Office of Communications
Stanhope Hall
Princeton, New Jersey 08544-5264
Telephone 609-258-3601; Fax 609-258-1301

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601, mmarks@princeton.edu

Lillian Beatrix Pierce: Valedictory Address

June 4, 2002
Princeton University Class of 2002

Thank you. I am grateful to be face to face with the class of 2002 today, but it is the view all of you have right now of Nassau Hall that is one of my favorite sights from these four years at Princeton. I used to pass by here once in a while late at night in the winter with a hot cup of coffee, and I'd just stand still for a few minutes, drinking my coffee and looking at Nassau Hall, thinking with persistent awe, "This is Princeton."

So standing here again in front of Nassau Hall makes me feel like I should give you something eloquent, learned, even monumental. But unfortunately, I was a math major. We're not supposed to learn how to be eloquent. And I'm too small to be monumental. Besides, Shelley's Ozymandius is warning enough for anyone considering being a monument.

And of course, I'm far too young to be learned -- although it is true that all of us are leaving Princeton with fuller minds than we arrived with four years ago. The thing that surprises me is not that we've learned, but that we've learned to play with knowledge. With my friends, with my professors, I engage continually in intellectual exchanges that are fundamentally based on playfulness, a kind of informed silliness.

For example, a math professor once gave us this problem: Can you comb a hedgehog so that all its bristles lie down flat? Eventually I solved the problem, but in the process of struggling with it, I couldn't resist drawing a cartoon strip about a very unhappy hedgehog, showing exactly why you couldn't comb it. As I recall, the mathematician in my cartoon gave up and shaved the hedgehog instead.

Then again, an act of informed silliness could be something more ambitious. Returning to the important subject of hedgehogs, you may have seen Serra's sculpture "The Hedgehog and the Fox" over by the stadium: Three ribbons of rust-colored steel form two undulating parallel pathways large enough to hide in. If you've seen it, what did it make you think? I've pictured a piece, for two violins, based on the sequence of a gene from human DNA. We'd perform it, one violinist in each channel of the sculpture, playing a melodic sequence corresponding to the base pairs, racing to the end of the gene.

Sometimes I'm fooled by someone else's intellectual playfulness. An unsuspecting former student came to visit in one of my English classes and the teacher, ordinarily far from facetious, introduced her as a specialist in the language and culture of the Hittites, a civilization with the earliest recorded Indo-European language. Well, I was a little surprised that someone in her twenties apparently dressed for the beach was there to lecture on the Hittites, but it seemed only appropriate to greet her in the correct tongue. So I said "Huiswants es." That was in fact the only phrase of Hittite that I knew.

I don't know who was more puzzled by the confusion that ensued: me, my teacher, who had been joking with us and was fairly certain that his former student knew nothing whatsoever about the Hittites, or the visitor herself -- who looked at me in mute consternation. All I'd said was "Hello" in Hittite. Actually I really admire this compact Hittite phrase. "Huiswants es" was used as both a greeting and a farewell. Literally, it means "be alive."

After I noticed a tendency toward this particular sort of playfulness in myself and in my friends and teachers, I began to see that such playfulness was everywhere, practiced not only by freshmen in college, but by masters in every domain of human inquiry.

John Kenneth Galbraith disguising himself as Mark Epernay in his spoof The McLandress Dimension, or Jorge Louis Borges writing reviews of imaginary books. Matisse, in his wheelchair, wielding Brobdingnagian shears to shape gouache coated papers when he had grown too weak to paint, or Paul Klee and Gunther Schuller creating their Twittering Machines, one in paint, one in music. Also, the National Security Agency providing complementary juggling balls for its mathematicians, or the cartoonist Sidney Harris commenting on the super nova versus the pretty good nova. Then there's Peter Schickele fabricating PDQ Bach, that colossal musical in-joke. Or here at Princeton, Quipfire, arch sings, Triangle, innovative Shakespeare.

Perhaps you noticed that there are no women on this list of notables. I noticed too. I hope we are in an era when women will feel the bravado to be as playful in the arena of scholarship as they are prodigiously accomplished.

Now what is this erudite absurdity, this reverent cheekiness good for? First, I think it is fun! Second, when I begin to play with a subject, I know that at last I am also beginning to understand it. Third, this sort of banter has created the camaraderie with others and the continual renewal of energy and curiosity that have allowed me to engage in the sustained effort of these four years at Princeton.

Next year, some of us will be wearing suits. Others (like me) won't be able to resist the disheveled garb of college life, while some of us will wear lab coats, military fatigues, or even the Olympic uniform. Some of us will need to remember exactly what was said about blastopores in Molecular Biology 214, and some of us won't. Some of us will need to know how Churl the Hammer, son of Pepin of Herstal and grandfather of

Charlemagne, altered Europe by winning the Battle of Tours in the year 732. Some of us might even need to know how to play a lysarden. Most of us will not.

But all of us are beginning the longest sustained effort of all: our adult lives. I believe that engaging in this kind of exploratory thought laced with humor will be perpetually helpful. We're lucky to be able to get the jokes, and to be able to make some of our own. Princeton has given us this.

To our professors, our deans, President Tilghman and President Shapiro, to our parents, our grandparents, our siblings, our friends, thank you. And to the Class of 2002, my best wishes for the future, or as the Hittites would have said:

Huiswants es.

top     back     home