Princeton’s Class of 2023 began celebrating three days of graduation events on Sunday, May 28, with the University’s 276th Baccalaureate, a vibrant interfaith service in the University Chapel that offers graduates a chance to reflect on their time on campus and think ahead to life beyond FitzRandolph Gate.
In his Baccalaureate address, the renowned philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah encouraged the seniors to pay attention to attention itself.
"It seems to me increasingly that an ethical life can almost be defined in terms of habits of attention," said Appiah, who is professor of philosophy and law at New York University and Princeton's Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, Emeritus. "To come to grips with what we owe to each other, we have to see each other. We have to recognize that a person sleeping on the street is, first and foremost, a person."
He continued: "When you don’t see poor people, when you don’t see refugees, when you don’t see abuse, when you don’t see discrimination, what’s happening can be described, morally, as an attention deficit."
Speakers at Baccalaureate are chosen for their ability to illuminate ideas related to human values, broadly considered. Appiah's work explores topics including African and African-American identity, the social and individual importance of identity, and the cultural dimensions of global citizenship, drawing on his own experience and the work of philosophers throughout the centuries to raise questions about morality and identity.
Among many other honors, he is currently president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to NYU and Princeton, he has also taught at Cornell, Duke, Harvard and Yale. He is also widely known for his column "The Ethicist" in The New Times, where he thoughtfully responds to readers' ethical quandaries.
The Baccalaureate service, which is one of the University’s oldest traditions, includes music, blessings and readings from a range of faith and philosophical traditions.
Princeton's seniors, wearing their gowns and mortar boards for the first time, processed into the University Chapel Sunday behind banners representing each of the University’s seven residential colleges. Sunlight filtered through the stained-glass windows as the organ filled the air with Aaron Copland’s soaring “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and large, colorful kites danced over the students’ heads.
The Rev. Alison Boden, dean of religious life and of the chapel, began the Baccalaureate by rejoicing in the gathered seniors, "for all that they will contribute to a world that is starving for their talents, starving for food, starving for solutions to crises of violence and resignation, and of a planet in peril."
She continued: "May they rest secure in the knowledge that they are equipped for such a time as this; called and sent into such a time as this. May they find their joy in serving, creating and building; may they be patient with all the good that takes time, and impatient with all that is unjust."
University President Christopher L. Eisgruber continued the theme of service. “All Princetonians take great pride in our shared mission to be 'in the nation’s service and the service of humanity,’” he said, echoing the University's informal motto. “Now, as you prepare to make the transition from students to alumni, I hope Princeton’s mission will continue to shape your lives. At the heart of our community is the desire and responsibility to make the world a better place. As you enter your next stage of life as a Princetonian, I know you have left our campus better than when you arrived, and that you are poised to have the same impact on the world around us. For that, you have my deepest respect and gratitude.”
Four seniors then read from their sacred texts: Shruti Venkat from the Bhagavad Gita, Abdelhamid Arbab from the Quran, Zev Mishell from the Psalms, and Sebastian Williams from the Book of James. As Princeton enjoys the presence of all of the world’s major religious traditions, a single service such as Baccalaureate could never encompass all of them. The student readers are selected for their contributions to Princeton's religious life, and it is their particular traditions that are represented this year.
'Philosophical rigor, aesthetic grace, compassionate insight'
Following the student readings, President Eisgruber introduced Appiah.
"Anthony Appiah is a treasure, a marvelous person and a humanist scholar whose work simultaneously manifests philosophical rigor, aesthetic grace, compassionate insight, and gentle wit," Eisgruber said. "I can add that Anthony is a brilliant conversationalist, a thoughtful colleague, and a generous friend."
Eisgruber mentioned several of Appiah's books, including the one selected as Princeton's first Pre-read, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," and the five-volume encyclopedia "Africana" that Appiah co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Appiah was born in London and raised in Ghana, and among his "dazzling array" of awards and recognitions, Eisgruber said, he was presented the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2012.
"One of the great pleasures of serving on the Princeton University faculty is that you get to meet and know people like Anthony Appiah," Eisgruber said.
After climbing to the pulpit, Appiah opened his address to the assembled seniors with an initial reflection on paying attention.
"Sometimes you arrive at a table in a dining hall where an animated conversation is under way," he said. "You’re trying to figure out what it’s about, what’s been said, what’s agreed on and what’s disputed. So you’re quiet for a beat. You must pay attention. Well, that acute sense that you’ve entered the conversation late? That’s what it is to be born. A conversation has been going on, after all, since the dawn of our species, and we all enter that conversation late."
He shared a passage from Iris Murdoch about seeing a kestrel, which pulled her focus away from her self-pity — from herself.
"It’s helpful, sometimes, to think of the mind as itself an attention device; and to recognize that attention can take forms as various as our minds," he said. "John James Audubon painting a bird: a supreme act of attention. Ocean Vuong or Lorrie Moore writing a poem or a story about a bird: another act of attention. A composer writing a musical romance about a lark: crafting it is an act of attention, and so is listening to it."
He spoke of paying attention to the natural world, to issues of justice, and to oneself: "learning what you’re good at, what excites you, what stirs you." He described meeting a young Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Cambridge, where Gates encouraged Appiah to direct his philosophical training to topics like race and social identity.
"Recalling that campus friendship, a proverb comes to mind, a proverb in my father’s language, Twi," Appiah said. "'’Hu m’ani so ma me’: nti na atwe nam mmienu-mmienu.' 'It’s in order to blow the dust out of each other’s eyes that two antelopes walk in pairs.' You need companions to blow the dust out of your eyes. You can't blow the dust out of your own eyes. We can be more attentive together than alone."
He continued: "The great social movements of our day often ask us to tune into what we’ve been tuning out: to pay attention. The commonplace currency of moral critique — think of phrases like “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” — are ways of saying: c’mon, pay attention. ... It isn’t only that injustice can arise from inattention; inattention can itself be a form of injustice."
"[A]ttention — the kind that your time at Princeton has cultivated — gives us access to love, to truth, and to justice," he said. "Yes, all of you — all of us — came late to the conversation. But all of you, in one way or another, will be changing that conversation."
He concluded: "I can promise you this: pay attention, and attention will pay you back."
After rousing applause from the audience following Appiah's address, Boden and the Rev. Theresa Thames, associate dean of religious life and of the chapel, led the students in prayers. Four students offered blessings: Miguel Gracia-Zhang, Johanne Kjaersgaard and Liam Seeley jointly, and William Wade.
Thames concluded the service with a benediction: "Class of 2023, you will forever hold a special place in our memories, for you were the last class to join this University before the world changed," she said. "Through your endurance, you have left an indelible mark here at Princeton University.... As you step beyond this University into a world shrouded in uncertainty, may you trust the inner knowing, the wisdom that resides within you. May you always remember that even in the harshest of times, you — you! — are a living testament to the power of hope."
Students processed out to their waiting families and friends, many of whom had watched the Baccalaureate on large screens on Cannon Green, where birdsong punctuated Appiah's remarks.
The Baccalaureate service is available for viewing online, along with the full text of Appiah's address. End-of-year activities will continue with Class Day for seniors and the Hooding ceremony for advanced degree candidates on Monday, May 29, and Commencement for all graduates on Tuesday, May 30.