2014 President's Commencement Address: 'Life's Journey and the Value of Learning'

2014 President's Commencement Address: "Life's Journey and the Value of Learning"
President Christopher L. Eisgruber
June 3, 2014 — As Prepared

In a few minutes, all of you will march through FitzRandolph Gate as newly minted graduates of this University. Before you do so, however, it is my privilege, and my pleasure, to say a few words to you about the path that lies ahead. I do so knowing that, for many of you, this morning's ceremony will quite literally take you down a path that you have never trod before. Campus mythology maintains that students who exit through Princeton's big front gate before earning their degrees will not graduate with their class. This superstition is of relatively recent vintage. When I was a student here in the 1980s, my classmates and I strolled merrily through the gate in both directions, with nary a second thought, and without, so far as I can tell, any adverse consequences. Traditions germinate in surprising ways on this magical campus, and, when they take root, they quickly seem as old and venerable as Nassau Hall itself.

But whether you have honored the taboo of FitzRandolph Gate or bravely defied it, this morning's steps will be something new, the start of an adventure into frontiers unknown. Today is a celebration of what you have achieved here, but it is also — as the name of these exercises would suggest — a "commencement," the beginning of a journey that takes you beyond this campus. That journey promises to be a challenging one, and even the first strides can be hard, as you leave behind a place that has been the locus of special friendships and personal growth.

Perhaps you will find it reassuring that Princeton students have felt that way not just for years or decades but for centuries. For example, John Alexander of the Great Class of 1820 waxed nostalgic about "his jovial hours at Nassau Hall," which he said he would always "consider [his] happiest." Likewise, Thomas Wilson, who graduated with the Great Class of 1879, said that he found leaving campus "harder than I had feared." He remarked that "a college man feels the first shock of [adjustment] at graduation. … Of a sudden he is a novice again, as green as in his first school year, studying a thing that seems to have no rules — at sea amid crosswinds, and a bit seasick."

Indeed, young Thomas' life story, though he graduated from Princeton 135 years ago, sounds remarkably modern. Tommy, as he preferred to be called, was not sure what to do with his life after graduation, so he went home to live with his parents. After that he went to law school and was admitted to the bar, but he failed miserably as a lawyer. He attracted no clients and he felt sick all the time. His doctor diagnosed "liver torpor." His disappointed and impatient father offered a second opinion. Dad told Tommy that his only problem was his "mental liver," and the cure was to "choose a path and commit to it." (I see several fathers in the audience nodding their approval!)

So what did Tommy do? At this point, I should warn the parents of the graduating seniors in particular to brace themselves. Contrary to Dad's advice, Tommy went back to graduate school and got yet another degree — this time, a doctorate in political science. Fortunately, that turned out to be a much better fit for his talents, and he made quite a success of himself.

Those of you with degrees in history — or who are experts in what we lovingly call "Princetoniana" — undoubtedly know just how successful Tommy became. Tommy's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, University Trustee A. Scott Berg of the Great Princeton Class of 1971, who is seated behind me on stage today, tells us that after graduating from Princeton, Thomas Wilson stopped using his first name. He switched to his middle name, which he thought sounded more grown-up and dignified. His middle name was, of course, "Woodrow." Scott Berg suggests that Woodrow Wilson ultimately became "the most influential figure of the 20th century." Others have emphasized that Wilson's character and policies had serious flaws. His legacy is both compromised and controversial. There is little doubt, however, that Wilson lived a life of leadership, service and consequence, despite — or, indeed, perhaps because of — the surprising twists and turns that his path took after he stepped away from this campus.

There is a lesson for us in this story — and, no, the lesson is not that all of you should start using your middle names (believe me, my own middle name is "Ludwig Maria"; maybe Wilson's change would work for you, but it definitely won't work for me!). Your path beyond Princeton, like Tommy Wilson's path, is likely to take many twists and turns. Immediate success is rare. You have to start somewhere, of course, but it may take you some time to find the right place. That is OK. You have emerged from this University with a liberal arts degree that prepares you for the long term — that prepares you to adapt and to confront challenges and to seize opportunities that you may not now be able even to imagine. My colleagues and I could not possibly teach you everything you need to know for your path beyond Princeton. We have not even tried to do so. But we have tried to teach you how to learn what you need to know to travel that path and to flourish in the places that it takes you.

Indeed, the twists and turns in the path beyond FitzRandolph Gate are not only inevitable. They are to be relished. Twists and turns bring discovery, they demand new learning — and that is a good thing. Discovery and learning help to bring joy and meaning to human life. That is one of the themes I hear frequently when I speak with Princeton alumni. They talk to me about how important continuous learning has been in their own lives. You may be able to become very successful by doing the same thing over and over again, and doing it very well. But it is much less clear that you can be happy doing the same thing over and over again.

Your teachers — represented by my faculty colleagues on stage with me this morning — have tried during your time on this campus to share with you the joy of scholarship and discovery that is so thrilling to us. Indeed, at the heart of all great teaching is the desire to inspire a genuine love of learning. You could hear that passion in the citations that we read for the marvelous New Jersey high school teachers, and the distinguished Princeton faculty members, whom we honored on stage this morning. It is one of the surprising and delightful secrets that all of us who teach discover as we go into the classroom. Some part of teaching is about transmitting information, but a lot of it, a wonderful amount of it, is about inspiring students to learn.

Even those of us who teach spectacular students like you find ourselves using all sorts of tricks to get your attention and engage your imagination. We will use whatever it takes: provocative questions, fanciful stories, in-class experiments, free food, bad jokes, dramatic pauses, demonstrative gesticulation! (That last was an example of both "demonstrative gesticulation" and a "bad joke.") Teaching is a remarkably personal act, and teaching well depends upon a remarkably personal relationship.

I am, for that reason, skeptical about some of the enthusiasm one hears for MOOCs — that is, for the "Massive Open Online Courses" that anyone can take on the Web. These courses have their uses. Used appropriately, they are good things. But it is easy to exaggerate their benefits and their power. I recently heard a reporter say that colleges, like newspapers, were likely to have their fundamental business model disrupted by online alternatives. Journalism, she said, relied upon a relationship between writer and reader, or between television reporters and  viewers, in the same way that universities rely upon a relationship between teacher and student.

Now, perhaps online technology will turn out to be, as some have predicted, a tsunami that radically changes all of higher education. Who knows; predicting the future is hard. But I do know this. The reporter's analogy is mistaken. There never was a personal relationship between reporters and their readers or viewers. Once upon a time, Americans welcomed Walter Cronkite into their homes and trusted him and maybe they felt that they knew him personally — but he did not know each of them. Think now about the teachers who have mattered most in your lives — the ones in kindergarten or high school or here at Princeton. Take a moment to picture them. I'll wager this: They mattered in your lives not because they were famous, not (in other words) because everyone knew them, but because they took the time to know you. Teaching is, as I said earlier, a deeply personal act.

I hope that, as you walk through FitzRandolph Gate, you will do so with a deep appreciation for the power of teaching. I hope that you will become advocates for the kind of personal teaching that has made a difference in your own lives. That kind of teaching is not something you can get from a MOOC. It is not cheap. To provide it, we as a society will have to invest generously in our schools and in our universities. But as we know from Tommy Wilson's story and your own stories, an investment in the personal art of teaching is one of the best investments that our society, or any society, can make.

I hope, too, that you will continue to experience the joy of creative scholarship in your own lives. The challenge won't be finding the books, or the syllabi, or the lectures. If you want them, you can find them. Easily. The challenge will be to find within yourself what your teachers have given you in the past. You will need to sustain the will to learn — you will need, in other words, to find the inspiration to read, the time to think, and the provocation and the energy to break away from the daily routines that enable you to cope with the responsibilities of adult life. Honoring the value of learning is not always easy, but if you do, it will make your life's journey more fulfilling. Your teachers on this campus have sought to kindle a deep and persistent love of learning within you, and, if you nurture that flame, its glow can illuminate your path and warm your soul as you journey beyond the FitzRandolph Gate.

Those of us on this stage — along with all of your teachers, coaches, deans and mentors at this University — wish you well as you begin that journey. We hope that as you go forth, you, like Tommy Wilson and generations of other Princetonians, will continue to consider this campus your home. We hope that you will return here for Reunions and for other occasions. And, finally, we hope that you will stay in touch with the teachers and the mentors who mattered to you. For teaching is, as I have said twice already, a deeply personal act, and you matter to us. So we send you our heartfelt congratulations, and we will watch your journeys with affection and with pride. We are thrilled that on this auspicious Commencement Day, you are now, and shall be forever into the future, Princeton University's Great Class of 2014.

Congratulations and best wishes!