The Place of the Idea; The Idea of the Place

as delivered by
Toni Morrison
Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities
at Princeton's 250th anniversay convocation
October 25, 1996

This is a singular honor for me, but it's also a daunting assignment, one I thought would be more easily assumed by someone accustomed to making speeches about policy or education, rather than an artist. Trying to say something pertinent, something original about an institution so permanently lodged in the history of high learning and the history of the nation seemed to me quite hopeless.

While wondering how to launch these remarks, I began to look through works of other writers, poets and novelists, and I turned at one point to William Wordsworth hoping to find suitably elegiac lines. I hoped those of us gathered here by simple love of the place and allegiance to its mission would be receptive to some meditation on genius loci--the "spirit of the place"--Wordsworth's eloquent use of the conceit that certain sites, natural sites, held genii which "spoke" to the contemplative passerby.

I found nothing really appropriate for this occasion, or at least for my remarks. But during the search I was reminded that part of the significance of Wordsworth's inscription of places as sources of revelation lies in what one scholar calls the "continuum of the wisdom of the dead and the energy of the living" [Geoffrey Hartmann]. In other words, the spirit of the place is animated by a reverence for the past that is forever mitigated by the present.

It became an understanding that furnished me with an opportunity to think of Princeton as two orders of continuum: the personal and the public. To think of Princeton, for those who have experienced it, as a place of private memory which colors and organizes their everyday life, and then of Princeton as a place of collective public memory--which is to say history--which has helped shape the nation's life.

In the first instance Princeton is a subjective experience of the place itself. Just remembering those trees down there, on Witherspoon Street--how they reach across the pavement and the shops and the pedestrians to touch each other. How beneath their heads the street lights are shy and so, if you are there in spring at twilight, falling petals cover the walkers and the road like snowflakes in December. In the second instance Princeton is a place fixed in public memory as continuum, as part of the history of the nation. Take, for example, another street--that one, Nassau Street. Once it was the King's Highway, later named after the House of William III, now a modern avenue of commerce. But once, much, much longer ago, it was the trail of indigenous Americans, the Leni-Lenape.

In private memory this place is its halls, its library, its chapel worn to satin by the encounters and collaborations among and between strangers from other neighborhoods and strangers from other lands. It is friend-ships secured and endangered on greens and in classrooms, offices, eating clubs, residences. It is stimulating rivalries negotiated in laboratories, lecture halls and sports arenas. Every doorway, every tree and turn is haunted by peals of laughter, murmurs of loyalty and love, tears of pleasure and sorrow and triumph.

Yet woven into these instances of private memory are other more complicated ones that are the property of public memory: The FitzRandolph Gateway locked for years and then unlocked for more years. Ivy constantly trimmed to reveal and commemorate the ravages of a Revolutionary war. The policy duels (as well as one physical one) of presidents, statesmen, captains of mighty industries.

This place--it is redolent with the breath of the emotional life lived here and the intellectual life made manifest here. "The wisdom of the dead and the energy of the living" merge to become a tradition that informs the present and shapes the future.

When in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln told Congress that the "dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present," he was referring to a Civil War waged to suture the wide cut, the open wound of an already sundered Union. And when he followed that observation with "We cannot escape history," the connotation of the term, history, summoned the future. Lincoln was alluding to history's future judgment on how and whether the nation could separate dogma from its own past and regard history as events in progress.

The founders of Princeton who preceded that speech by 116 years knew well, better perhaps than the founders of any American institution of high learning of the time, the necessity of being open to the unforseeable. For as Woodrow Wilson said, those founders "had no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists." But it was clear that they were determined to enter history--not as into a sepulcher but as into a torrent of contemporary affairs. They were determined to make a place where views different from the authoritarian synod, views considered radical, apostate at the time, would prepare young men for whatever might be asked of them in the service of their God, their conscience and their province.

Princeton was the place of the independent idea. The place where conscience was prized above orthodoxy. The place of the dissenting idea. Not dissent for its own sake, dissent as style, as fashion or dissent as self-aggrandizement, but dissent over what was foundational, complex and urgent to the health of the citizenry: the thrust of an individual's spiritual and intellectual life. In the 1740s that was indeed a risky proposition. Some, I am sure, believed it an arrogant one--and they may have been right, it was arrogant. But if so, it was the arrogance of a sublime idea, not a pedantic one; it was the arrogance of a generous idea, not a self-satisfying one.

It's hard now to imagine how fresh were the terms in which those men spoke of spiritual life, of their God; how intense were the political debates, the metaphysical arguments they advanced; how intense the enemies they must have infuriated, and the envy they surely aroused. To put forward, without established support, a position so unpopular among colonial educators must have seemed reckless, reckless indeed. Yet it was that very independence that helped make Princeton "a national place before there was a nation" [Don Oberdorfer].

When Aaron Burr Sr. succeeded the short tenure of his predecessors and moved the college from Newark, the chosen place was the village of Princeton, a choice that reinforced its independence, its insistence upon making its own way. Although, or perhaps because, the place was far from meddling distraction, it was an environment ideally suited to forging the affairs of a new nation. This hall from which I speak, Nassau Hall, with its original occupants, its site as the meeting place of the first state legislature of New Jersey, as well as the Continental Congress of 1783, bears witness to the stamina, the prescience of the originating idea taking root in hospitable soil.

I have a personal interest in the translation of tradition, of history, into a livable present and a civilized future. I have personal interests in methods by which histories are disrupted, how intervention can extinguish cultural memory or drive it underground to avoid eclipse. Thus the 250 year trajectory of this "experiment" in higher education has great significance for me. I am intrigued by the ways in which the independent idea, the dissent from orthodoxy plays out over time; how it is preserved or altered; and how the place of its birth is both conserved and made new. There are in this country parallel histories of the same nativity, with the same agenda of freedom, with other landscapes struggling for preservation and for new life.

Universities play a powerful mnemonic role. Their fields, their campuses, are dotted with figures and plaques of bronze, stone and marble--with botanical life to keep memory alive. But universities are not memorabilia; they're not mausoleums. So while Princeton remains legitimately enthralled with the place of the idea, it must continue to be equally faithful to the idea of the place.

The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge. The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it. The idea of the place despises those forces in academic institutions so fearful of independent thought, so alarmed by challenge they prefer oblivion, irrelevance rather than shoulder the hard responsibilities of change.

The place of the idea represents the value of tradition, of independence; the idea of the place is its insightful grasp of the future. Negotiating those two ideas, conservation and change, is no small matter. It demands work; it demands work and intelligence of the highest order. And they're not necessarily adversarial ideas, and even when they appear so that irreconcilability is the clash that stirs inquiry and fosters knowledge.

There are few places, very few places left, other than great universities, where (to paraphrase my earlier quote) both the wisdom of the dead coupled with the doubt of the living are vigorously encouraged, welcomed, become the very stuff of education, the pulse of teaching, the engine of research, the con-sequence of learning. No faculty member worth the profession has ever taken for granted as fixed truth or fiat all he or she has learned. The nature of our profession is to doubt, to expand, to enhance, to review, to interrogate. But no faculty member is able to question in a vacuum or is fired to innovate, to create because she or he is interested in erasing the inheritance, the authority of her discipline.

No student is expected to be content with the acquisition of data, of information. It is demanded of her to move beyond the stasis of what is known to what is knowable; toward more and other knowledge, knowledge that might one day contribute to the wisdom of the past.

Tradition is not there to bedevil us. It is there for us. It is not there to arrest us; it is there to arouse us. That is the continuum; that is the reconcilability of tradition and the future.

Because the date of this celebration of 250 years is so close to year 2000, because the tenure of a class already enrolled will end at year 2000, this Charter Day marks the beginning of a new century. It is appropriate, therefore, to have millenniumistic thoughts--large millenniumistic thoughts. What will Princeton be at its Quincentennial celebration? By then it will have seen 250 years of the third millennium.

What form will the idea of the place have taken then? Will its proud legacy of service to the nation be narrowed by then, narrowed to holding public office and wielding private power? Will the entitled still be worried about entitlements? Will gates again be locked? Will the mission have stumbled because the constituency has changed? Will instruction be executed solely in solitude by the isolated handling of sophisticated new machines? Will departments and intellectuals have closed themselves off from the great and tumultuous issues of that future day? Will those hired to guide students to meet those challenges recoil from the difficulty and recreate instead the moribund world of their desire? Will chests swell at the success of having preserved the place and the idea in amber? Will that generation of educators be telling students that not only was everything better before they were born, but that everything before their birth will always be better; that the best they can hope for their future is to clone a former generation's past?

Or will Princeton continue to do what it has done so brilliantly, so often in the past century and a half? Revel in the fact that its taproot was fed by the waters of civil dissent, has been nurtured by sound learning and respect for heterogeneous discourses on the dominant philosophical views of the world.

The evidence of these celebrations, based on the initiatives announced, the quality of the symposia and conferences held, the arts on display--the evidence is convincing. Princeton at its Quincentennial will still follow its principal and noblest dictates and continue to wage war for the liberation of power, not just its transfer. It will continue to do what has made it legend and unique among the country's great universities: remain steadfast in its insistence that a premier liberal arts education requires students and faculty to face each other in what Woodrow Wilson described as "personal conference and intimate counsel."

The evidence of these recent years and under recent and current leadership is unassailable: no priorities will go unmet in enabling this institution to make as constructive a difference in the larger community as it does in the lives of each and every student, regardless of that student's resources; in assuring the best physical environment for staff, faculty and students; in assembling the best scholars and artists in the world; and in enhancing its global influence.

On the other hand, if Princeton University has abandoned the principles upon which the College of New Jersey was founded, then whoever stands here in front of this great, historical hall at the Quincentennial, will be speaking of a "virtual" university: a package of attitudes and preferences emanating from souvenirs and images and longing. Where complacent leadership proved not only unsuitable for the education of the nation's children; it proved dangerous to them.

"Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows" [Alfred North Whitehead].

Princeton's poise rests on its tradition of independence. Princeton's subtlety lies in its ability to revise itself. Its strength is knowing what its founders knew, that service to the individual, to the government, to the world requires unwavering commitment to intellectual freedom, a fierce commitment to virtues already being debased by apathy: virtues such as integrity and honor and fair play and courage.

In the years to come, between now and the 250 years that will pass before the Quincentennial that I am imagining, the world may be overwhelmed by fear and mediocrity, by xenophobia and mendacity. Then universities alone may very well be the last preserve of free thought, of independent inquiry, of simple caring for.

Princeton's proud history is that it was the first of such havens. Its bright future is that it will always be.

Please join me in celebration of and re-dedication to--This place. This idea.