QOTD (2012-09-09)

From Princeton President Shirley Tilghman’s address to the incoming freshmen at today’s Opening Exercises:

With your matriculation at Princeton, and irrespective of your family circumstances up to this moment, you have now become part of the 1 percent, not in terms of wealth, but certainly in terms of future opportunity. Admission to Princeton is a privilege that is bestowed on very few individuals, and with it comes a responsibility to use your education to make the world a better place. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of all Nations” is not a hollow phrase, but a call to action that justifies the immense effort and resources that go into educating each of you. By virtue of that education, and the credential you will earn that signals to the world that you have worked prodigiously hard to pass a very high educational bar, you will have a dizzying array of options before you. We are agnostic about what you choose to do, but we do insist that it have a purpose that is larger than you.

I have been angry and bitter the last week or so as members of my Facebook newsfeed have begun to trickle back to a campus I was happy, in June, to leave behind. All summer–particularly at the end, when I did a course where many of my colleagues were still Princeton students–I couldn’t stand to hear my alma mater’s name mentioned. I was so happy to be done, so ready to move on (and I still am, dreaming every day about the first things I will do in Oxford, from the moment that I alight from the bus at the High Street stop and trundle my suitcases in the direction of Corpus Christi College), and I found that I had a very hard time indeed appreciating the central importance the small-time campus politics of that little town in central New Jersey to my former classmates, even though they’d only lately assumed such central importance to me too. (Forgive the long sentences–I’ve just been reading Trollope.)

But reading this particular excerpt from President Tilghman’s speech makes me feel a lot less bitter. The past four years, nearly to the day, since I sat down at Princeton’s version of a college freshers’ dinner and a boy down the long table asked us all what we’d done to get in, and I didn’t know what to say, since I was sure it was all a giant mistake, were for something. In four years I have come to understand something of what abilities I actually have to be put in the service of this nation and all nations, and having attained that clarity of purpose am now slowly beginning to do so–and, indeed, it is in large part because my undergraduate education served me so well that I have come to believe that liberal-arts education is, given those abilities, one of the greatest social goods that I can work to further.

To be sure, I’m glad it’s all over, I wouldn’t want more time, and in fact I’m just a little worried about how my sanity will bear my impending visit to Princeton at the end of the coming week, as I wend my way towards Oxford. But I have to keep remembering, too, what a solemn sense of purpose that university vested in me, and how I became on all accounts more honest, more generous, more conscientious, and more open-hearted during my time there. And that counts for a very great deal indeed.

If only (and here I hope you’ll allow me just a little self-righteousness!) more of the students who are lucky enough to spend a few years in the world’s fanciest universities realized that the burden Tilghman advises is the proper one to assume in appreciation of that good fortune!

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