Princeton University's 2013 Class Day remarks

Class Day remarks

David Remnick

June 3, 2013 — As prepared

Thank you all, and thanks for that introduction and this soul-lifting honor. As for the previous speakers: Catherine, know this: you will live many decades and you will never know what "business casual" is. And Dan Abromowitz: Yes, it's true your dad helped hose me for Press Club, but I am not a vindictive man and I'm not going to take up your offer to go beat him up — though it is very thoughtful of you. You mentioned that he is "the bald guy sitting over there." Surely it's enough that he sees that I have what I like to call "reunion hair." 

Before I start, let me, in the tradition of the Princeton precept, deflect the fact that I haven't done the reading by asking an irrelevant question. Two, actually.   

First, in the past, graduating classes have asked for, and have heard from, on Class Day: Jon Stewart, Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Colbert, Chevy Chase, and, last year, Steven Carrell. So my question to the Class of 2013 is this: What were you thinking? Was Louis C.K. busy? Were the deans made uncomfortable by the prospect of Lena Dunham? In more serious realms, did Elena Kagan beg off because "the Supreme Court is still in session"?  

My decade-wide cohort of Princetonians includes one Coen Brother, two women on the Supreme Court, the founder of Amazon, and the First Lady of the United States. Dear friends on the selection committee, when you took all this into account and decided, 'What the hell, let's get the guy who picks two-drunk-penguins-at-a-bar cartoons for a living' … were you also drunk penguins at a bar? Or maybe you asked Sonia Sotomayor first but she refused to wear the beer jacket.     

The truth is, of course, I don't want to know what led you to your impoverished decision because I'm so immensely grateful for it. When this is over I'll definitely wear the beer jacket. And when it comes time to sing "Old Nassau," like you I'll pretend to know the lyrics and make the appropriate — and historically disturbing — arm movements. I'm that grateful.  

Now I don't love Princeton for the eternal Halloween of its school colors. What I loved about Princeton, and always will, was the real core of it: The learning, the fantastically varied company, the enshrinement of free thinking, the rigor. Unlike certain other schools one could name — Harvard, for instance — we have grade deflation here, and unlike certain other schools one could name — Harvard — we don't have gut courses like "Introduction to Congress" — guts that offer their finals "family style."…Really? "Introduction to Congress"? Too soon?   

In the fall of 1976, I came here from a very different New Jersey — Exit 166 on the Parkway, west of Manhattan, a little north of the Sopranos. I arrived at Holder Hall an amorphous teenager with a duffel bag of clothes and a cardboard box full of records: I was dim, denimed and desperate to learn. I majored in comparative literature — what my father insisted on calling "fancy English." My mother, anticipating a doctor or a lawyer in the family, announced, in her disappointment, that I would now surely be able to open a "comparative literature store."

Along the road I had a prolonged academic misadventure that featured a pre-deflation C plus and a D in Russian 102 and 105, respectively. But eventually, five years on, I graduated with a larger, if understandably vague, sense of possibility. I was changed, remolded, re-oriented. In Robert Hollander's Dante course, I began to learn how to read more deeply, with respect but without paralyzing fear. In John McPhee's course in nonfiction writing, I began to learn to read like a writer, to identify and imitate some of the infinite ways that experience and observation can be structured into that essential human artifact, a story.  

I existed outside the classroom, too. In my junior year, some friends and I started The Nassau Weekly. We thought this would last a few months and we'd have fun if we could fund it. Turns out the Nass is still here, nearly as middle-aged as its founders.  

For the Press Club — after overcoming the initial, and no doubt entirely reasonable, opposition of Dan Abromowitz's dad — I was a stringer for lots of newspapers in the area. One summer I wrote an obituary of the same Romance Languages professor a dozen times. The professor's death was awesome. I am sure he would he happy to know that it paid for my French textbook. 

In 1978, when the South Africa divestment campaign was the one glimmer of political activism on campus, I joined in a springtime occupation of Nassau Hall. We slept overnight on the corridor floors. As a result of our many minutes of suffering and sacrifice, apartheid immediately crumbled. Nelson Mandela, you're welcome. 

Honestly, it's thanks to those experiences, those teachers and friends, that I began to glimpse, if only ambiguously, a life. I left Princeton with considerable debts. The financial ones lingered for a decade or so before I cleared them. The debts to teachers and friends remain outstanding.

As for my misadventures in the Russian language: despite hundreds of miserable hours failing to memorize my verb tables, I ended up making my living at Russian as a foreign correspondent. Take note: This is just one of the two thousand bizarre things that can happen in your life. Failure has a way of inspiring no less than success does, so long as you don't take it personally. I think now if I got another crack at Russian 102 I might be able to pull off a B minus. Or with grade deflation, the thinking man's C plus. 

Speaking of writing, I arrive at my second question now. And it is this: President Tilghman — May I have an extension? I can get the rest of this speech to you by next Thursday. I think I have Lyme Disease. I'm pretty sure I got it in the spring of 1980 from a tick on C Floor of Firestone. You should see the stuff that's down there.   

No? Then I should begin in earnest …


Honored guests, President Tilghman, Soon-to-be President Eisgruber, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty and staff … proud and impoverished parents ... and above all, the Class of 2013 — congratulations.  

This morning is not a bad time to make a fleeting assessment of your early good fortune. Mine, too. I know well that some of you faced early hardships — some event or condition that doesn't conform to the cartoon of idyllic childhood or adolescence. Certainly not all of you are wealthy or, as we say in the tender modern way, similarly advantaged. Some of you faced real struggle to get here. And being here, you are, in some ways, the light of your families. That is not entirely a breeze either. You may not have all read F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, "This Side of Paradise." (What we say in Manhattan is, "Of course I've read it, but not personally.") But suffice to say that the cartoon of the Fitzgerald Princetonian known to you all, with his raccoon coat and glistening Martini, is nothing like the reality of the book, much less your own experience. Fitzgerald's hero, Amory Blaine, was a provincial boy of modest means who makes his way east, to Princeton. He falls in love with what we now call an "inappropriate" young woman far above his station. She breaks his heart. His mentor the monsignor drops dead. Finally, he gets shipped off to the meat-grinder of the First World War. "I know myself," he says despondently, and prematurely, at the end, "but that is all." 

Yet somehow or another, no matter what your scars and histories, you, like Amory Blaine, made it here, you studied, and you got to the end, earning the pride of your families and friends. There is hard work in that; but there is luck, too. Crazy sublime luck to have had the chance at all.  

Princeton is a complicated, flawed, but unassailably glorious institution. It always runs the risk of self-admiration but there is good reason to admire it: The possibilities it offers its students are limitless and you leave here, as I did, barely appreciating their variety. What was denied to you? If you wanted to learn Sanskrit, an instructor was flown in from Kathmandu.

Some commencement season speakers will tell you, in one way or another, "Charge headlong into the world!" Then they make big meaningful gestures with their arms, like Moses. Honestly speaking, this is idiotic. The so-called real world is, you may have noticed, is an appalling place, at times, and the contrast with Princeton may prove injurious. Princeton — any college, really — is like a particularly well-funded assisted living facility, but with a football team and more beer. You read a novel and this is considered work. This is why we alumni remember it all so fondly. 

You've also had the luck of attending Princeton in the era of a brilliant, and cheerfully tireless, university president. Shirley Tilghman has made Princeton, in the terms of your village philosopher, the great Anthony Appiah, a more cosmopolitan place: it is fantastically more diverse than when I was here, less parochial, less male, less white, more worldly.    

President Tilghman, as a woman of science, has not only shored up the university's preeminence in that realm but she has also recognized and supported the essential place of the humanities and the arts — not with hollow tributes but with important appointments, new facilities, and her own presence and commitment. She's ubiquitous: she's at McCarter, she's at Jadwin, she's in the labs; she shows up. You make an effort of mind or body, and she will be there to cheer you on. Her contributions to Princeton are described in concrete and steel, and in endowments, certainly — Shirley Tilghman has been to China in determined search of spices and gold coins more often than Marco Polo — but her legacy is deeply human. She has been a great university president.      

But your luck — our luck — stretches far beyond the 08540 zip code. It is true that we live in a country ruled, often enough, by knaves and jackasses — consider, for instance, the lion's share of the United States House of Representatives. It's as unlovely an assemblage as it is possible to imagine. (You would know more about this if you had had the chance to take a course like "Introduction to Congress.") But this is also a nation constructed by a committee of Enlightenment-era philosopher-statesmen, who, though slaveholders and male supremacists in their day, somehow managed to write a founding document that allowed for moral advance and political correction. As a result, for all the territory yet to travel, we can't deny a certain forward movement in human and civil rights, an African-American president, the rise of the LGBT movement, a reckoning, at last, that the vector of human progress is directly aligned with the ascent and equality of women. Our luck also extends to the scientific and technological. We live longer, travel faster, witness the previously unknown. Modernity includes the elimination of countless diseases, high-speed rail (in other countries other than the U.S.) and "The Great Gatsby in 3-D."

Consider the luck, finally, the sheer unlikeliness, of your being born at all. To graduate is lovely; to exist divine. 

The convention of the graduation speech, though, is not the assessment of your good fortune so much as it is the discussion of what you might do with it. Thirty-three years ago, the greatest songwriter in the history of English stood sullen and miserable on Cannon Green to receive an honorary degree. He barely said a word when he was here, but some years after he recovered, Bob Dylan said this: "A hero is someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom."  

I think that's about right and it’s what I want to talk about today. I have no doubt that you all have it in you to be a personal success, to have fine careers and fulfilling lives. I wish all that for you and more. But personal success is not the same thing as meeting the demands, the responsibilities, that freedom asks of you. 

Freedom, with all its limits, is not a natural condition. It certainly was not our original social condition. And it is by no means a universal condition. Freedom is fragile, rare, and provisional. We're reminded often about the immense number of countries that have made a democratic transition in the last generation or two. But this is a radically more complex story than we sometimes like to admit.  

The gaudiest entry in my own resume of dumb luck was to be a newspaper correspondent in Moscow during the last days of communism and the Soviet Union. Along with my wife, Esther Fein, a reporter for The New York Times, and some other similarly privileged characters with a press pass, I watched as a people, throttled by censorship, equal in poverty, intimidated by cruelties large and small, were first able to read and listen to the tribunes of  freedom. Newspapers that had once published nothing but what Orwell called Newspeak now published something close to the truth. Books banned for decades now saw print: "1984," "Lolita," "The Gulag Archipelago." We saw hundreds of millions of people come, blinking and amazed, into the bright light of historical honesty, their expectations raised to unprecedented heights. 

On Aug. 21, 1991, the triumphant night when a coup d'etat led by the secret police collapsed, I sat with thousands of others on the banks of the Moscow River and watched the fireworks and listened to the singing. In the coming days, young people, in an ecstasy of liberation, tore down the statues of the old Bolshevik leaders and secret police chiefs. Like so many, I entertained the idea that it wasn't just communist ideology that had eroded and collapsed. I allowed myself to think that after a thousand years of absolutism under the tsars and general secretaries, democracy had been born. My grandparents spent their childhoods in Russia before fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms for America; my mother-in-law spent years in prison camps before making her escape as a young girl. So in Moscow, my sense of fellow feeling was deep. But my optimism was out-sized and premature. 

No doubt many of you entertained similar hopes as you watched the events two years ago in Tahrir Square, in Cairo. Or in Tunis. Or, in the very first days of the anti-Assad demonstrations in Damascus. Your parents certainly remember the televised scenes, in 1989, of Tiananmen Square — courageous Chinese student leaders, some younger than you, brandishing democratic slogans. In those moments of historical delirium, if you squinted just so, liberty was within easy reach. The lock of history had been tripped. 

But mentalities, repressive institutions and history do not change so smoothly or easily. A generation later, the Chinese Communist Party persists. The brutally shrewd authoritarian reign of Vladimir Putin floats on a tide of oil profits. The hapless and retrograde vision of  Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood mock the pluralistic tone of Tahrir first street protests. These are but a few of the instances of the stubborn, jagged, and unpredictable nature of historical progression. The end of one form of oppression does not preempt the rise of another.  

I am not making a conservative argument against those liberating events — far from it. What I am saying is that the human capacity to underestimate the resilience of non-freedom and the forces of reaction is vast. We, and the other mature democracies, are well familiar with our own illiberal voices and impulses. In this country, they've been heard, in the wake of the 2008 election, in the Tea Party calls to "take back our country." They resound in nativist and fundamentalist voices everywhere. The impulse to stifle the press and freedom of thought, to torture, to occupy, to repress women, to impose an official religion, to monopolize power and wealth under the guise of development and stability — none of these tendencies necessarily disappear with the signing of a constitution.   

The question you face is the question a thinking person always faces: What can I possibly do about all this? It is hardly the only question in your life, but it is serious one — a central one. It's a question that seems so large that it's beyond us. Can't I just pursue a career, maybe have a family, and get on with it? Can't you, Remnick, just let me graduate in peace? But I want to suggest that we all, in the course of our lives, no matter how modest or private, will make decisions that are bound to shape the nature of freedom as we actually live it. You're not free when you are poor, or sick, or ignorant. You are not free when you're unable to shelter your own thoughts from surveillance. You are not free in the face of impending environmental disaster.  

Globalism is not just the ubiquity of Starbucks and the iPhone; it's the intensification of common responsibility. And this means that the future of freedom enlists and implicates pretty much everyone. Particularly people of talent, of means, of mobility. And that means you; all of us. It includes the system designers at a social media conglomerate who might determine to what extent privacy is just something to relinquish and commodify. It includes the scientists and managers of our pharmaceutical industry — they'll help determine not only what future therapies are available, but who can receive them, and on what terms. It includes writers and artists, scholars and policymakers who help establish and preserve a sense of what society cares about. It include people in finance  who have it in them to decide whether their immense economic power extends to the public good, to real governance and scrutiny and generosity.

In other words, there is no life of freedom without some sense of communal responsibility. When early civil rights leaders approached F.D.R., as far back as the forties about getting his endorsement, he said to them, in essence, make me. The movement grew under Martin King and so many others, and eventually it made Lyndon Johnson act responsibly, like a hero. You matter when you make yourself matter. 

But this isn't just about the great issues of what happens in the so-called public square. It relates to your personal goals and concerns, too. Some of you will live your workdays in pursuit of a fortune. Some will be professionals — doctors, lawyers, psychologists, software engineers. Some will be scientists, or marketing mavens, musicians, or entrepreneurs. Some of you will be community organizers or teachers. Divergent paths — but something is about to happen to all of you. A shift is upon you. You are about to enter a world in which there is no syllabus. There are no courses or distribution requirements. "Middlemarch" needn't be read by Thursday, "The Fire Next Time" by Friday. In fact, your requirements will include anything but that sort of thing: You'll need to make a living. You might have a family. Your parents will age. You'll consume time with obligations large and petty, with meetings and committees, with the latest must-see series on cable. Busyness and drift have only intensified with better technology: you'll want to glance yet again at your email, texts, Facebook page, Tumblr, Instagram, and whatever else northern California provides. It is entirely possible that you may even want to eat lunch.    

Our modern, distracted tendency is to ignore the feeding and exercise of the mind. With an element of weary self-regard, we declare ourselves too tired to read. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had no Internet, no air-conditioning, no cars — and yet we are absolutely certain that we have less time than they did. We leave for last — if we bother at all — with the activities that make our lives more complex, more enriched and disquieted, more muscular and inquisitive, and even confused. We ignore a great fruit of our liberty. We fail to read and see and listen to anything difficult or enigmatic. We begin to set aside, in fact, nearly everything we came to a place like Princeton to immerse ourselves in in the first place. In doing so we cheat ourselves out of so much of what makes us more vividly alive.  

Freedom, like curiosity, is, in some part, a muscle that atrophies when it goes unused. My heroes are those men and women who, in one way or another, put the demands and centrality of liberty at the center of their life's work. They have done it in different ways,  with different sensibilities, and from different angles. The great poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky defied his Soviet masters not by carrying placards or signing petitions but simply by refusing to acknowledge their authority. He insisted that he served something higher and more enduring — his language. In 1972, those would-be masters threw Brodsky out of the country, but he was right. He outlived communism and the empire itself.  

Few of us, probably none of us, will reach such heights or sacrifice ourselves so thoroughly, or beautifully, for our ideals. But you came here not merely to set out on a trade or profession, but to exercise the freedom of your minds. You're needed in the larger world — and not merely to shop and take up space. The stakes are huge. The project of building a free society isn't something you can farm out to the experts. You must, in some way, play your part. Freedom is not only a matter of constitutions and institutions; it's also fractal. It's built out of small contributions and instances of itself. The reason so many revolutions in the name of liberty finally disappoint often relates to an absence of the small civil structures, family structures, mental habits, habits of discourse and decency — that also nurture freedom. That can be a discouraging thought, but it's also an optimistic one. It says that freedom has texture. That what you do in your daily, seemingly private, lives can create a part of this texture, this pattern. That's as true of the future plutocrats and fabric designers among you as it is of the future schoolteachers and climate scientists.  


Finally, speaking of fabric design. Tomorrow you will all, weather permitting, be out under the June sun dressed in the low-tech microwave ovens known as academic robes. Underneath that synthetic cloth it will probably be so humid that the bio majors among you will be able to cultivate mushrooms. The econ majors will establish a private equity fund, buy the mushrooms, and sell them off. The English majors, of course, will know what to do with the mushrooms — possibly in collaboration with the chem majors. Anyway, it's a 50-50 shot that, with time, you will remember not a single thing about the ceremony beyond the feeling of relief of knowing that you actually made it to the ceremony.  

But let me tell you who will remember absolutely everything about these few days, remember it until their last breath. Your parents, your grandparents — whoever it is who raised you and is lucky enough to be here with you. In your lives, this is certainly a happy day, maybe a happy day made melancholy with the knowledge that you are scattering to pursue your separate lives. You will not keep up with everyone. I warn you now: the process of scattering grows more profound. So is the forgetting. I look blankly now at what must have been familiar faces in my yearbook and I wonder if it isn't time to visit the neurologist.

I know from experience, though, that your parents will remember your graduation almost as acutely, and with the same sense of wonder, as they remember the day you entered this world. Graduation is your achievement. You did the work. You wrote the thesis. But this day is also their immense joy. Trust me, it is a joy even greater than your own. I hope you will know the like in your own lives. That is just one of the many things I wish for you. Congratulations, all of you, Class of 2013.