President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Welcoming the Class of 2014
October 13, 2010
On September 12 we marked the beginning of a new academic year with Opening Exercises in the Princeton University Chapel. I encouraged the freshman class to view their four years at Princeton as a time to roam freely through the world of ideas, with no single career in mind, and to balance the quest for in-depth knowledge, symbolized by the senior thesis, with the broad perspective that comes from delving into many subjects. Here are some excerpts from my remarks.—S.M.T.
I recently had dinner in Whitman College with a group of freshmen who asked if I had any advice for them as they began their Princeton education. Of course, that is the purpose of the President’s Opening Exercises address—to offer up one or two gems of advice that will help you successfully and happily navigate the University. This year I would like to explore with you two pieces of advice that come in the form of contradictions. In his essay entitled “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton Class of 1917, wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” In this address I am going to ask that you try this out, and I do so with the utmost confidence that as fellow Princetonians you are more than capable of passing Fitzgerald’s test with flying colors.
Here is the first test. It may seem like I am jumping the gun, but in the blink of an eye—just under four years—you will be marching out the FitzRandolph Gates, diplomas in hand, ready to take on the world. There will be those among you who will go on to become doctors dedicated to reducing human suffering throughout the world. I hope a few of you will take up the challenge of reforming the world’s financial system by making it less susceptible to catastrophic recessions. Others of you will teach and inspire in the young a life-long commitment to learning. There are future poets among you who will explore the complexity of the human condition, and future dancers and musicians who will interpret anew works of art that have been handed down through the ages or create entirely new ones. One of you might invent the next version of the Internet or start a company that takes better advantage of the one we already have. I certainly hope there are those among you who will choose the life of the mind and spend your lives uncovering new knowledge and deepening our understanding of old ideas. I am certain that some of you will use the law to protect the rights of individuals, possibly even joining the three Princetonians who currently sit on the Supreme Court, and I fully expect that there will be those who will follow in the footsteps of James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, in public service to the nation and all nations.
These are just a few of the ways in which Princeton graduates have exercised the responsibility that comes with the privilege of a Princeton education. The next four years will prepare you to join the centuries-long parade of alumni who have made a positive difference in the world. Indeed, one of the reasons why generation after generation of those graduates has supported this University is their conviction that talented and committed young men and women, armed with a fine liberal arts education, are the best guarantees of a better future for all.
But for now—for the next four years—I want you to set aside that pesky question, “What will you do when you graduate from college?” For answering that question should not be foremost in your mind as you embark upon this extraordinary intellectual journey. Instead—and this brings me to the heart of the first contradiction—I hope you will consider the next four years as a time for unconstrained exploration and discovery of the world of ideas, not résumé building. Never again will you live in such a rich intellectual and cultural milieu as the one that is waiting for you here. You have at your fingertips in Firestone Library one of the greatest research collections in the world; you will be taught by faculty who are without peer in their fields, and you have at your disposal world-class laboratory facilities; you have astounding classmates who will challenge you to think hard about everything you believe, and coaches, conductors, directors, and advisers who will stretch you to do things you never thought possible and, when needed, comfort you. This is a time for pulling out the mental stops, taking off any blinders, and pursuing what ignites your curiosity, not a time to worry whether what you are doing is practical or preparing you for a specific career. One of the great benefits of attending Princeton is that your education will prepare you for not one career but any career. In fact, it would be foolhardy to single-mindedly prepare for a single job at this stage in your lives, for demographic data predict that you will change jobs multiple times. Our goal therefore is to inculcate mental flexibility, resilience, and openness to change so that you are prepared for literally anything.
The second piece of contradictory advice is evident from even a casual reading of the Undergraduate Announcement and Course Offerings websites. I suspect most of you have been searching through those guides all summer, salivating at the prospect of taking this course, intimidated by the thought of that one, mystified by the title of another. In your browsing you will undoubtedly have noticed that the course offerings are arranged by discipline. By organizing the curriculum by discipline and offering degrees only in those subjects, we create the impression that all knowledge can be neatly segregated into “buckets”—and that you will spend your first two years choosing into which deep well of knowledge you wish to dive and the second two years swimming around in it. It is certainly the case that the experience of immersing yourself fully in a question that fascinates you as you write your senior thesis is an intoxicating one for our students, especially in retrospect. Learning how to pose an important question; digging into the literature so you understand and appreciate that you are part of a continuum of seekers for truth; balancing different viewpoints and eventually taking a position yourself; and defending your conclusions to others are skills that will serve you well, independently of what you do in the future. Through the senior thesis you will learn how to become a master of a subject, and it is that mastery, rather than the specific body of knowledge, that is most important.
But is this the purpose of a liberal arts education? The answer is not entirely, and herein lies the second contradiction. Increasingly, the world requires individuals with deep disciplinary expertise who can also bring broad understanding and vision to bear on their work. Narrow expertise is necessary, but it is not sufficient to contribute to complex problem-solving, while, on the other hand, a jack-of-all-trades who is a master of none brings little to the table. Your liberal education will reconcile this contradiction by endowing you with the mantles of both expert and generalist.
Let me illustrate what I mean with one of the most vexing challenges facing our world that your generation will have to contend with, and hopefully meet. Within the next few decades, sustainable life on our planet will require that we discover alternative forms of energy and ways to remediate the damage that has already been done to our ecosystem. At first blush you might think that this is the sole task of future engineers and scientists, but nothing could be further from the truth. The development of new energy sources and protection of the environment are challenges that call out for expertise in everything from moral philosophy to legislative policymaking to behavioral economics, in addition to the clear need for the sciences and engineering.
I can best illustrate this point by recounting the topics of senior theses written by members of the Class of 2009. Devon Ahearn, a Woodrow Wilson School concentrator, wrote a senior thesis entitled “A Seat at the Table: -Participation and the Effectiveness of Environmental Justice Policy”; Denali Barron chose to write her anthropology thesis about the value, purpose, and controversy in America’s national parks; a math major, James Burgess, constructed a perfect plasticity approximation forest model; and Meredith Wall wrote about environmentally sustainable rural road development in Liberia to satisfy her geosciences senior thesis. What is striking about these topics is the very different disciplinary expertise each student brought to bear on an environmental issue. Yet their contributions would be destined to have limited impact if they were unable to frame them and integrate them into a much broader context.
By requiring that you sample the breadth of human knowledge through the distribution requirements at the same time as you are learning how to master a single question, the University is preparing you to avoid siloed thinking and the missteps that can easily arise from it.
And so, as you set forth on the great adventure that we call a Princeton education, I hope you will embrace the contradictions I have described this afternoon—that you can best advance the specific careers that lie before you by preparing yourselves for any career and that knowledge can only serve you well when you both delve deeply and cast widely in your quest for new understanding. By making this your approach, you will go a long way to ensuring that the next four years will be among the most exciting and rewarding of your lives.