President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
October 10, 2001
These are excerpts from my remarks at Opening
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; …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 were 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, 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 a freshman, 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…. 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.…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; 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 choose 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. . . .
I look forward to our shared experience of learning together over the months and years ahead.