Princeton Weekly Bulletin June 22, 1998


 

Beyond FitzRandolph Gates

President Shapiro's 1998 Commencement address, delivered June 2

It is a special privilege to be the speaker at these Commencement exercises--the 251st Commencement at Princeton. We have an unusual tradition here regarding Commencement speakers. Except on very rare occasions, it is our custom to allow the University's president the prerogative to be the last to address the graduating students. Thus, it is the University's president who has the opportunity to leave with them the final parting words and thoughts that will accompany them as they leave this historic green and travel out through FitzRandolph Gates into a new phase in their lives and into a world that they will serve in so many diverse ways.

This tradition probably stems from colonial times when the president of the college was obliged to provide a special capstone course to all seniors that was designed to give them some last-minute moral guidance and to try one last time to ensure that they would become ''right thinking'' and upstanding citizens. For students, this exercise was probably reminiscent of the last urgent bits of advice they received from their families before embarking for college. While the tradition of the president's capstone course has long since been discarded, the Princeton tradition of the president's Commencement remarks lives on, although certain changes have occurred over the years.

At the Commencement of 1760, for example, Princeton's fourth president, Samuel Davies, delivered what contemporary observers thought to be a splendid two-hour oration! Moreover, he also composed two hymns that the seniors were required to sing for their parents and the assembled guests.

For good or ill, I have decided not to follow these particular aspects of the Davies tradition. First, I have been unable to compose any hymns. Second, I have decided not to speak for two hours, since the contemporary American patience for oratory--even very great oratory--cannot match the enthusiasm of an 18th-century audience for that particular art form.

I do want to take a few moments, however, to address the graduating students on two themes. First, I would like to offer a few observations regarding the very special character of this moment in their life's journey. Second, I would like to reflect on a particular aspect of Princeton's traditions that I hope will remain important to them as they pursue the many different paths that will shape their life experiences.

Excitement and anxiety

Today's graduating students stand at a wonderful juncture in their lives. Only a few years ago they and their families experienced a similar moment when they first arrived at Princeton filled, I am quite confident, with a sense of achievement and eager anticipation on the one hand, and a certain amount of anxiety on the other. For today's graduating students and their families this is, once again, a moment of transition, and it, too, is filled with an earned sense of achievement and with an understandable level of both excitement and anxiety as they contemplate together the next steps that today's graduates will take once beyond FitzRandolph Gates.

Like it or not, such moments of transition produce a tension that reflects the losses as well as the gains that always characterize a period of change. At these moments we always feel an inescapable struggle between, on the one hand, the magnetic power of our habits and our memories that draw and bind us for good or ill to our past and, on the other hand, the ever present reality of change and transformation in our lives as new opportunities and challenges propel us forward and cause us to grow as individuals.

The words of two Irish poets express these countervailing forces more beautifully than I can. Listen first to the words of C. Day Lewis on the power and glory of our traditions, our memories and our roots. These words are from his poem entitled ''The Whispering Roots.''

Roots are for holding on, and holding dear. ...
I overhear them whisper across a lifetime as if from yesterday
... my roots go whispering on
Like rain on a soft day. Whatever lies
Beneath their cadence I could not disown:
... A sense of rootedness, a source held near and dear.

Now attend to the verse of Derek Mahon as he reflects on the constant change that also governs our lives.

Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.

Your years at Princeton are now among the roots that will continue to whisper to you throughout your life, and because of your years here each of you is no longer quite the same you. These moving verses of Lewis and Mahon evoke, for me, an even keener realization that while we all experience daily the echoes of our previous journeys, it is the inevitable process of change and the as yet unknown contours of our future journey that will determine the fullness of our individual contribution to the accumulating experience of humankind.

As those of you graduating today take the next step in your journey, I know that you will continue to be nourished by the values, traditions and memories bequeathed to you by your families and friends. And now I hope you will also be nourished by the nature of your experiences here at Princeton. They are both a part of your precious and hard-earned heritage as you take your next steps beyond FitzRandolph Gates.

Expansive view of service

As you look ahead and consider what you are to become, let me bring us back for just a moment to 1760 and President Davies' Commencement speech. Far more important than the hymns or the stamina and patience required by the two-hour oration was the idea about which President Davies spoke in addressing that graduating class.

President Davies told them, ''Whatever be your place, imbibe and cherish a public spirit. Serve your generation.'' These words, spoken so long ago, represented an ideal that was already deeply embedded in Princeton's view of itself and in its hopes for its alumni and the role they might play in colonial society.

These enduring notions of public duty and responsibility were implied in Princeton's Charter of 1746. They were embodied by Princeton's sixth president, John Witherspoon, who turned this campus into the academic heart of the American Revolution and whose students went on to become some of the primary architects of our new republic. And they were captured memorably by Professor Woodrow Wilson in his famous speech ''Princeton in the Nation's Service,'' which he delivered just over a century ago at our 150th Anniversary celebration.

For much of the last century, we have tried to encourage students and ourselves to live by these words. Through them we have tried to set a standard by which many Princetonians have gone on to serve this and other nations in many different ways.

In recent years, we have extended Wilson's phrase ''Princeton in the Nation's Service'' by adding ''And in the Service of All Nations.'' We have done so to reflect the changing makeup of our student body and the growing interdependence of the global community and the role we hope that our University and our graduates will play in this new world that is rushing towards us as the new millennium approaches.

As we cite our University's motto, it is important that we pause for a moment to understand what we mean by service in this context. Senator and Ruth Harkin gave their personal interpretation of service to family, to work and to the community at Sunday's Baccalaureate service. My own views are very expansive in this regard, for I believe there are many, many ways for each of us to employ the special advantages we all enjoy to make a real positive difference to the worlds of which we are a part. Moreover, the increasingly dense set of connections that tie individuals around the world together means that even local actions, big and small, eventually have echoes elsewhere. Let me cite some examples of service, or making a positive difference, in such a context.

* Making a positive difference to our families by supporting the enduring human ideals that sustain them is in the nation's service and in the service of all nations.

* Making a positive difference by the type of service that brings integrity and excellence to our chosen professions or to the institutions that help shape our society or other societies is in the nation's service and in the service of all nations.

* Constructing ever larger circles of empathy for those different from us, both near and far, will make a positive difference and is in the nation's service and in the service of all nations, as are our efforts to ensure respect for the dignity and humanity of all people.

* Protecting the earth's environment and promoting the equitable allocation of the planet's resources will make a positive difference and is in the nation's service and in the service of all nations.

* As noted in an old Quaker saying, ''Time spent teaching is never wasted.'' Teaching, therefore, always makes a positive difference and is in the nation's service and in the service of all nations.

* Thoughtful involvement in domestic, foreign or international public service will make a positive difference and is in the nation's service and in the service of all nations.

The list of activities through which one can make a positive difference and therefore qualify as in the nation's service and in the service of all nations is much longer than I have time to recite today. My point is that the number of ways one can engage in an effort of genuine service that would make this world a better place is constrained only by the scope of our imagination, by the strength of our will and by the depth of our commitment.

Perhaps this is what that great baseball sage Yogi Berra meant when he said: ''When you reach a fork in the road, take it.'' If Yogi Berra had anything serious in mind, he must have borrowed the Princeton notion that in the end it is the personal resolve to act, the determination to actually put ideas into action and to grasp the opportunity for leadership, that makes the difference.

Many good and great works

For this Commencement of 1998--this important first Commencement of our next 250 years--we have taken the words ''Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations'' and placed them on the bright new orange banners that flank the corners of our venerable Nassau Hall. Of all the wonderful and vivid memories you take from your time at Princeton, we hope that one of the most lasting images will be of these words that are written so large and placed for this Commencement upon the edifice that represents the very heart of our University.

This historic green, these acres of shaded lawn, where at Commencement every year our students become alumni--it is from this green, where so many familiar campus paths converge, that you who graduate today, like those who came before, will disperse into the world to begin life's next promising adventure and to do, we are certain, so many good and great works.

I hope you have experienced Princeton not only as a place of learning but as a community of fellowship, of service, of celebration and of moral commitment, and that you will remain lifelong members of this community and other communities similarly engaged. In that way, you will become part of an unbroken chain of inspired and talented Princetonians who have passed through FitzRandolph Gates to create new knowledge, to provide new leadership, to increase understanding, to promote human progress and to make a positive difference.

You face a set of opportunities that generations who have come before you could only dream of, but the complexities are also greater and the challenge of making a positive difference will call upon all your talents and test the depth of your moral commitment and courage.

As you depart from this historic green and pass outward through these FitzRandolph Gates and into the world beyond, you take with you not only a hard-earned diploma but our most enduring aspirations that your future will be guided by integrity and honor, by commitment to a set of moral values that reflects our common humanity, by a sense of perspective on the evolving human condition, by a sense of humor that reflects the humility appropriate to us all, by the courage to speak out for your beliefs and to defend the more vulnerable members of our society, and by a determination to extend your empathy to the widest possible set of peoples, ideas and beliefs.

Those of us who will remain here on campus (within these gates, if you like) hope that as you commence into a new century of amazing possibilities, your visions of service and your commitments to the wellbeing of others will be clear and compelling and will guide you through all kinds of human endeavors --In the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations!