President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Commencement 2009: In Pursuit of Purpose and Meaning
July 15, 2009
On June 2, at Princeton’s 262nd Commencement, 1,128 undergraduates and 753 graduate students received diplomas and entered a world that sorely needs their energies and talents. In my remarks, I encouraged them to be steadfast seekers of purpose and meaning in their lives, especially in these troubled economic times—not least through the practice and appreciation of the creative and performing arts. Here are some excerpts from my address.—S.M.T.
It is a great pleasure for me to continue Princeton’s longstanding tradition of letting the president have the first word at Opening Exercises and the last word at Commencement.
Now a great deal has changed in the few short years you have lived and studied on this campus. The world watched in horror in the fall of 2005 as Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, abandoning thousands of people—mostly African Americans—on roof tops and in the convention center. And yet, last Nov. 4 the world watched in wonder as the same country elected its first African American president. In 2005 you created your first Facebook page and began sharing every waking moment and thought with the world. Today you are down to communicating with just 140 characters on Twitter. And of course, you arrived at Princeton during one of the greatest bull markets in history, and you leave having witnessed the world economy in free fall.
Everyone in this audience, I suspect, has been touched in one way or another by the consequences of the market crash. I know that some of you have used the market downturn to re-evaluate your career goals; others have had to change plans for the coming year because opportunities have evaporated. Luckily for you, the education you have received at Princeton—an education that we rightfully claim does not prepare you for one job but for many jobs—puts you in remarkably good stead in an uncertain time. The skills and traits that we strived to instill in you—critical thinking and writing, a finely tuned moral compass, a disciplined work ethic, a commitment to excellence in whatever you choose to do, compassion for those less privileged and a devotion to service—will serve you well whatever comes next. And as you consider the ways in which the world has changed, and imagine your place in it, we hope that your Princeton education will fuel your search for both purpose and meaning.
At the risk of being accused of trying to turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse, let me suggest there has never been a more opportune time to be a seeker after purpose and meaning. Everywhere you look there are enormous problems—many of them created by my generation, I will confess—that will take the hard work and dedication of every one of you to fix. The profligate burning of fossil fuels over the last century now threatens the future of the planet, and it will be up to you whether we are able to replace a carbon-based economy with one that is powered by vibrant green technologies. The world is also in dire need of voices advocating for religious and ethnic tolerance and understanding—to counteract the ignorance and hatred that drives so much of today’s violence both between states and within them. The growing inequality of opportunity that our broken K-12 education system has imposed on too many children in this country will only be reversed by talented and committed teachers, who will ensure that every child in America has a chance to fulfill his or her potential. Our inefficient health care system is on a path to bankrupting the entire country unless we find a way to more equitably share the costs and benefits of medical care. And of course, somebody has to fix the world economy.
These problems are truly daunting, but individuals armed with a Princeton education have never been known to shy away from hard challenges. Year in and year out, Princeton invests its considerable resources—well, maybe a little less considerable than a year ago—in its students in the belief that we are preparing young men and women to become leaders and to change the world for the better. I have every confidence that you, like Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the Class of 1976, the nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court and a trustee of this University, are ready to embrace this task today.
In addition to educating leaders and problem-solvers about the complexity of the global challenges before us, Princeton has also historically defined its purpose as helping to find solutions to those challenges. Through the research and scholarship that our faculty and graduate students perform, the University contributes to both social change and economic progress.
Just as importantly, it is vital that we celebrate and vigorously defend the exploration of ideas for their own sake, without regard to immediate utility. To give you an example: When Professor of Mathematics Andrew Wiles retired to his attic for seven years in pursuit of a solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, a problem that had withstood 350 years of attempts by number theorists, he was acting in the great tradition of intellectual inquiry for its own sake. In this deep recession, when there have been numerous calls for universities and colleges to provide job training, as opposed to a liberal arts education, and to offer degrees that are “good for something,” it is even more important that we defend the curiosity-driven search for meaning that has been an integral part of the tradition of universities going back to the Middle Ages.
Nowhere is this search more palpable than in the creative and the performing arts. That is not to say, of course, that these disciplines do not engage us with the world. No one could have seen the great modern dancer Judith Jamison in Alvin Ailey’s ballet Cry without coming away with a deeper understanding of the plight of African American women. It was impossible to watch Meryl Streep anguish over the choice of which of her children to condemn to the gas chamber in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice without staring into the abyss of the evil of the Holocaust. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its more than 58,000 names of the dead and missing carved into granite, powerfully captures the tragedy of that war, just as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor, so ably performed by the Glee Club this spring, can be heard as a profoundly uplifting religious experience. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, “Art helps us to live our lives.” Art reveals meaning—through the process of creation and the process of observation.
At Princeton we are committed to folding into a seamless continuum the making and the study of art. Both are deeply creative human endeavors; both are essential to the vibrant life of a great university, and when they happen in close proximity to one another, the sum is always greater than the parts. I come to this conclusion from the perspective of a scientist, having seen the tremendous synergy that can happen when an experimentalist and a theorist collaborate on a scientific problem. The same, I believe, can happen when artists and critics occupy a common space, something that colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to provide. When we created the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2006, named in honor of its founding patron Peter B. Lewis of the Class of 1955, it was our ambition that every Princeton student have an opportunity to create a work of art, and through that revelatory experience to appreciate more fully how art enriches and informs the search for meaning in our lives.
If we have succeeded, I am now looking at 1,881 future patrons of the arts, and we need every one of you. As a society we cannot afford to neglect what the literary scholar Helen Vendler called “the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage.” In difficult times like these, we must be doubly protective of the arts, much as the Roosevelt administration sustained countless artists, musicians, actors, and writers through the Works Progress Administration in the depths of the Great Depression. We must do so not simply for the sake of struggling artists, but for the sake of the future of our society.