2001 Opening Exercises Greeting and Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 9, 2001
Good afternoon. I wish to extend an enthusiastic welcome to all new members of the University community.
The 1185 new undergraduates, in what I am sure will become the Great Class of 2005, hail from 48 states and 41 countries, from such places as Winnipeg in Canada, my own hometown; Istanbul, Turkey; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Humble, Texas. I will always feel a special attachment to your class, as we will be experiencing our freshman years together. To both students and parents, whether you know it or not, you have joined a very unusual family, one that thinks that there is no occasion for which orange and black are not appropriate colors, one in which every name comes attached to a numeral, and one in which the tiger will never be an endangered species. Most importantly, and I speak from the special vantage of being a Princeton parent myself, I hope that for you this fall will mark the beginning of a lifelong interest in and commitment to all things Princeton.
To the 550 new graduate students, I offer special greetings. You are a talented and diverse group, and I have both high hopes and high expectations for what you will achieve during your time at Princeton. Representing the next generation of scholars, you are the future of the academy, and, as such, it is our special mission to train you well. I also would like to welcome the new members of the faculty, a group whose distinguished scholarly achievements and dedication to teaching are certain to enhance the University's reputation for excellence in undergraduate and graduate education. I also welcome new members of the staff. The University works as well as it does because we are blessed with a dedicated staff that oversees everything from the explosion of floral colors in Prospect Gardens to scheduling classes and balancing the budget.
Finally, a warm welcome to the returning members of the Classes of 2002, 2003 and 2004, as well as the graduate students who have spent the summer either here or away from campus pursuing their scholarly work. It will not have escaped your attention that the campus has undergone some dramatic changes in the intervening months, from the new walkways in front of Nassau Hall to the lonely look of East Pyne and the barricading of its peaceful courtyard. The Lewis-Sigler Genomics Institute now has walls beginning to rise on the excavation site on Washington Road, and the new Friend Center for Engineering Education is welcoming books instead of hard hats. Even this extraordinary Chapel continues to suffer the indignities of scaffolding, although we are beginning to see the benefit on the south facade: the restoration of its natural beauty. If the summer is a time for students to become re-energized by experiences outside Princeton, it is also a time for the campus to be both renewed and reinvented. It is a truism that a university that rests on its laurels does not stand still; it falls behind. We must continuously renew every aspect of university life, and that includes our physical space, so that our dormitories are attractive and welcoming, our classrooms state-of-the-art, and our research and library facilities at the forefront of modern scholarship. After all, that is what you expected when you decided to come to Princeton.
May the year ahead not only meet your expectations, but surpass them. May it challenge you and surprise you. May it introduce you to new ideas and new friends. May it give you abundant opportunity to explore and learn and think and grow, by yourselves and in the company of the others who are arriving with you, or who are already here and, I am sure, join me in wishing you a warm welcome.
This afternoon's opening exercises mark the official beginning of the new academic year at Princeton. When I think of the beginning of a school year, the images that immediately come to mind are those of my childhood in Canada: the glory of autumn leaves, a sharpness in the air that foreshadows the winter to come, new school shoes, sharp long pencils, clean notebooks in which I write my name with high expectations that tomorrow I am going to learn something that will change my life, the pure joy that comes from learning. Each of you is here today because, based on your own unique qualities that cannot be captured by test scores or lists of accomplishments, we believe that you have the capacity to experience that joy, and then to go out into the world and make a difference.
To prepare you to take up that challenge of making a difference, the University intends to give you two of the greatest gifts it can bestow: the gift of discovery and the habits of mind of a scholar. A Princeton education is built around two seminal ideas: a broad liberal arts education in which one simultaneously pursues a deep understanding in one chosen discipline while at the same time receiving broad education in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. The second idea is that learning should be an act of discovery. It is not sufficient to amass information in your head, analogous to making deposits in a mental bank. That kind of learning is transitory and ultimately hollow. Rather we intend for you to seek knowledge by understanding how it is generated. Lasting learning is fundamentally an active process. It requires an engaged mind, a curious mind, an open mind, a persistent mind. It means that you don't take things on faith, but rather question everything. So, as you go about this year, I urge you to keep foremost in your minds two questions: "How do you know that?" and "Why?" If you are asking those questions, you will be taking active charge of your own education.
By way of illustration, let me tell you how I came to understand the true meaning of scientific discovery. I was a chemistry major in university in Canada, and by my junior year I was a bored chemistry major. I should hasten to say that this was not because chemistry was inherently boring, but rather because it was not a good fit for me. I stumbled by chance on a paper in the chemistry library that described a very recent finding of two scientists named Matthew Meselson and Frank Stahl, in which they reported on the mechanism by which DNA, the genetic material, is replicated. The first thing that struck me about the paper was the importance of the question being posed, for each time a cell divides, it must faithfully replicate all its DNA and deposit equivalent amounts into each of the two daughter cells. Now there was only a finite number of possibilities for how this could happen, and whether the answer was A, B or C was not particularly interesting, frankly. But what was absolutely gripping was how Meselson and Stahl discriminated among the options. The experiment they devised was clever, indeed elegant, and it led to an unambiguous answer. What entranced me, what so entranced me that I ran over to the biology department to sign up immediately despite the fact that I had never had a course in biology in my life, was not what they learned, but how they went about it; how they discovered new knowledge about the natural world. It was a thing of beauty, and worthy of a life's work. And, most importantly, because I understood how they arrived at their answer, I never forgot it.
As freshmen, you will begin your journey of discovery in the Freshman Seminars, where a distinguished faculty member will explore with you the process of burrowing deeply into one subject — whether it be the evolution of language with Professor Maggie Browning in Linquistics, the theory and practice of the tax system with Professor Harvey Rosen in Economics or Searching for Life in the Universe with Professor Gill Knapp of Astrophysics. In each of these seminars, the goal is the same: to wean you from any residue of the notion that learning is just memorization and to introduce you to the process by which a great scholar goes about discovering new knowledge by uncovering deeper understanding of a subject. That experience will be capped in four years by your senior thesis, the most challenging and most beloved of the educational experiences at Princeton. Well, beloved, I should say in all honesty, once it is written, copied, bound and in the hands of your advisor. In that thesis you will put your academic wings to the test, and you WILL, I promise you, make a discovery.
Learning and discovery are intended to spill out of the classroom, laboratory and library and invade every nook and cranny of the university. It has always fascinated me that the process of scholarship can be both a highly solitary activity and a distinctly social one. Let me give you an example of what I mean by this. One of the most celebrated discoveries of the last century was the solution of Fermat's last theorem, one of the oldest and most tantalizing mathematical puzzles, by Professor Andrew Wiles of the Mathematics Department at Princeton. Fermat was a 17th century mathematician who wrote in his notebook that the very simple equation
X n + Y n = Z n
has no solution for integers greater than 2. Fermat then scribbled in the margin that he did not have time or space to complete the proof as to why this is the case. A deceptively simple conjecture; but its proof had eluded three centuries of mathematicians until Wiles. Wiles had been fascinated by the theorem since he was a teenager, but he understood the futility of working on something that had stumped the greatest mathematical minds. When a breakthrough in another branch of math suggested that it might now be worth one more attempt at Fermat's Last Theorem, Wiles retired to his attic for seven solitary years. No one but his wife even knew he was working on this problem. He announced his solution to cries of joy from the whole mathematical community, only to have one of the few mathematicians capable of following his proof discover a potentially fatal error. At that point he abandoned his solitary work and turned to his colleagues to help him correct the mistake. So this great discovery was both an act of solitary genius, and a celebration of collegial cooperation.
It is important that you develop both styles of learning: to have the discipline to focus deeply alone, but then to know when to turn to your peers for help. That help can come when you engage in meaningful conversations with roommates, conversations that occur during long walks along the canal or in the beautiful woods at the Institute for Advanced Study; they occur late at night in the dorms and over the dinner tables in the residential colleges. I hope that you leave time to have those conversations, because the best ones can never be planned in advance. They also occur in more structured ways in study groups, which I commend to you as a highly effective way to learn by teaching others. Nothing exposes ignorance about a subject faster than trying to explain it to someone else. Study groups and precepts also let you acquire the art of civil discourse, the practice of respectfully disagreeing with one another without rancor. That social skill is as important and as universal as the intellectual and technical agility learned in the classrooms and laboratories.
If we are successful, you will leave Princeton with what I referred to earlier as the lifelong habits of mind of a scholar. Whatever you chose to do thereafter, you will approach new problems, new ideas, new opportunities with the right set of questions and the intellectual tools to go about their resolution. Whether you are trying to judge whether broccoli really causes cancer, trying to unravel the complexities of the dot.com debacle, or interpreting the meaning of a poem, you will be fully prepared. Remarkably, the goals of a Princeton education have not changed, as is clear from the words of one of my predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, who wrote almost 100 years ago about the goals of a liberal arts education. His eloquent words, written at such a different time and about such a different student body, are timeless and describe my aspirations for all of you in the Chapel today:
"What we should seek to impart in our colleges, therefore, is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in the habit of catholic observation and a preference for the nonpartisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick to the letter of reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind."
Again, welcome to this extraordinary community and to the excitement of discovery. I look forward to our shared experience of learning together over the months and years ahead.