'Learning should be an act of discovery,' Tilghman tells students

In her first Opening Exercises address as president of Princeton on Sept. 9, Shirley Tilghman told students that "learning should be an act of discovery" and provided an example from her own life.

Tilghman said she was a "bored" undergraduate chemistry major -- until she stumbled upon a paper describing a new finding by two scientists about how DNA was replicated.

"What entranced me, what 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," she said.

Tilghman's discovery as an undergraduate changed the course of her life, igniting a lifelong interest in the study of genetics and eventually bringing her to Princeton as a faculty member in 1986. The gift of discovery, she said, is one the University strives to bestow upon its students. Another is what she called "the habits of mind of a scholar."

"It is not sufficient to amass information in your head, analogous to making deposits in a mental bank," she said. "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 don't take things on faith, but rather question everything."

She told the class of 2005 assembled in the University Chapel that they would begin their "journey of discovery" in Freshman Seminars, where they would "burrow deeply" into one subject.

"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," she said. This journey will be capped by a Senior Thesis, where students put their "academic wings" to the test. "You WILL, I promise you, make a discovery," she said.

Tilghman told the students that the process of learning is both a solitary pursuit and a social endeavor. "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," she said.

She encouraged students to engage in spontaneous conversations with roommates and friends. "I hope that you leave time to have those conversations, because the best ones can never be planned in advance," she said.

She also promoted discussion in more structured settings. "Nothing exposes ignorance about a subject faster than trying to explain it to someone else," she said. "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."

Tilghman said that she hopes students leave Princeton with the ability to approach new problems, new ideas and new opportunities with "the right set of questions and the intellectual tools to go about their resolution."

In closing, she focused on the University's tradition and reminded students that the goals of a Princeton education have not changed over the years. She quoted a piece written nearly 100 years ago by Woodrow Wilson, who served as the University's president from 1902 to 1910 before becoming U.S. president.

He wrote: "What we should seek to impart in our colleges, therefore, is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning. It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in the habit of catholic observation and a preference for the non-partisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick to the letter of reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind."

"Welcome to this extraordinary community," Tilghman concluded, "and to the excitement of discovery. I look forward to our shared experience of learning together over the months and years ahead."

For the full text of Tilghman's remarks, click here .

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601