Princeton University, Office of Communications, Maddy Pryor (2023)

People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them. —James Baldwin

As we continue to chip away at the Story of Princeton here in History Corner, there probably should be warning notices posted along the way, listing the generic pitfalls of writing about past events, especially as they relate to the minute-by-minute world of today, or tomorrow, or whatever that is going down outside your window at this moment (if you’re in the bunker, you don’t have a window…). The problem is, what exactly do we put on the warning signs? “Whatever you’re doing, DON’T DO THAT!” seems needlessly alarmist, if not condescending, but we can each recall multiple instances where it would have been a help. I would say “avoid the pitfalls,” but if we’ve learned anything, avoiding a material societal problem has three possible outcomes: short-term delusion, mid-term friction, or long-range disaster. Probably the most elegant avoidance mechanism in American history, concocted by many of the greatest minds, was the three-fifths compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, an attempt to not address slavery in the nascent country. That worked out really well. 

But I digress. The underlying question to learning from history and incorporating its lessons is:

When is history, anyway?

The formulaic answer, “yesterday and before,” has just got to be wrong, or AI would have taken over writing history books decades ago. A couple examples: Is the Great Recession of 2007 history? Given its multifarious effects on current day fiscal policy of many sorts, and its multiple unprecedented components in the first place, you can argue it’s not really history — yet. Or take the U.S. Federal Election of 2024. While the outcome may be in doubt, its place in the political epoch that began in 2015 is already assured. In fact, I would argue it’s part of a history that includes 1920-32 as well, wherein myopic postwar blunders piled upon each other in seeming mockery of the “victors,” while the speakeasies and the mafia thrived. 

So let’s say that history is not a period in time, but the formulation of a cogent, stable lesson or intertwined lessons. And to be meticulous, it’s not just an achievement, like winning World War II or piling up $35 billion, but it’s additionally the formative background leading up to that.

Oddly, this popped to mind while I was watching, for the first time in many years, Gerardo Puglia’s documentary Princeton: Images of a University, which the college commissioned for its Bicentennial in 1996.  It is an evocation of Princeton’s history to that point through the eyes of those who were then around to describe it knowledgeably. Being a relatively unadorned attempt at descriptive recall, it offers up 25 years later an irresistible temptation to review what was said, what was thought to be history at that time, and what we now may see as a quite different history, or even as piles of successive happenings still unfolding and difficult to classify, except perhaps being “on hold.” The ensuing global context in which such changes would be reconsidered includes the aforementioned Great Recession, but even that is arguably eclipsed by two other cataclysms, the COVID pandemic (ouch) and — sorry to be a bummer — 9/11.

Princeton: Images of a University starts off in a bold attempt to instantly weave the University’s 250-year story into an unbreakable historical stream. Harold Shapiro *64, then president (and Princeton’s first Jewish leader), recalls preparing for office by reading the sermons of Presbyterian New Lights Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Davies as they prepared for the office 240 years before, defining what the import of a college would be in the relatively primitive pre-Revolutionary world they inhabited. He then, simply by name dropping, identifies the three great, transformative Princeton presidents over the intervening ages — John WitherspoonJames McCosh, and Woodrow Wilson 1879 — and three minutes into the two-hour movie arrives where we have taken decades to climb. (Bob Goheen, in 1996 still alive 25 years after leaving office, is not mentioned — but never fear, he will be.)

We see, without words, the Revolution, in the embodiment of smoky Nassau Hall and the Mercer Oak from the Princeton Battlefield, standing alone after 220 years. As we contemplate, we know the oak is now gone. The close of Revolutionary history, or a modern road sign?

With no space to decide, we’re in the Civil War, and Princeton is paying the price of the three-fifths compromise with 70 Civil War dead. Bang, President James McCosh is up to the plate in 1868; he lays the table for the overhaul of the trustees, the renaming as a university, and the ascent of McCosh’s student Wilson. We glimpse Princeton in the Nation’s Service, a binder of Princeton before and since. Not a single mention is made of Wilson’s bigotry, nor his subsequent regressive federal government actions, and thus no foreshadowing of the demise of the Wilson School and Wilson College names. 

Bang, President Truman is on the dais for the Bicentennial ceremonies in 1946. Military students open up the college to new socioeconomic influences after World War II, then we’re instantly in 1969 one-on-one with President Bob Goheen ’40 *48, who explains coeducation matter-of-factly, and then Professor Toni Morrison calmly slam-dunks the discussion shut. Neil Rudenstine ’56 analogizes the women with the simultaneous broadening of minorities on campus, and then we look at the Vietnam upheaval of 1970, and the crisis of decision for the campus. 

The ensuing 25 years fly by at a far higher pace: Princeton flags go to the moon, serious numbers of many minorities thrive on campus, the dominance of the clubs fragments under multiple options, the colleges (Woodrow Wilson’s proposal of 70 years before) become reality, the sciences and engineering become world-renowned and Nobel-winning, faculty members are called to serve in Washington, Princeton’s hands-on community service activities grow dramatically, there is a broad reaffirmation of core undergraduate experiences from theses to Reunions. And the bold prediction of, someday, even a woman president! (In the event, Shirley Tilghman took office only five years later.) “Old Nassau” is sung.

So, does the history of women’s power at Princeton then begin in 2001? No, it begins in 1968 with Professor Suzanne Keller and triumphs with Toni Morrison’s address at the 250th convocation. Does the history of campus emergency response begin with COVID? No, it continues back through a remarkably analogous marshalling in 1917 for the Spanish flu, and arguably to the arrival of Isabella McCosh in 1868 with her father’s medical bag. Are current free speech issues unprecedented? Just ask the great Norman Thomas 1905 in his efforts at pacifism during World War I. When did “Princeton in the Service of All Nations” arise? Even discounting the suspicion that Wilson meant that in the first place (think: the League of Nations), Shapiro directly addresses it in this film, noting Princeton during the recent Cold War in a sentence or two. What about the brand new quantum studies world? Let’s face it, the day Albert Einstein unpacked his bags on Mercer Street, that was highly probable. The aggressive student aid packages of the 21st century have origins a hundred years earlier — Goheen himself attended Princeton without tuition. Is the great new Lewis Center a birth of the arts? More likely a maturation of the quirky 185 Nassau St.

Does that mean Princeton’s history has stagnated in the last 25 years? Here are three juicy counterexamples, new history threads that have taken shape since 1996. My bet is you can easily come up with others. 

  • The words “ecology” and “environment” never appear in Princeton: Images of a University. Although we were warned in the 1960s, the University’s recent huge investment in both environmental studies and the massive sustainable campus are a full-blown history lesson already and compounding each day as the world at large dithers away.
  • The word “slavery” never appears in the film either. While in 1996 there were many activities and initiatives at Princeton related to identity groups, minorities, and even Afro-American Studies, the actual history of slavery at Princeton was not fully realized until the Princeton and Slavery Project began to gather steam in 2013, and has since caused a complete rethinking of who we were and should be, not to mention the Wilson naming issues and even a current reconsideration of John Witherspoon.
  • And last, an interesting example of personal history. Goheen, a sprightly 77 years old when the movie debuted, seemed an honored member of the team (along with president emeritus Bill Bowen *58, Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Shapiro, Rudenstine, etc.) in the film, explaining his era and its peculiarities. In a fascinating way, he has since switched histories as his efforts have continued to grow in scope and borne further fruit, such that the arrow from Princeton’s current standing as a preeminent modern world university points back directly to him. While perhaps less vociferous than his preacher/orator predecessors (although his fine small book The Human Nature of the University offers stunning insights on how to run an educational enterprise), he has since his death emphatically joined the likes of Witherspoon, McCosh, and Wilson as foundational creators of our own sense of what Princeton is.

When is history? Seemingly, it’s when we finally begin to understand. And if Bob Goheen stood for anything, it was facing the complexities of life head-on, understanding their import to his University, and in turn working toward our potential success many years on, incorporating them into the history of Princeton.