultural artifacts of the past, such as Beethoven's impassioned works, can continue to provide inspiration and to hold new meaning for you and all of us.

Despite the many achievements that have marked Princeton's history, we are focused on the future. We are inspired by what we have done, but we are most excited and energized about what we may do together in the years ahead. We are awed not by who we are, but by a vision of what we might become. Likewise, although we are inspired by the many accomplishments of those who join Princeton's academic community this year, we are energized by what you all may do to alter the complexion of your lives, this community and the world beyond.

As you set forth today on your academic careers at Princeton, I do hope you will be open to, indeed will seek out, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, and even on occasion the uncomfortable. You are not here to chart an easy course but to take intellectual and creative risks. You are not here to replicate your past experiences, but to have new ones, in the company of others who will support you, challenge you, befriend you and significantly enrich your lives.

I hope that each of you will take full advantage of the new beginnings that are available to you at this juncture in your lives and in the life of this institution. I hope, too, that your education and experience here at Princeton will not only prepare you for your life's work but inspire you to create a life full of meaning.

We are glad that you are joining us, and, once again, we welcome you most warmly.

-- Harold T. Shapiro