2010 President's Commencement Remarks

2010 Commencement Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
June 1, 2010 -- As Prepared

It is a great pleasure for me to continue Princeton's longstanding tradition of letting the president have the first word at Opening Exercises and the last word at Commencement. In between, I have I marveled at your commitment to community service, including your fall break trip to serve hot breakfasts to famished Harvard students who were suffering under President Faust's cost-cutting measures. As a Canadian, I was impressed by your construction of affordable housing during the big snowstorm, and like you, I was taken aback when the housing office said that setting up residence in igloos was forbidden. They obviously did not grow up in Winnipeg! I have also attended thrilling athletic events, like the bonfire that celebrated the football team's Ivy League Championship in 2006 and the amazing run of the women's basketball team to their first outright Ivy championship this spring. I watched Eliza Doolittle come to life on the stage this fall and Mahler's immensely difficult Sixth Symphony raise high the roof at Richardson Auditorium a month ago. And I have watched with pride as you responded to natural disasters of epic proportions, from the streets of Port-au-Prince to the mountains of Sichuan, China.

I have witnessed the electricity that is generated when Ph.D. students gather to share their work with one another, and I have seen how master's students at the Woodrow Wilson School have tackled some of the most challenging issues facing our world today through their graduate policy workshops. In countless office hours, lunches and dinners, you challenged me to think anew about everything from climate change to workers' rights; from gay marriage to the role of women leaders on campus; and, yes, that perennial favorite, our grading policy. For me it has been an exhilarating time; the best possible way to live one's life -- being continuously stimulated and impressed by young men and women who are preparing, through education, to imagine how they will create a more perfect union for this country and the world.

As anyone who has tried to change the world eventually learns, imagining is easy; doing is hard. I learned that lesson early in my career from a pathology professor who had a sign on his desk: "Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's experiments that count." As I think about the world that you are about to enter, it seems to me that effecting change has never been harder. We are living in an increasingly polarized world, in which discussion and debate -- those critical ingredients for creating fertile ground for change -- have become sharper and far more likely to result in impasse than in consensus. The national spectacle we just endured during the consideration of health care reform was not an edifying one, and it did not speak well for our body politic, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum. Both sides engaged in varying degrees of exaggeration and misrepresentation, committing errors of omission as well as commission. And far too few politicians, media commentators and engaged citizens took the long view that reform of some kind is necessary if health care is not to bankrupt the country, or asked how a society as privileged as ours could allow children to go without medical care.

A call for civil discourse has become the anthem of Jim Leach, Class of 1964, former University trustee and this year's Woodrow Wilson Award winner. A former Republican Congressman from Iowa who now chairs the National Endowment for the Humanities, he has been on a nationwide tour exhorting audiences to consider the dangers of the polarization in our political sphere. In a recent speech at Miami Dade Community College, he observed, "We see this polarization in the public square where history-blind words like 'fascist' and 'communist' are being applied to individuals in high office as if these individuals should be considered mortal enemies rather than political rivals; and where concepts like 'secession' and 'nullification' are being considered as if the Civil War didn't resolve issues of the human soul and the primacy of the union."

Politics has always been considered a blood sport. Although it may have reached its nadir during the famous duel in 1804 between Aaron Burr, Princeton Class of 1772, and Alexander Hamilton, politics has never been for the faint of heart, and never more so than today. Everyone has taken sides, retreated to his or her respective corner, and tuned into the cable networks where they will have their opinions confirmed or logged into the Internet bloggers who reinforce rather than challenge those opinions.

Markus Prior, a faculty member in the Department of Politics, has written a fascinating account of polarization in his 2007 Cambridge University Press book, "Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections." His thesis is that the proliferation of media, both cable TV and the Internet, which one would think would provide richer opportunities for dialogue in a democracy, has instead contributed significantly to the polarization we see today. For most of the second half of the 20th century, viewers had only three networks to choose among to learn the news. Those networks were relatively nonpartisan in their views, and Americans participated collectively in a nightly ritual of learning the events of the day by watching the 6 o'clock news. Today, as our University Orator and Class Day speaker will surely attest, those viewers have before them an impossible number of choices and can exercise that choice 24 hours a day. And too often, viewers gravitate to the news source that reinforces their own views. Whether you tune into Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann on the left or Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right, or look to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to simply laugh at it all, there is little doubt that the trend of framing national issues in the language of black and white; either/or; good guys and bad guys has created a downward spiral in the tone of our political discourse.

What does all of this have to do with you, the graduates of 2010? I would answer that question by posing another that President Obama asked the graduating class at the University of Michigan's commencement a few weeks ago, "How will you keep our democracy going? At a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and vibrant; how will you keep it well in this century?"

One aspect of keeping democracy alive and well is seeking common purpose and finding common ground with one another. Your Princeton education is intended to help you develop the character and habits of mind for you to do this. On our campus you have been exposed to a rich smorgasbord of ideas, perspectives and cultures, both inside and outside the classroom. Our goal was not to turn you into walking encyclopedias, although you may have felt that way during your general and comprehensive exams. Rather, you were asked to acquire learning so that you would have the intellectual foundation to engage with the great ideas and pressing issues of the day -- some that have endured since ancient times and some that are unique to our modern world. And through these encounters, you have had a unique opportunity to hone your own perspective on the world.

I am reminded of an evangelical Christian student who signed up as a freshman for a course I taught some time ago on genetics and evolution. Well into the course she confided to me that she did not believe in Darwinian evolution, but had decided to take the course so that she could understand the arguments on the other side of the debate. It takes real self-confidence to confront the other point of view rather than retreat into the safety and comfort of what is familiar; to critically explore a different way of thinking; and to be open to the possibility that one might actually change one's mind. Those inclinations define the well-educated individual.

That is not to say that our goal is to graduate a class of like-minded thinkers. Just the opposite is true, in fact. We want you to hold strong and well-considered views on a wide variety of issues and to be prepared to articulate those views in debate and defend them to critics. We fully expect that on matters high and low -- from the future of democracy to the preservation of the Dinky -- you will follow in the storied footsteps of generations of Princetonians who have sat on this lawn before you, and hold wildly divergent views. If you don't believe me, I suggest you read the Letters to the Editor in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. But in taking those positions and in debating them with others, we expect that you will embody the description of a well-educated Princetonian so beautifully articulated by Woodrow Wilson 100 years ago. Being well educated, he wrote:

"... consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the nonpartisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick in the letter of the reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind."

By now it has surely occurred to you that Princeton does not depend solely upon the faculty and its curriculum to expose you to "the other," as Wilson framed it, and to instill in you a respect for differing points of view. We have also deployed a truly powerful weapon -- all of you. You hail from the four corners of the United States and from around the globe, bringing with you experiences and beliefs that collectively form a panoramic view of the world's cultures. When a Christian and an atheist find themselves as freshmen roommates; when a straight and a gay man play on the same team; when a freshman from Nigeria and a fifth-year graduate student from Montana share the same table in a residential college; when a conservative and liberal are cast as leads in a play, they are all encountering "the other" in meaningful ways. Although it is always a little painful as a faculty member to say this, the powerful lessons you take away from your Princeton education are learned as often on the playing fields and performance stages, in dining halls, dorm rooms and eating clubs as in the classroom or laboratory. It is much harder to throw epithets at a group when the group has the human face of your friend or classmate. By living and studying together, you are able to see beyond difference to the common humanity that binds us together.

And so, as you walk, skip or run through the FitzRandolph Gates today, as educated citizens of this and many other nations, I hope you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that it has sought to teach you -- an openness to the other point of view and the courage to stand up for what you believe, all informed by the highest standards of integrity and mutual respect. And I expect you will continue to do as you have done at Princeton -- to aim high and be bold!

My warmest wishes go with you all!