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July†11, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 15

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Commencement 2012: The Enduring Value of a Liberal Education

The Alumni Weekly provides these pages to the president

Published in the July†11, 2012, issue


On June 5, at Princeton’s 265th Commencement, I challenged the notion that the liberal education offered at Princeton and on many other American campuses is unsuited to today’s difficult economic climate. Taking James Madison of the Class of 1771 as my model, I suggested that the qualities of mind and character that the liberal arts engender are critical to personal success and civic vitality; indeed, far from being anachronistic, a liberal education should be viewed as a “vaccine against early obsolescence.” Here are excerpts from my remarks. — S.M.T.

It gives me great pleasure to continue the tradition of serving as the metaphorical bookends to your Princeton education by having the first word at Opening Exercises and the last word at Commencement. Four years ago, I predicted at Opening Exercises that your time at Princeton would fly by at warp speed, and I have heard from many of you over the past few weeks that it did just that. And while you may be experiencing nostalgia for your days at Princeton, I hope that those feelings are leavened with a welldeserved sense of accomplishment mixed with exhilaration and anticipation for what is ahead. After all, today we should focus on the future — your future. Otherwise, we would call this a Termination Exercise, rather than Commencement.

At those Opening Exercises four years ago, I posed a challenge that Adlai Stevenson ’22 presented to the Class of 1954 at its senior banquet: “Before you leave, remember why you came.” I suggested at the time that it is never too early to start thinking about that dictum. Today it is almost too late, but I hope as you do leave you will continue to think about why you came.

In my address I tried to suggest as strongly as I could that you should not be thinking about your Princeton education as preparation for a specific job and even went so far as to suggest that a Princeton education is intended to prepare you not for a single career, but for any career, including ones that have not yet been invented. In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours, developing the capacity to learn new things is as critical as how well you think or how much you know. Your education is intended to be a vaccine against early obsolescence.

That was then. This is now, four years after one of the most significant downturns in U.S. economic history. Unemployment was 6.1 percent in the fall of 2008; today it is between 8.2 percent and 18 percent, depending on how you count those who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work. So you might well be thinking to yourself, “Was this investment of my time and my family’s resources in a liberal arts education a good decision in light of recent events?” And for those of you who have just completed doctoral degrees, you might be wondering whether your preparation for a career in the professoriate will be rewarded with opportunities to teach the liberal arts to the next generation.

If you are asking yourself those questions, you are not alone, for economic hard times always elicit calls for more goal-oriented education. Let me give you some recent examples of this kind of thinking. Last October Florida’s Governor Rick Scott was quoted as saying, “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. … I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.” Last year one of the campuses of the State University of New York eliminated the departments of French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater in an effort to balance the budget, clearly signaling the lower status of the humanities and the arts compared to the revenue-generating sciences. Even former Harvard University President Larry Summers joined in the fray, questioning the continuing validity of General George Marshall’s plea to a Princeton audience in 1947 when he said: “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.” Summers suggested in a New York Times op-ed that skills in data analysis would be more valuable to today’s college graduate than learning from history.

It will hopefully come as no surprise to any of you that I reject the notion that a liberal arts degree has suddenly become obsolete. To make my case, I will invoke the story of an early Princeton graduate, as told to me by Hunter Rawlings, Princeton Graduate Class of 1970 and the former president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell. The graduate is James Madison, Princeton Class of 1771, who was, to be sure, no ordinary student. He arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1769 from his home in Virginia. He opted to take the freshman exams immediately — you could think of these as the forerunner of AP exams — and after excelling in them, he began taking courses as a sophomore. For the next two years he immersed himself in Latin and Greek, philosophy, natural science, geography, mathematics, and rhetoric, and actively participated in debate, helping to launch what is now the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. After completing all his requirements in just two years, he found himself at a loss as to what to do next, having no desire to follow the traditional professions of that day, the law or the ministry. So, adopting that time-honored tradition of all Princeton students — procrastination — he persuaded President John Witherspoon to allow him to stay on for a year and continue his studies in Hebrew and political philosophy, thereby becoming Princeton’s first, if unofficial, graduate student. At the end of that year, still not knowing what he wanted to do, he did what any sensible young college graduate does these days — he journeyed from one orange bubble to another in Orange, Virginia, where he lived with his parents for another four years. Now I can’t claim that he lived in the basement, but other than that missing detail, the story certainly sounds like a contemporary one.

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CURRENT ISSUE: July†11, 2012