February 7, 2001: On the Campus

The values of a Princeton education
Bowen’s words inspire a current senior to consider lessons learned

In December, a friend who knows of my interest in Princeton’s history gave me a book of excerpts from William G. Bowen *58’s writings when he was president. The book, containing mostly speeches from opening exercises and commencement ceremonies, reflects President Bowen’s efforts to explain to students the fundamental values of the university. As I read, I could not help but think that as an incoming freshman I could not have appreciated the message. As a senior, on the other hand, beginning to grapple with what my identity will be after Princeton and what my continuing relationship with the university might be, Bowen’s words captured me. I realized that over the span of four short years Princeton had, almost by osmosis and without my knowing, instilled its core values in me. Perhaps because it has taught me so well, I now feel a loyalty to Princeton that I have not felt toward any other place, and the rhetoric of the institution from 25 years earlier reminded me that in the rush to achieve as a student, I had not paused to consider why or to what I was becoming so attached.

Though dynamic, Princeton is in many ways timeless, and it is imbued with timeless values that bind us to it. Some of those values — diversity, individuality, and freedom of thought — border on cliché, and most students hold them even before matriculation. Princeton may sustain those values within students, but it does not create them and does not uniquely teach them, and so loyalty to the institution, at least in my case, does not stem from them. But there are other more unique, equally timeless principles to which Princeton adheres that it does transfer to students — or at least that I have unwittingly absorbed — and President Bowen’s writings forced me to think for the first time about what those unique principles are.

One such principle, remarkably simple yet easily overlooked, is, in Bowen’s words, “the education of students as preparation for citizenship.” In a sense, this is the core of “Princeton in the nation’s service,” but I had never thought of Woodrow Wilson’s creed that way. Students today view education as a tool for developing skills that we ourselves will need. It is much harder, and seems even brash, to think of education in terms of skills that civil society needs all of its citizens to have. But Princeton has taught me to view it that way, and that lesson leaves me indebted to its teacher.

Another principle, oddly, is tradition. Though it often seems the manifest weakness of conservatism, professor Toni Morrison reminded us in her 250th anniversary address on “The Idea of the Place” that tradition does not mean status quo. “Princeton’s poise rests on its tradition of independence,” she wrote. “Princeton’s subtlety lies in its ability to revise itself. Its strength is knowing what its founders knew, that service to the individual, to the government, to the world requires unwavering commitment to intellectual freedom.” In Bowen’s words, we have seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, we value the opportunity to be a part of something much greater than any one of us, and we feel a responsibility to provide the same opportunity to future generations of Princetonians. And though I could not have understood it when I arrived, I will leave Princeton with the same feeling.

Finally, if the abstract function of a liberal arts education is to teach its students new ways to learn and understand, I most credit Princeton with teaching me, by example, the humility of questioning. As Bowen told the graduating classes of 1973 and 1987, “I have often thought that one of the real contributions of Princeton is to encourage a greater openness to the all too real possibility of being wrong.” And I feel a strong loyalty for that timeless lesson as well.

At all times, but especially at the end of a record-setting capital campaign, it is important to ask why alumni are so drawn to continue their relationship with the university. Bowen’s answer, as eternal as the institution of which he speaks, is, “Our society has need of what this place, at its best, can be. The pull is finally as simple as that.” After four years here, imbued now as I am with the timeless values of this institution, I think I finally understand what that means.

Alex Rawson (ahrawson@princeton.edu), a senior from Shaker Heights, Ohio, is writing his thesis on the memory of Abraham Lincoln among African Americans from 18651968. His most recent PAW Online column, at www.princeton.edu/~paw, concerns his thesis.

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