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Opening Exercises: The Educated Citizen

Published in the October 8, 2008, issue


The Alumni Weekly provides these pages to the president.

Speaking at Opening Exercises.
Brian Wilson
Speaking at Opening Exercises.

On September 7, we welcomed new and returning members of our University community at Opening Exercises in the Princeton University Chapel. In this politically charged year, I used my address to reflect on the critical role that education plays in shaping active citizens and to challenge every eligible member of the Class of 2012 to cast a ballot for America’s next president. Here is part of what I said. — S.M.T.  

These Opening Exercises mark the official beginning of the new academic year and provide a moment during the exhilaration and exhaustion of freshman orientation to reflect upon the meaning of the next four years. As some of you may have already observed, emblazoned on the walls of the Frist Campus Center is an appeal to the Class of 1954 from Adlai Stevenson, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1922, a former governor of Illinois and twice Democratic candidate for president of the United States. It says: “Before you leave, remember why you came.” There’s no better time to begin than now.

Of course, I fully realize that there is a great deal on your minds right now. You are hoping, for example, that your roommate was just kidding when he told you that his best friends are two Martians who live in his sock drawer. You are frantically reading the Course Offerings one more time and wondering whether that interesting sounding senior-level seminar on semiotics is really about naval flag signals. And you are trying to figure out whether it is a wild coincidence that the initials of the Princeton University British Society spell PUBS, and whether the crew team was having you on when they said that rowing is lots of fun and hardly anyone drowns.

There is one question that I suspect is swirling around in each of your minds. “Do I really belong here? Or was I the last student to be admitted, at 4 a.m., when the admission staff had just run out of steam and good judgment?” I can answer that question unequivocally. Each one of you belongs at Princeton, and you will soon find your place here. You were chosen with enormous care from a very impressive group of applicants, and each of you brings a distinctive history and array of talents to the Class of 2012. Together, you will live with and learn from one another, and through it all, you will meet those who are destined to be your closest friends for the rest of your lives. For all you know, one might be sitting beside you at this very moment.  

But now that I have answered at least one of your questions, let me turn the tables and, in the spirit of Adlai Stevenson’s “Before you leave, remember why you came,” suggest a question that only you can fully answer. The question is, “What should I aspire to take away from my Princeton education?” To help you formulate an answer, let me tell you what not to expect. Our purpose in offering you the finest liberal arts education in the world is decidedly not to prepare you for a specific profession (and here I must apologize to any parents who were under that impression), but our goal is to prepare you for any profession, including some that haven’t even been invented. We’re preparing you to be responsible and engaged citizens of your own country and of the world.  

Nor is this objective new. It is thought that the idea of a liberal arts education was born in Greece in the fifth century B.C., during the full flowering of Athenian democracy. Education in Athens was a mark of freedom intended to prepare individuals to be active and engaged citizens in a democracy by providing students with a firm grounding in logic and rhetoric, as well as mathematics and astronomy. The rationale for studying astronomy, by the way, was to prevent public panic during eclipses of the sun and the moon.

The close link between education and effective citizenship was also recognized by the founding fathers of this nation. John Adams memorialized this view in the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1779. Here’s what he said:  

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend upon spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.”

The founding fathers understood that education was not only the best way to preserve their young democracy, but that it was essential to build a vibrant nation. Citizens in the 21st century, just as in 18th-century America and 5th-century B.C. Athens, must contend with enormous challenges, from the nature of democracy itself, and whether its principles are universal and can be exported to other nations; to the potentially devastating impact of global climate change, brought on by a century of indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels; to the growing gap between rich and poor nations and the peoples within them; to the profound impact of religious intolerance and ethnic hatreds on our global security. Each of these challenges, and others like them, pose difficult and complex choices that defy simplistic or jingoistic answers. For the next four years you will be developing the knowledge and understanding, the mental agility coupled with the habits of critical thinking, that will prepare you to participate as engaged citizens in addressing these threats to our future.

Welcome to Princeton!  For the first time, the annual “Pre-rade” of freshmen was led by banners bearing the shields of Princeton’s six undergraduate residential colleges.
Brian Wilson
Welcome to Princeton! For the first time, the annual “Pre-rade” of freshmen was led by banners bearing the shields of Princeton’s six undergraduate residential colleges.

In the friendships that grow out of moments of triumph and despair—and be assured there will be some of both—I hope you will also acquire the capacity, as Professor of Religion and African American Studies Cornel West has so eloquently said, “To imagine what it is like to inhabit another’s skin.” For empathy—a capacity to identify with the dreams and aspirations of others and thereby share with them a sense of what unites us as fellow global citizens—is a critical part of the glue that holds this campus and all societies together.

By now you may have anticipated why, in my address, I have chosen the theme of education as the path to good citizenship. Unless you have spent the last two years on the international space station, you will be well aware that this is a presidential election year, and not just any election year. For the majority of you, Nov. 4, 2008, will be the first time you will be able to exercise that most cherished right of a citizen—the right to vote. Since 1972, when 18- to 20-yearolds first won the right to vote, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds has fallen from a high of 55 percent in 1972 to a low of 40 percent in 2000. Your age group has the lowest participation rate among all voters, which is ironic, given that you have the most at stake in an election, as you will feel the impact of the choice the longest. That discouraging downward trend began to reverse itself in 2004, and certainly the turnout during the primaries this winter and spring was very encouraging. Adlai Stevenson, in his address to the Class of 1954 that I told you about earlier, pointed out that voting is not simply a right; it is an obligation that comes with the privilege of receiving a Princeton degree.

“I would suggest,” he told the class, “that it is not enough merely to vote but that we, all of us, have the further obligation to think, and to maintain steadfastly the right of all … to think freely. … So you as educated, privileged people have a broad responsibility to protect and to improve what you have inherited and what you would die to preserve — the concept of government by consent of the governed as the only tolerable way of living.”  

This call to active engagement with public affairs goes to the heart of our informal motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” and should be a defining feature of your time on this campus. If your education is not directed outward in the service of society, it will be an egocentric and ultimately arid exercise.  

So, just as it is not too soon for you to be thinking about why you are here, now is the time for you to exercise your right as a citizen to vote or, if you are not eligible to vote, to be a keen—and critical— observer of this nation’s democratic process. In fact, I would like to issue a challenge to the Class of 2012 to take as its first class project the goal of registering every single eligible voter and ensuring that he or she votes on Election Day. I issue this challenge with the full expectation that you will vote deliberately and thoughtfully—avoiding the influences of the 30-second sound bite or the bloviations of the chattering classes, and disregarding the irrelevancies of the color of a candidate’s tie or his backdrop on TV. I urge you to approach your choice the way you will approach your Princeton education—by taking time to learn about the records of the candidates and their positions on substantive issues, and their vision for the future of America and its place in the world, and by debating the issues with your classmates, with those who agree with you and especially those who do not. Listen, learn, deliberate, and then, in an act of engaged and responsible citizenship that embodies the spirit of ancient Athens and revolutionary America, vote. 

I am looking forward to getting to know each of you and to cheering you on inside and outside the classroom as you chart your path through this great University. I hope that you will leave Princeton as educated citizens of this and 45 other countries, saying, as so many have before you, “This place changed my life.”

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