President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Opening Exercises: Embarking on a Grand Adventure
October 10, 2007
On September 16, we marked the beginning of a new academic year and welcomed the newest members of the Princeton family with Opening Exercises in the University Chapel and a freshman “Pre-rade” in front of Nassau Hall. In my address, I reflected on the intellectual surprises that play such an important role in scholarship and research, drawing on examples from my own and other faculty’s experience. Here is part of what I said. — S.M.T.
These Opening Exercises mark the beginning of the new school year, but much more importantly they mark the beginning of a grand adventure for all of you. Walking down the aisle of the chapel this afternoon, looking into your faces, I am struck by the enormous potential that resides in each and every one of you, and what a tremendous opportunity you now have, in this truly privileged place, to pursue your dreams and to soar. I look forward to watching you realize the dreams you have brought with you to Prince-ton, and discover new ones, making our campus and, in time, the world a better place for your having been here.
Now I use the word “adventure” advisedly, as opposed to something more somber, such as “educational experience” or, heaven forbid, “training for a profession.” If you are even half as talented as we think you are, your next four years will be filled with exuberant engagement and exploration—with ideas, with members of the faculty, and with your fellow students. Princeton’s unique curriculum reflects its twin missions—to educate the next generation of leaders and to discover new knowledge. This is a research university, after all, but what is unique about Princeton is that these two aspirations of education and scholarship are so intertwined that you truly cannot tell when one ends and the next begins. Starting with your freshman seminar and concluding with your senior thesis, you will be preparing not just to gain command of a body of knowledge, but to add to it as well.
The best part of an adventure of learning and discovery is that it often leads to surprises. It is common to start out with a hypothesis, or a supposition, or a thematic idea, and conclude with your understanding completely transformed. Let me give you some examples, beginning with one of my own. When I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the late 1970s, I set my sights on understanding the mammalian genome, that is, understanding how information encoded in genes—the blueprint of each organism—is organized within the DNA of our chromosomes. To simplify the problem, I was developing recombinant DNA technology that would allow me to sift through the roughly 3 billion bases of DNA in the mouse genome to find the few thousand bases that encoded a single gene—the one that encoded for the red cell protein hemoglobin—truly a needle-in-a-haystack problem. If someone had asked me before I began what I expected the structure of the hemoglobin gene to be, I would have quickly said that it would look just like its product, hemoglobin messenger RNA. I would have based my reasoning on what we knew at the time about the organization of genes in much simpler organisms like bacteria and viruses.
With that expectation firmly in mind, I was thunderstruck when I finally succeeded in isolating the gene and examined its structure in an electron microscope. It looked nothing like I expected. In fact, it was twice as long as the messenger RNA because it contained two extra segments of DNA that interrupted the messenger RNA coding sequences. My first reaction was “How did they get there? Why weren’t they transcribed into messenger RNA?” Did I make a terrible mistake when I cloned the gene?” Once all the artifactual explanations were excluded, I was left with only one conclusion—that the mammalian genome was organized in a completely different manner than bacterial genomes, and that biochemical machinery must exist to delete those extra bases before the mature messenger RNA was sent to the cytoplasm to be translated into hemoglobin protein. Thus the field of RNA splicing was born.
Surprises are not restricted to scientific research, but arise in virtually every field of scholarship. Several years ago Professor of Sociology and Public and International Affairs Katherine Newman began a research project with her colleagues to understand the pathosociology of school shootings, which had been mysteriously on the rise in the 1990s. In her groundbreaking book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Professor Newman describes a careful ethnographic study of school shootings in Kentucky and Arkansas that overturned conventional wisdom about these tragic events. Her first surprise came when she examined where school shootings occur—in small towns, not big cities. As she said to me, “We often think of small town America as the epitome of what sociologists call ‘social capital,’ with interlocking networks of parents and children, friends and neighbors whose high levels of trust and communication ensure that deviant behavior will be monitored.” But when Professor Newman looked at the distribution of these tragedies in the United States, she found that they were almost always taking place in exactly these kinds of small communities, not in big cities, which we normally associate with street violence and the prevalence of firearms.
Her explanation was even more surprising. It turns out that there is a dark underbelly to social capital that inhibits adults from circulating information about troubled kids. They do not want to risk the loss of friends by acting as the bearer of bad news about a neighbor’s children. The tight-knit quality of adult friendships and the geographic isolation leaves them with few alternatives for making new friends, and thus the fear of rejection is far greater than it is for city dwellers. Likewise, small town shooters, who often act out of a feeling of marginalization and ridicule from their peers, have no other place to turn in a small town for friendship or for solace. In describing her work, Professor Newman reflected, “Social scientists learn that they have to turn their assumptions inside out and consider every alternative, testing it against the empirical data they collect. And sometimes that discovery process leads to counterintuitive conclusions that make a genuine difference in the way we understand the world we live in.”
Let me give you another example from the work of Professor of Music Simon Morrison. His biggest research surprise happened when he least expected it—during his work on a biography of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. In preparing to write about Prokofiev’s most famous ballet, Romeo and Juliet, he was not expecting to learn much that was new, as a great deal had already been written about this ballet. On the other hand, he had recently been granted sole access to the composer’s papers in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, and he was intrigued by a strange legend that Prokofiev had conceived Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, only to face such a storm of ridicule over the idea that he discarded it in favor of the traditional tragic ending.
Professor Morrison discovered in the archives that Prokofiev had indeed written a happy ending, with glorious music and instructions for the orchestration and staging that had never seen the light of day. So what happened to this version? Well, Professor Morrison discovered that it was censured in 1935 by Soviet cultural officials and that Prokofiev had then composed a tragic ending against his will. If he had not done so, the archive revealed, the ballet would not have been approved for performance. In the words of Professor Morrison, “The ballet was no longer familiar to me. Exploring its history reminded me that academic research always has the potential to make the known unknown and that archival documents are tremendous storytellers. They might be dust-covered, but they live and breathe, much like the title characters of Prokofiev’s ill-starred ballet.”
A final example of encountering the unexpected in the course of academic exploration comes from the work of Professor of Economics and Public and International Affairs Alan Krueger. Like all of us, he heard many statements of political leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that terrorists are impoverished, poorly educated people who attack out of desperation. But to a labor economist like Professor Krueger, such statements were making an economics argument without any empirical evidence. So he and his colleagues set out to test whether poverty or inadequate education could explain the genesis of terrorism.
Their short answer is no. In his new book, entitled What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, Professor Krueger reports his careful research conclusions that most terrorists are from reasonably well-off families and that many are well-educated. Further, terrorists are not more likely to originate from low-income countries than from middle- or high-income countries. Just the contrary—terrorist incidents are actually higher in countries that spend more on social welfare programs. Moreover, public-opinion polls in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey find that the higher the level of education, the more likely that people believe suicide attacks against Westerners are justified. So what explains the support of terrorism among some individuals and not others, and in some countries and not in others? Professor Krueger’s current hypothesis is that terrorists arise among educated and politically committed individuals when non-violent means of political protest are unavailable, and there is widespread suppression of civil liberties and political rights. Perhaps one of you will take up this hypothesis in your own senior thesis!
For the next four years you will be encouraged—and indeed sometimes even exhorted—to develop the qualities of mind that allowed Katherine Newman, Simon Morrison, and Alan Krueger to change what we know about the world. Those qualities are the willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly; to cultivate the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white; to reject knee-jerk reactions to ideas and ideologies; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument; to differentiate between knowledge and belief; to be prepared to be surprised; and to appreciate that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We ask you to be open to new ideas, however surprising; to shun the superficial trends of popular culture in favor of careful analysis; and to recognize propaganda, ignorance, and baseless revisionism when you see it. That is the essence of a Princeton education.