President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Commencement 2006: Finding Common Ground through Dialogue and Service
July 12, 2006
On June 6, at Princeton’s 259th Commencement, our University community celebrated the achievements of our graduating students, the contributions of our honorary degree and teaching award recipients, and the bonds that unite us as Princetonians. These ties include a shared commitment to dialogue and service, qualities that can be difficult to find in our increasingly polarized world. Invoking the spirit of Woodrow Wilson, I urged our graduates to use the lessons of their time at Princeton to find the common ground that will allow their generation to meet the fundamental challenges that we have failed to overcome. Here are some excerpts from my remarks. — S.M.T.
It is a Princeton tradition to allow the president to have the first word at Opening Exercises and the last word at Commencement. I honor this tradition this year with a fair degree of trepidation, knowing that I come immediately upon the heels of the hilarious David Sedaris at Baccalaureate, and none other than the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, surely one of the most compelling speakers of our time, yesterday at Class Day. If discretion were truly the better part of valor, I would simply say, congratulations, good luck, don’t forget Annual Giving, and sit down.
But (you knew there was going to be a “but”) I have had a vantage point that neither David Sedaris nor Bill Clinton enjoyed: I have witnessed your voyage through Princeton University, and thus I have a very personal sense of the challenges that you have faced and overcome, your remarkable accomplishments inside and outside the classroom, and the transformations you have undergone. You have thrilled us on the playing fields and the courts, as members of teams that combined athletic prowess with intelligence and seamless teamwork, and you have doubled us up with laughter and moved us to tears on stages and in studios all around campus. Last fall you opened your hearts, your residential colleges, your eating clubs, and your student organizations to the displaced students from New Orleans, and you have contributed both time and resources to the restoration of Dillard University in that city. You have shown your concern for the victims of genocide in Darfur and called upon us to adopt a policy of divestment in Sudan, which we have done. Academically, you have met and usually exceeded the high expectations we had for you when you matriculated. In short, you have fully earned the privilege of going out into the world as Princetonians.
Now this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s 13th president, and the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. We have been celebrating these anniversaries on campus, around the country, and indeed around the world. As a consequence, I have been reading a great deal about Wilson and thinking about the mark he left on Princeton. This, of course, is not an entirely positive story: Wilson clearly was unable to overcome his upbringing when it came to issues of gender and race. But like all mortals, he had many positives that overcame those shortcomings. It was Wilson who lifted this University from a small college bearing a striking resemblance to a country club onto a path that would turn it into the world-class University it is today. His educational initiatives, considered by some to be the most significant curricular reform in American higher education of the 20th century, had enormous impact in his time, and they demonstrated remarkable staying power as they became woven into the fabric of the Princeton you experienced.
The preceptorial method of instruction, which remains a defining feature of a Princeton education, was a Wilsonian invention. He was also deeply committed to giving the Graduate School a central place on campus, both physically and metaphorically, and to integrating the social and intellectual lives of Princeton’s undergraduates and graduate students in residential colleges he called quadrangles. He ultimately failed to achieve that vision, the Graduate College was constructed by the golf course, and his “quadrangle plan” was rejected by the trustees. Yet, I think he would be pleased by the growing engagement of today’s graduate students in the day-to-day life of the campus, which will increase further with the introduction of the four-year residential college in the fall of 2007.
Today you are entering a world in which two of Wilson’s legacies seem particularly important. The first was his insistence that universities foster lively and unfettered dialogue between students and faculty — the seminal idea behind both the preceptorial system and the quadrangle plan. Wilson conceived of precepts as opportunities for young men (as they all were in those days) to debate, discuss, and consider the important concepts that arose in their course of study, but precepts were not intended to be restricted to those topics. Rather, Wilson hoped the conversations that took place in these informal settings would roam freely across the entire intellectual landscape and broaden the exposure of students to the important ideas of their day. He considered the quadrangle plan, in which members of the University community — from the most senior faculty member to the youngest freshman — would live and study together in a four-year residential setting, to be an extension of the preceptorial system. Underlying both was a deep commitment to the importance of discourse, conducted with mutual regard for the views of others.
As your valedictorian said a few minutes ago, you are about to enter a world in which the nature and quality of public discourse has been impoverished, with too many people closed off from serious intellectual inquiry and the ideas of others, listening only to those who are of like mind, on TV news shows, radio talk shows, and Internet blogs; circling the wagons around entrenched positions and heaping scorn on those with whom they disagree. It used to be possible to describe the range of public opinion as a bell curve, with the majority finding common purpose in the middle ground, but increasingly our nation’s voices are more accurately portrayed as two bell curves, separated by a deep and bitter divide. Never has the world seemed so adamantly polarized to me, and I fear we are at risk of losing an essential ingredient of a vital democracy and a humane worldwide community — listening to one another with open minds and mutual respect.
In your time at Princeton you have been encouraged — and indeed you’ve been sometimes exhorted — to develop the suppleness of mind to see what lies between black and white; to reject knee-jerk reaction to ideas and ideologies; to recognize the nuance and complexity in an argument; to differentiate between knowledge and belief; and to appreciate that changing your mind is a sign not of weakness but of strength. We have asked that you be open to new ideas, however unorthodox; 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. This spirit of inquiry into both the familiar and the unknown is imbedded in the fabric of universities — from the art historian delving into the meaning of a fourth-century vase to the literary critic finding new insight in a poem; from the social scientist trying to understand school shootings to the cosmologist grappling with dark energy or the engineer applying her creativity to the task of building a sustainable environment. None of that is possible with a closed mind, or a mind that is not prepared to be proven wrong.
This does not mean that you should not hold strong views; just the opposite. I hope you have found ideas and causes that are profoundly meaningful to you, and that you will not shy away from adding your voice to the public discourse. But we also hope that you have developed the capacity to imagine, even if for only a moment, what must be in the mind of a person with whom you profoundly disagree. If you have learned to do this, you will never be able to hate or defame that person, for you will have looked into, and seen first-hand, the humanity in the other that unites us all.
This brings me to Wilson’s second enduring legacy — his call to define our lives in terms of service to causes that are larger than ourselves. For Wilson, this clearly included service to the nation — a concept deeply ingrained in Princeton’s history from its earliest days and recently expanded to encompass all nations — but his vision went beyond national service to embrace a broader definition of engagement in public life. The modern cacophony of voices shouting past one another is so troubling and dangerous precisely because the world is in dire need of well-educated men and women who are willing to join together to undo the deeds that should not have been done and to accomplish those that were left undone—not only by earlier generations, but by my own.
The challenges we leave for your generation are truly daunting, but not insurmountable, at least not insurmountable if you are able to find a way to rise above partisanship and polarization; to find common ground and keep your eye on the prize. We will not be able to preserve this extraordinary planet for future generations if one side refuses to acknowledge the compelling scientific evidence that the climate is changing as a result of the excessive burning of fossil fuels while the other side proposes solutions that would cripple the economy. This is a recipe for the inaction we have today. We cannot hope to conquer the scourge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic unless we are prepared to mobilize every weapon at our disposal, including condoms, but at the same time we must recognize that the abstinence movement grew out of a deep unease about the ways in which our culture has undermined the meaning of human intimacy. We must find a bridge over the gaping divide that has opened in the public discourse between religion and science. Scientists must learn to speak about the Big Bang or Darwin’s theory of evolution without appearing to demean the deeply held religious beliefs of others, just as those of faith must be prepared to open their minds to the nature of scientific evidence and what it tells us about the natural world. The welcome voices of moderation in the debate over immigration are too often overwhelmed by louder voices that call for sealing the borders of a country born of immigrants or opening the floodgates without regard to the rule of law, thus leaving the nation at a stalemate. And we must find common purpose to confront the erosion of quality in our system of K-12 public education before we lose another generation of students, particularly African-American boys. This national scandal will not be remedied with one side demanding accountability without resources and the other proposing resources without accountability. Public education is clearly an area where both accountability and resources are needed — along with the national will to address these needs in a sustained and meaningful way.
Despite these monumental challenges, I remain an optimist. I am optimistic because sitting before me on this magnificent historic lawn are men and women who have the intelligence, the will, and the education to confront and solve the problems my generation has handed you. You have lived in a community that is committed to the service of others; that purposefully seeks out and embraces diversity as part of its educational mission. And why? Because such a rich and outward-looking community creates an environment in which you can have real conversations, conversations that challenge you as much as the person with whom you are conversing. I am confident that these exchanges, whether they have taken place in a dorm room at 2 a.m., around a lab bench or precept table, or in the editorial pages of the Prince, have opened your minds and hearts and prepared you to make this world a better place.
And so, as you walk or skip or run through the FitzRandolph Gates today, I hope you will carry with you the spirit of Princeton and all that this place has aspired to teach you — a determination to follow your passions in service to the common good, an openness to new ideas, and a willingness to engage in civil discourse with integrity and mutual respect. I also expect you will continue to do what you have done so well at Princeton — to aim high and be bold.