President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Commencement 2012: The Enduring Value of a Liberal Education
July 11, 2012
On June 5, at Princeton’s 265th Commencement, I challenged the notion that the liberal education offered at Princeton and on many other American campuses is unsuited to today’s difficult economic climate. Taking James Madison of the Class of 1771 as my model, I suggested that the qualities of mind and character that the liberal arts engender are critical to personal success and civic vitality; indeed, far from being anachronistic, a liberal education should be viewed as a “vaccine against early obsolescence.” Here are excerpts from my remarks. — S.M.T.
It gives me great pleasure to continue the tradition of serving as the metaphorical bookends to your Princeton education by having the first word at Opening Exercises and the last word at Commencement. Four years ago, I predicted at Opening Exercises that your time at Princeton would fly by at warp speed, and I have heard from many of you over the past few weeks that it did just that. And while you may be experiencing nostalgia for your days at Princeton, I hope that those feelings are leavened with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment mixed with exhilaration and anticipation for what is ahead. After all, today we should focus on the future — your future. Otherwise, we would call this a Termination Exercise, rather than Commencement.
At those Opening Exercises four years ago, I posed a challenge that Adlai Stevenson ’22 presented to the Class of 1954 at its senior banquet: “Before you leave, remember why you came.” I suggested at the time that it is never too early to start thinking about that dictum. Today it is almost too late, but I hope as you do leave you will continue to think about why you came.
In my address I tried to suggest as strongly as I could that you should not be thinking about your Princeton education as preparation for a specific job and even went so far as to suggest that a Princeton education is intended to prepare you not for a single career, but for any career, including ones that have not yet been invented. In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours, developing the capacity to learn new things is as critical as how well you think or how much you know. Your education is intended to be a vaccine against early obsolescence.
That was then. This is now, four years after one of the most significant downturns in U.S. economic history. Unemployment was 6.1 percent in the fall of 2008; today it is between 8.2 percent and 18 percent, depending on how you count those who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work. So you might well be thinking to yourself, “Was this investment of my time and my family’s resources in a liberal arts education a good decision in light of recent events?” And for those of you who have just completed doctoral degrees, you might be wondering whether your preparation for a career in the professoriate will be rewarded with opportunities to teach the liberal arts to the next generation.
If you are asking yourself those questions, you are not alone, for economic hard times always elicit calls for more goal-oriented education. Let me give you some recent examples of this kind of thinking. Last October Florida’s Governor Rick Scott was quoted as saying, “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. … I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.” Last year one of the campuses of the State University of New York eliminated the departments of French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater in an effort to balance the budget, clearly signaling the lower status of the humanities and the arts compared to the revenue-generating sciences. Even former Harvard University President Larry Summers joined in the fray, questioning the continuing validity of General George Marshall’s plea to a Princeton audience in 1947 when he said: “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.” Summers suggested in a New York Times op-ed that skills in data analysis would be more valuable to today’s college graduate than learning from history.
It will hopefully come as no surprise to any of you that I reject the notion that a liberal arts degree has suddenly become obsolete. To make my case, I will invoke the story of an early Princeton graduate, as told to me by Hunter Rawlings, Princeton Graduate Class of 1970 and the former president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell. The graduate is James Madison, Princeton Class of 1771, who was, to be sure, no ordinary student. He arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1769 from his home in Virginia. He opted to take the freshman exams immediately — you could think of these as the forerunner of AP exams — and after excelling in them, he began taking courses as a sophomore. For the next two years he immersed himself in Latin and Greek, philosophy, natural science, geography, mathematics, and rhetoric, and actively participated in debate, helping to launch what is now the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. After completing all his requirements in just two years, he found himself at a loss as to what to do next, having no desire to follow the traditional professions of that day, the law or the ministry. So, adopting that time-honored tradition of all Princeton students — procrastination — he persuaded President John Witherspoon to allow him to stay on for a year and continue his studies in Hebrew and political philosophy, thereby becoming Princeton’s first, if unofficial, graduate student. At the end of that year, still not knowing what he wanted to do, he did what any sensible young college graduate does these days — he journeyed from one orange bubble to another in Orange, Virginia, where he lived with his parents for another four years. Now I can’t claim that he lived in the basement, but other than that missing detail, the story certainly sounds like a contemporary one.
Eventually, he found his calling — he embraced the patriot cause and became a leader in the crusade to found a free and independent nation. He went on to author a number of the most important documents that guide our nation to this day: the Virginia Plan, the blueprint that became the framework for the U.S. Constitution; some of the most influential Federalist Papers, which were key to the ratification of the Constitution by the states; and the Bill of Rights. But my favorite story about Madison involves George Washington’s first inaugural address in 1789. Washington rejected the 73-page draft prepared by a friend and turned instead to Madison to write the one that he eventually delivered to a joint session of Congress. The speech was such a great success that Congress decided it needed to respond. They asked Madison to draft the response. Washington was so touched by their response that he felt a need to send a thank you note, and, sure enough, you guessed it — he asked Madison to draft it. So these key early exchanges between President and Congress were really Madison talking to Madison in public!
Without taking anything away from Madison’s towering intellect, I would argue that the years he spent at Princeton, engaged in the study of subjects such as mathematics and political philosophy, powerfully prepared him for his life’s work. His studies with Witherspoon gave him the opportunity to grapple with the ideas on which this nation was founded, ideas stretching from ancient Greece to the Scottish enlightenment; they disciplined his ability to marshal and then defend a well-constructed argument; deepened his moral sensibility; and they honed his writing and speaking skills, all of which were critical to his success in public life.
While what constitutes a liberal education today includes areas of study that could not have been imagined in Madison’s time — neuroscience and, yes, anthropology — the qualities of mind and character that a liberal education is intended to impart remain the same. Just as the nascent United States depended upon well-educated individuals who brought historical perspective, political theory, and a sympathy for the complexity of human nature to the task of designing a new nation, both this country and the dozens of others represented on this lawn today need thoughtful, open-minded, and well-informed citizens to chart their course and influence their future. No, we are not about to administer the last rites for a liberal education.
This is not to say that a liberal arts education is the only valuable form of education. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the great strengths of the U.S. higher education system is its immense diversity, with post-secondary educational institutions of many kinds preparing for meaningful careers everyone from performing artists to nurses to video game designers, teenagers and grandparents, in small classrooms and large online communities. This rich tapestry of opportunity is essential for a well-functioning society.
What I am saying is that to be successful in the 21st century, just as in the 18th century, a society requires citizens who are steeped in history, literature, languages, culture, and scientific and technological ideas from ancient times to the present day. They need to be curious about the world, broadly well-informed, independent of mind, and able to understand and sympathize with what Woodrow Wilson referred to as “the other.” Our colleges and universities need scholars who have dedicated themselves to the life of the mind, to preserving the wisdom of the ages, to generating new knowledge and a deeper understanding of the past, and to passing that knowledge and understanding on to the next generation.
I am also saying that a liberal education is a privilege that brings with it a responsibility to use your education wisely, as much for the benefit of others in your community and nation and the world as for your own private good. So, as you walk, skip, or run through the FitzRandolph Gates today, as citizens of this and many other nations, I hope you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and the liberal education you have received. The future is now in your hands. And I expect you to do as you have done at Princeton — to aim high and be bold!