October 10, 2001: President's Page
are excerpts from my remarks at Opening Exercises. When I think of the
beginning of a school year, the images that immediately come to mind are
those of my childhood in Canada: the glory of autumn leaves, a sharpness
in the air that foreshadows the winter to come, new school shoes, sharp
long pencils, clean notebooks in which I write my name with high expectations
that tomorrow I am going to learn something that will change my life,
the pure joy that comes from learning. Each of you is here today because,
based on your own unique qualities that cannot be captured by test scores
or lists of accomplishments, we believe that you have the capacity to
experience that joy, and then to go out into the world and make a difference.
To prepare you to take up that
challenge of making a difference, the university intends to give you two
of the greatest gifts it can bestow: the gift of discovery and the habits
of mind of a scholar. A Princeton education is built around two seminal
ideas: a broad liberal arts education in which one simultaneously pursues
a deep understanding in one chosen discipline while at the same time receiving
broad education in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences
and engineering. The second idea is that learning should be an act of
discovery. It is not sufficient to amass information in your head, analogous
to making deposits in a mental bank. That kind of learning is transitory
and ultimately hollow. Rather we intend for you to seek knowledge by understanding
how it is generated. Lasting learning is fundamentally an active process.
It requires an engaged mind, a curious mind, an open mind, a persistent
mind. It means that you dont take things on faith, but rather question
everything. So, as you go about this year, I urge you to keep foremost
in your minds two questions: How do you know that? and Why?
If you are asking those questions, you will be taking active charge of
your own education.
By way of illustration, let
me tell you how I came to understand the true meaning of scientific discovery.
I was a chemistry major in university in Canada, and by my junior year
I was a bored chemistry major;
it was not a good fit for me. I stumbled
by chance on a paper in the chemistry library that described a very recent
finding of two scientists named Matthew Meselson and Frank Stahl, in which
they reported on the mechanism by which DNA, the genetic material, is
replicated. The first thing that struck me about the paper was the importance
of the question being posed, for each time a cell divides, it must faithfully
replicate all its DNA and deposit equivalent amounts into each of the
two daughter cells. Now there were only a finite number of possibilities
for how this could happen, and whether the answer was A, B or C was not
particularly interesting, frankly. But what was absolutely gripping was
how Meselson and Stahl discriminated among the options. The experiment
they devised was clever, indeed elegant, and it led to an unambiguous
answer. What entranced me, so entranced me that I ran over to the biology
department to sign up immediately despite the fact that I had never had
a course in biology in my life, was not what they learned, but how they
went about it: how they discovered new knowledge about the natural world.
It was a thing of beauty, and worthy of a lifes work. And most importantly,
because I understood how they arrived at their answer, I never forgot
As freshman, you will begin
your journey of discovery in the Freshman Seminars, where a distinguished
faculty member will explore with you the process of burrowing deeply into
. In each of these seminars, the goal is the same: to
wean you from any residue of the notion that learning is just memorization
and to introduce you to the process by which a great scholar goes about
discovering new knowledge by uncovering deeper understanding of a subject.
That experience will be capped in four years by your senior thesis, the
most challenging and most beloved of the educational experiences at Princeton.
Well, beloved, I should say in all honesty, once it is written, copied,
bound and in the hands of your advisor. In that thesis you will put your
academic wings to the test, and you WILL, I promise you, make a discovery.
Learning and discovery are
intended to spill out of the classroom, laboratory and library and invade
every nook and cranny of the university. It has always fascinated me that
the process of scholarship can be both a highly solitary activity and
a distinctly social one.
It is important that you develop both styles
of learning: to have the discipline to focus deeply alone, but then to
know when to turn to your peers for help. That help can come when you
engage in meaningful conversations with roommates, conversations that
occur during long walks along the canal; they occur late at night in the
dorms and over the dinner tables in the residential colleges. I hope that
you leave time to have those conversations, because the best ones can
never be planned in advance. They also occur in more structured ways in
study groups, which I commend to you as a highly effective way to learn
by teaching others. Nothing exposes ignorance about a subject faster than
trying to explain it to someone else. Study groups and precepts also let
you acquire the art of civil discourse, the practice of respectfully disagreeing
with one another without rancor. That social skill is as important and
as universal as the intellectual and technical agility learned in the
classrooms and laboratories.
If we are successful, you will
leave Princeton with what I referred to earlier as the lifelong habits
of mind of a scholar. Whatever you chose to do thereafter, you will approach
new problems, new ideas, new opportunities with the right set of questions
and the intellectual tools to go about their resolution. Whether you are
trying to judge whether broccoli really causes cancer, trying to unravel
the complexities of the dot.com debacle, or interpreting the meaning of
a poem, you will be fully prepared. . . .
I look forward to our shared experience of learning together over the months and years ahead.