Memorial Day weekend was my 40th reunion and, coincidentally, my 61st birthday as well. I hope those 40 years have given me some perspective on Princeton and its place in the world.
My first impression was how otherworldly Princeton is – an incredibly wealthy and beautiful university in an incredibly wealthy and beautiful town. I suspect that the vast majority of my classmates and I (along with 99.99 percent of the rest of the global population) are not so fortunate as to experience such gilded circumstances in their daily lives. Bob Good ’71 and I gloried in that beauty when we wandered through one of our favorite haunts, the Institute Woods, and then again when we walked through the campus down to the gazebo where my friends and I had celebrated my 21st birthday shortly before our graduation.
My second impression was how many women thronged the pathways – a very good thing in my view, and how I wish it had been so in my day. As a product of the single-sex educational system of the time, I certainly would have benefited greatly from the experience.
But what really set me to musing was President Tilghman’s speech to the class Saturday night, with her emphasis on the diversity of the undergraduates, the University’s fostering of leaders who will make the world a better place, and “Princeton in the service of the imagination.”
Brian Langston ’71 commented to me that he thought “imagination” was what the ’60s were all about. It was nice to think that our class was so far ahead of its time. The feeling was enhanced when one of the undergraduates working Reunions asked, “Weren’t you guys hippies?” On the other hand, it was sobering to realize how many of us would not have had the necessary credentials to be admitted to Princeton today.
As for “diversity,” given the many opportunities provided by on-campus and off-campus organizations and associations for students to separate themselves from the mix, it often seems to me that what Princeton promotes may be more a matter of statistics than of reality. It is human nature that people feel more comfortable with those who are more like themselves than with those who are not. The sad fact is that diversity in and of itself does not teach tolerance or mutual understanding and respect. One still sees displays of insensitivity, misogyny, and bigotry at institutions of higher learning comparable to Princeton. I don’t mean to suggest that the University should become any the less diverse, but my own experience tells me that being a minority of one for a few weeks in a so-called third world country will produce far more sensitivity to and appreciation of social, cultural, religious, economic, racial, and ethnic diversity than four years at Princeton ever could.
And then, of course, there is the elusive concept of leadership and what I assume to be its intended corollary “success” as valued by an institution such as Princeton. I see how highly Princeton extols and publicizes those it regards as worthy, but the question that occurs to me is: How many real “leaders” does Princeton actually turn out? My son was graduated from university and then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps the week before Reunions. As a child of the ’60s I am no fan of the military, but based on the transformation I have seen in him over the past couple of years while he completed OCS, it is obvious to me that the Marines are far better at training leaders with the requisite attributes of personal responsibility and self-sacrifice than Princeton is.
Finally, just what exactly does it mean to be a “success?” Judging from Princeton’s institutional behavior, my sense is that the University predominantly thinks it means honors, awards, and very high intellectual, professional, or artistic achievement. But in talking to my classmates, I was struck by how many have had to overcome economic or professional misfortune, physical or mental illness, personal or family tragedy, or just plain bad luck – but still continue to strive to have good, useful, and happy lives. As far as I can tell, these classmates, some of whom no doubt have had to surmount far greater challenges than those whose achievements are lauded by the University or whose names appear on campus plaques and buildings, go unnoticed. Many other classmates who have quietly led exemplary lives in service to others also go unheralded. Yet to me, they are all successful, possibly even more so in their own way than many of those whom Princeton honors; and since so many of our “leaders” lack integrity, embody personal and public hypocrisy, and do more harm than good, perhaps Princeton should broaden its focus in celebrating its graduates.
As for me, I went to law school and became a “success.” By my mid-40s I was the managing partner of a law firm with a beautiful wife, a beautiful condominium in Back Bay in Boston, a beautiful home in the New Hampshire mountains, and two beautiful children. The price I paid was unrelenting stress that, when combined with a genetic predisposition of which I then was unaware, triggered late-onset bipolar disorder. I turned into what my wife now affectionately refers to as the creature from the black lagoon and embarked upon what one of my more scientifically minded fellow travelers calls the sine-wave life. While I lost the homes, the money, and the status, I was fortunate enough to retain my wife and children. Yet, when dampened, the same illness that ended my career gave me the opportunity to experience and achieve things I do not believe would have been possible had I continued on a conventional path to success.
Instead, I feel greatly blessed to have created a deeply loving relationship with my wife; to have actively participated in my children’s lives and to have grown up with them and guided them as they progressed through the years to adulthood; and to have traveled far and seen some fabulous places, done some extraordinary things, and met some remarkable people along the way. Most amazing to me as I write these lines is that I now find myself a happy man; and I would never give up the way I am now, not for a seat on the Supreme Court and not even for an appearance on the cover of PAW.
All in all, while I loved my last two years at Princeton and I value the wonderful and ongoing friendships I made there, I marvel at how little Princeton the educational institution prepared me for the years ahead. Maybe that was a defect in my intellect, my character, the curriculum, or all three – I don’t know. But I do believe that if Princeton sincerely wants to be useful “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” its own leaders should make a much more serious effort at instilling the attributes and providing the experiences that are truly relevant to its students’ lives in the world beyond Princeton, and most particularly to the vast majority of its students who will go unnoticed and unheralded. I am confident that Princeton then would have even greater success at making the world a better place.
While I do not suggest that Princeton should start its own boot camp or return to the days of in loco parentis, I do believe it would be well-served by adding a lot more worldly forging to its intellectual honing of young minds. Lest I be criticized for disposing without proposing, my particular prejudice is that Princeton should dispense with the standard freshman year entirely (something I found to be a complete waste of time along with much of my sophomore year, but perhaps things have improved since then) and mandate that its students spend the first semester traveling widely and – most importantly – inexpensively in first-, second-, and third-world countries (something entirely different from working or studying abroad in a small number of locations). Even apart from the intense and broad exposure to true diversity, there is no better way to learn essential qualities such as resourcefulness, adaptability, self-reliance, resilience, fortitude, compassion, and empathy. My own experience after graduation traveling overland with Tom Hart ’71 from Istanbul through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal to Kathmandu and then back again to London taught me far more of value than anything I was taught at Princeton and also had much more influence on my future interests and my perspective on the world around me. I suspect that if the sequence had been reversed, my years at Princeton would have been enhanced immeasurably. As for the second semester, I am sure that, with a little more imagination, Princeton could come up with a curriculum that would combine scholarship with teaching its students how to listen, how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to lead, and how to succeed.
On the other hand, if producing graduates who are better prepared to act as good citizens (in the broadest sense of the word) in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations is not Princeton’s job – if rather what Princeton really is all about is only to exist as a “vibrant community of scholarship and learning” that produces from among its thousands and thousands of students a small highly accomplished intellectual, professional, and political elite – then I commend it upon the great success it has had in doing so.
In closing, I would be giving Princeton short shrift if I did not end with something Lamar Oxford ’71 emailed to me the day after we had returned home from Reunions: “God bless Princeton for our dumb luck in finding each other as friends at the most perfect time in history to be in college and in the most perfect place for that experience ever conceived of.”
I hope there are many other alumni who feel the same way.