Hunter Rawlings remarks at installation of President Eisgruber

Remarks for the inauguration of Christopher Eisgruber at Princeton University

by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities

Sept. 22, 2013

It is a great pleasure and privilege to be here for Chris's inauguration. 

As a graduate alumnus, and longtime colleague of Bob Goheen, Bill Bowen, Harold Shapiro and Shirley Tilghman, and now Chris, I feel closely connected to this university, which has a unique place in higher education globally. 

Let me begin my brief remarks with my favorite Princetonian, James Madison. When Madison finished his degree here in 1771, like many humanities majors today he did not know what to do with himself, so he asked President Witherspoon if he could spend an additional year studying Hebrew and theology with the president. Witherspoon said YES (Chris I hope you will be open to such invitations from Princeton seniors), and Madison devoted a postgraduate year to pursuing more of the "useless knowledge" he had acquired previously. When that year was over, still at a loss for something to pursue, Madison committed what Americans today consider the ultimate sin: he went home to live with his parents. And he stayed there for four years, jobless and clueless about his future. 

Today, the young Madison would be counted a failure, and his education would be condemned as worthless by many Governors and other public leaders. His post-graduation salary of zero would in turn count against Princeton's ledger when it comes to rating universities by the now-fashionable measure of the average salaries of their alumni shortly after graduation.

The current rage for reductionist metrics depends in turn upon a purely instrumentalist view of the purpose of higher education. Society wants universities to be instruments of its short-term will, and to abandon or at least to curtail their traditional role of giving students a broad and deep education that will last a lifetime. 

This preoccupation with utilitarianism is a product of our success: America's research universities are so strong now, and so dominant globally, that governments, corporations and families are demanding many quick fixes from them: fast and cheap degrees and certificates, patents and jobs and economic development, mass education through online lectures, mass entertainment through intercollegiate sporting events, not to mention the current Beltway preoccupation, a fix for cyber security, and, that perennial Congressional fantasy, a biomedical cure for death. 

To accede wholeheartedly to all these demands is to convert our universities fully into that most American of objects, a commodity. Many states are already proceeding in this direction by tying funding for their public universities to the average salaries of alumni 18 months after graduation, and our President has recently made such metrics a feature of his new plan for evaluating universities. 

Accountability rules the day, but as Stanley Fish reminds us (NYT August 27), metrics measure only what can be quantitatively valued and push everything else aside as irrelevant. "Everything else" comprises intellectual stimulation, moral and ethical insight, critical acumen, deep thinking about complex problems, sharpened intuition, immersion in human cultures, the urge to challenge received opinion, and similar intangible, ineffable, uncountable qualities. In other words, the qualities you need to be an educated person and an informed citizen capable and desirous of contributing to a democracy, the qualities you gain and hone at a great university. 

I want to add one more item to the list of qualities engendered by great universities pursuing their fundamental mission: pleasure. We are so busy being utilitarians today that we derogate pleasure as an end in itself. And yet intellectual and aesthetic pleasure is an essential goal of higher education, one we omit at great cost and peril. Let me give two examples of what I mean. In 1870 Henry Cabot Lodge took a course at Harvard from Henry Adams. Here is what Lodge has to say about the difference that course made in his life: 

"In all my four years, I never really studied anything, never had my mind roused to any exertion or to anything resembling active thought until in my senior year I stumbled into the course in medieval history given by Henry Adams, who had then just come to Harvard…. [Adams] had the power not only of exciting interest, but he awakened opposition to his own views, and this is one great secret of success in teaching…I worked hard in that course because it gave me pleasure. I took the highest marks, for which I cared, as I found, singularly little, because marks were not my object, and for the first time I got a glimpse of what education might be and really learned something…. Yet it was not what I learned but the fact that I learned something, that I discovered that it was the keenest of pleasures to use one's mind, a new sensation, and one which made Mr. Adams's course in the history of the Middle Ages so memorable to me."

To teach students that it is a pleasure to use one's mind is our single most important task at universities, I think, and it seems inescapable that we cannot measure how well we perform it. Instead of talking metrics, let's listen to another source of wisdom on intellectual pleasure, namely, Lionel Trilling. 

"….if we abandon the idea of literature as an independent, contemplative experience, as a pleasure,…if we continue to make it conform to philosophies of immediate ends,…and do not keep clear its own particular nature, we shall be contributing to the loss of two things of the greatest social value. Of these one is the possibility which art offers of an experience that is justified in itself, of nearly unconditioned living. Upon such experience, or even the close approach to it, we have learned to turn hostile faces: that is one of the strategic errors of our culture, for in the long run the possibility of such experience is a social necessity. The second thing we shall lose is the awareness-it is ultimately practical-which comes only from the single-minded contemplation of works that arise from the artist's own contemplation of events and objects; this is an awareness of the qualities of things. In the realm of art we call these qualities style, in the realm of morals we call them character, in the realm of politics we have no name for them but they are finally important. To these qualities, especially in times of crisis, society seems to be stolidly indifferent; actually they are, after survival, the great social concern." 

We are in the age of big data, accountability, and hurry-up offenses. But long-term quality, not instant quantification, should be our concern in universities: helping our students gain "an awareness of the qualities of things" for a lifetime of personal pleasure and democratic contributions.

Intellectual contemplation and pleasure are, to put it mildly, not much in vogue these days, but they are clearly what Princeton gave to James Madison almost 250 years ago. Knowing Chris Eisgruber and his passion for intellectual engagement as the true measure of higher education, I have no doubt that Princeton will remain faithful to this central principle. And I wish him and all of you a lot of pleasure in its pursuit!