President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Commencement 2004: Civic Engagement
July 7, 2004
On June 1, to the accompaniment of the cicadas’ chorus, we
granted 1,104 bachelor’s and 686 advanced degrees to Princeton
students. No other University event demonstrates what we are about as
dramatically as Commencement. The real success of the University’s
teaching and research mission lies in the uses our graduates will make
of their Princeton education. As is the tradition, the President has
the last word at Commencement, and I took this opportunity to talk
about the responsibility that a Princeton education places on each of
its graduates to take an active part in the important issues of our
day. I would like to share the following excerpts with you.—S.M.T.
I recognize that those graduating today have probably been receiving lots of free advice from family and friends in recent weeks. I am going to begin not with exhortation, but with praise. I want to offer my heartiest congratulations to you all. You have met and often exceeded the very high expectations that we had for you when you arrived just a few years ago. Whether in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, the playing field, the debating arena, or the stage, you have shown the dedication, the intellect, and the heart that it takes to strive for excellence. Members of the Class of 2004, you have shown your concern for others in your Arts Alive project, which reached out to the children affected by 9/11, and you challenged each other to raise the level of intellectual discourse on campus. Your true stripes are indeed orange and black, and you have earned the right to be called the Great Class of 2004.
Members of the Graduate Class of 2004, you have inspired the faculty and your students with your passionate pursuit of learning and discovery. As you head to other universities and colleges to continue Princeton’s tradition of teaching and research, the future of higher education seems bright indeed. For those of you who seek careers outside the academy, you go with finely honed intellectual skills that I know will serve you well.
The hum of cicadas, competing with me for your attention, inevitably brings to mind the Commencement of 1970, memorialized by one of that year’s honorary degree recipients, Bob Dylan, in his composition, “Day of the Locusts.” That Commencement will be remembered for another reason: it heralded the end of a tumultuous senior year for the Class of 1970, a year whose echoes reverberate in our own time. In 1970 we were at war, as we are again today, in a distant land whose language, religion, and culture were different from our own. Whereas earlier wars of the 20th century had united and strengthened us as a country, the Vietnam War, like today’s war in Iraq, divided us and raised fundamental questions about our policies and values.
In 1970 the civil rights movement was gaining momentum as institutions like Princeton increasingly opened their doors to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Today, however, marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we recognize how far we still have to go to make equal opportunity real in all of our nation’s schools. The third great issue of that day was the nascent women’s movement calling for greater inclusion of women in the affairs of the world. That year Princeton awarded degrees to undergraduate women—eight of them—for the first time in its history. Today the number of women graduates in the senior class has increased 70-fold, yet we know there are still fields that women are discouraged from entering and in which they do not have fair chances for advancement.
What brought matters to a boil in the spring of 1970 was the invasion of Cambodia. More than 4,000 members of the student body, faculty, and staff gathered in Jadwin Gym to protest and debate this escalation of the war. Although those times were tense, the campus community under President Goheen’s leadership rose to the occasion, and not only exercised its rights of free speech and assembly, but sought constructive ways to take part in the larger national discussion. Through their passionate engagement with the events of their times, the students of 1970 shouldered their responsibilities as citizens of a free democracy to speak out for what they believed was right.
Out of this maelstrom of debate came three lasting changes in the University: a more broadly participatory governing structure that still includes such features as the U-Council, the Priorities Committee, and the election each year of a graduating senior to the Board of Trustees; the institution of a fall break in late October to allow students to participate in election campaigns in their home communities; and the opening of FitzRandolph Gate. Until 1970 the gate just behind you was kept closed all year except for special occasions like Reunions and Commencement. The Class of 1970 asked that the University permanently open FitzRandolph Gate to symbolize its recognition that Princeton should be very much part “of the world” and of its local community, and not stand aloof. To honor that commitment, the Class of 1970 inscribed their class numerals on the gates, with the inscription, “Together for Community.”
The communal relationship between democratic government and an educated citizenry was clearly articulated by one of our country’s founding fathers, John Adams, in the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1779. He wrote:
“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend upon spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.”
Princeton has aspired to fulfill Adams’s vision by instilling in each of you the qualities of an educated citizen: the ability to distinguish reason from prejudice, and leadership from demagoguery, to weigh evidence against rumor, and to know right from wrong. I hope each of you, particularly in this election year, will take seriously your responsibility as an educated citizen and engage, like your predecessors in the Class of 1970, with the momentous issues of your day. This expectation of Princeton graduates is a longstanding one. Fifty years ago Adlai E. Stevenson, two-time Democratic nominee for president and member of the Class of 1922, addressed the seniors in the Class of 1954:
“I would suggest that it is not enough merely to vote but that we, all of us, have the further obligation to think, and to maintain steadfastly the right of all . . . to think freely. . . . So you as educated, privileged people have a broad responsibility to protect and to improve what you have inherited and what you would die to preserve—the concept of government by consent of the governed as the only tolerable way of living.”
Stevenson also reminded his audience that “People get the kind of government they deserve,” for, as Americans, we, the people, are the government. This means that every vote matters and that the reflection and debate that should inform each vote are critically important. Unfortunately, far too few citizens have seen a voting booth. Indeed, the last time that more than 55 percent of adult Americans voted in a presidential election was in 1968, the year I graduated from university. This disturbing level of non-participation may help to explain why government is widely held in low repute. It is easy to criticize something in which we have no sense of ownership; it is far harder, but far better, to take possession of our government by embracing civic life, from town hall meetings to the lobbies of Congress. Only then will Abraham Lincoln’s vision of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” be realized fully.
And so, to those of you who are leaving with advanced degrees to take up teaching and research careers, I hope you will not simply publish scholarly books and papers, though that may fittingly be your highest priority and most lasting contribution. I hope you will also write op-ed pieces and columns in newspapers, give public lectures, advise members of your local, state, and federal legislatures, and speak to primary school students and senior citizen groups. In other words, I urge you to use your fine education at this prestigious University to serve your country, whichever country that may be, and the world; and the common human values that we cherish. I urge you to combine great scholarship with an obligation to explain what you do, and why it matters, to others.
To those of you—and I suspect there will be many—who will someday serve our country and others in positions of influence, I hope that when you do so, you will look to the works of learned scholars for insight and inspiration. The often-repeated warning by George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is the modern day version of Cicero’s lament that “not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always a child.” Today you enter the world as adults, and as adults educated at one of the finest universities in the world, you have an obligation to make this world a better place for all of us.
As you walk through the wide-open FitzRandolph Gate today, as educated citizens of this and many other countries, I hope that you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that this place has aspired to teach you—a respect for ideas and discovery, the courage to stand up for your beliefs and the rights of others, a commitment to civic engagement, and a passion for justice and freedom, all informed by the highest standards of integrity.
My best wishes go with you all.