A year after he retired from the faculty, John V. Fleming *63, the Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature emeritus, delivered the Baccalaureate address to soon-to-be graduates June 3. Fleming, who taught at Princeton for four decades, wrote a well-read column for The Daily Princetonian and served for many years as mace bearer and later chief marshal during Commencement exercises. He spoke to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83 a few days before this year’s Baccalaureate ceremony.
What’s the message of your Baccalaureate address?
My main theme, which is hardly original, has to do with the obligation that people who have been lucky enough to graduate from Princeton ought to feel toward society. In other words, from those to whom much has been given, a great deal can be expected.
Is there a greater appreciation for that message of service among students today than previously?
It actually swings markedly from generation to generation. The thing I’ve noticed is that student attitudes correlate pretty closely with the perceived state of the American economy. That is to say, when times are not terribly good and people are worried about whether they are going to get a job, the explicit focus on altruism definitely declines. This also is accompanied by a somewhat unfortunate pre-vocationalism or pre-professionalism.
I don’t think that a great university such as Princeton ought to be preparing you specifically for some job in a financial institution or whatever. A Princeton degree is not like an M.B.A. or a diploma in auto mechanics. But this year’s graduating class is really remarkable in the number of its members who have applied for public-service internships through organizations such as Project 55.
You carried the mace at Commencement for many years, and then you were the chief marshal. Do you still perform those duties?
No, I’m retired from the faculty; I don’t do anything official anymore. The mace bearer goes at the front and carries the big silver stick. I did that for many years before I became the chief marshal, whose responsibility it is to organize the academic procession and call the graduation ceremony to order. My wife put it this way: The job of mace bearer is high visibility, low responsibility. The job of the chief marshal is low visibility, high responsibility. So I traded a really good job for a not-so-great job.
What are you working on professionally?
I’m working on a variety of things, including several books in the medieval field. One is about Ovid in the Middle Ages. I’m still working on a book about Columbus. There’s a Portuguese Renaissance poet, Luiz de Camões, whom I’ve been working on for several years. But I also wanted to branch out and do something of a kind that I hadn’t done before. I’m writing a book about communism and anticommunism in American and French literature during the Cold War, and I’m having a lot of fun with that.
You are a Princeton graduate alumnus and former master of Wilson College. What will the presence of graduate students in the residential colleges bring to campus life next year?
We have had a problem here ever since the establishment of the graduate college. The direction that was taken 100 years ago was to maximize the ivory-tower aspect of graduate education. When I was a graduate student here, I had no contact at all with undergraduate students. We didn’t teach them or talk to them or have anything to do with them. Now most people in graduate school are apprentice college professors. That is what they are hoping to do with their careers — teach young people. So I think that this experiment, which will bring graduate students into residential contact with the undergraduate students, is great for the undergraduates and great for the graduate students.
Do you think the intellectual level on campus needs raising?
I do. There is a certain mentality I see here all the time that is the work-hard/play-hard mentality. You know, “We work hard at Princeton, we really study until 2:30 on Thursday afternoon and then we play hard until Monday morning at 9 o’clock.” This is not a healthy way to think about education, and to the extent that the colleges do offer some explicit opportunities for integrating social activities and education, it’s terrific.
Think about your own family and the exchanges that take place around the dinner table. This was a huge abdication that Princeton made way back at the beginning of time. The deal was, “You students set up your private dining facilities, and that will be your business, and our business will be reading, writing, and arithmetic.” The chance for graduate students and undergraduates to take their meals together should be a very positive thing.