Do students have ideas, or just psychoses?

Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

— Franz Kafka

It has now been 85 years since Albert Einstein moved his sandals and sweatshirt into Fine Hall (now Jones Hall, adjacent to the Frist Campus Center, which used to be Palmer Lab before the new Jadwin Lab and bigger Fine Hall and … oh, you get the idea). Of the thousands of memorable occasions in University history in the 20th century, this is one of those few that seems impossible to ignore, in that it’s both the culmination of multiple forces conspiring to align and the jumping-off point for a wide and impressive array of ensuing adventures that encircle the globe and, quite literally, the universe.

We should have an honored place for such moments — others might be the admission of women, or the candidacies of Ralph Nader ’55, Bill Bradley ’65, and Steve Forbes ’70 in the same presidential election, say — as do the endlessly creative folks over at Dr. Who. The British spacetime adventure series has few constants beyond the good Doctor him/herself and the TARDIS, but it has been made clear, usually when a major character needs to be bumped off, that there are a handful of fixed events in all spacetime, helpfully labeled temporal nexuses, that are so crucial that they cannot be changed, ever, or the repercussions would be catastrophic at the very least.

Miraculously, this particular temporal nexus essentially cost the University only the price of the marginal janitorial service in Einstein’s corner office. A bit of backstory will explain:

The onset of Einstein’s mutual identity with Princeton goes back essentially to his documents on special and general relativity, which (like the preponderance of all worthwhile science) verged on the incomprehensible to most of his fellows. Some of the astute minds being assembled at Princeton by Dean of Science Henry Burchard Fine, however, saw them for the revolution they were, and jumped on the bandwagon. In the vanguard were three of Fine’s professors: physicist Edwin P. Adams; mathematician/administrator Luther Eisenhart; and astronomer Henry Norris Russell 1897 *1899. All were young and imaginative: Adams was 31 when he arrived in 1909, and Eisenhart and Russell were among Woodrow Wilson’s legendary first round of 50 Preceptor Guys. Their support, still controversial in the United States in 1921, led Einstein to schedule five acclaimed lectures in McCosh Hall on his two-month American tour. President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893 took the occasion to award Einstein an honorary degree, and Graduate School Dean Andrew Fleming West 1874, ever available with verbiage, extolled him as “the new Columbus … voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.” All this came prior to his official imprimatur from mainstream science with his Nobel Prize the following year.

Albert Einstein in Washington, D.C., during his 1921 visit to the United States
Harris & Ewing Photographs, Library of Congress

Meanwhile, still another of the Preceptor Guys, the mathematician Oswald Veblen, was building his reputation in math and at the same time exhibiting the management skills of so many of Fine’s original preceptors. He became president of the American Mathematical Association, and then was deputized by Eisenhart to essentially design the interior of the plush new Fine Hall, including the common spaces crucial to the team-building at the core of the great department of the 1930s and beyond. Elyse Graham ’07 has done a Fine job (sorry about that …) detailing Veblen’s huge efforts in the service of his field, of Princeton, of the European expatriate scientists threatened by Hitler, and most pertinent to our rumination today, to the fledgling Institute for Advanced Study.

In a miraculous bit of deus ex machina, just as the Depression gathered full force and budgets for college faculty tightened all over the globe, the Bamberger family decided to sell its eponymous department stores in New Jersey and endow … something. Attracted to the ideas of education reformer Abraham Flexner, siblings Louis Bamberger and Caroline Bamberger Fuld fleshed out the idea for the Institute for Advanced Study, founded in 1930 and at that point set in a corner of Flexner’s mind. This involved a passion for unfettered research into, well, just about anything, and the concept that really smart people, left alone per Kafka’s advice above, would come up with great stuff. A codicil held that there were no inherent limits on who was capable of that, it was a pure craniocracy. Thus individuals of any race, creed, or gender would be welcomed. Unless they were students, of course, for whom Flexner had no use. So there would be a brilliant faculty, some permanent, some transient. Period. The approach is encapsulated in his think piece The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, still today the watchword of the enterprise. Thus, with pure research as the Institute’s goal, he began with a math faculty and made his first hire — Oswald Veblen. The practical Veblen, strongly feeling that such a lofty enterprise needed the comfy cushioning support of a small college town, went to his first meeting in New York with Flexner and the Bambergers, and came away with a commitment to a swap — temporary quarters at Princeton’s new Fine Hall in exchange for permanent location of the Institute in Princeton, which he portrayed as a suburb of Newark, Bamberger’s home base. He then proceeded to direct the purchase of the various lands stitched together in the next 20 years to form the campus of the Institute, between the Princeton Graduate College and the Princeton Battlefield Park — in other words, some of the most historic and valuable undeveloped land in the state.

The Institute for Advanced Study campus
Hanno Rein/Wikipedia

And of course, Veblen went out during the turmoil in academic Europe in 1932-33 and hired for Fine Hall the initial faculty of the Institute, possibly the finest group of five mathematicians on the planet: Einstein, Hermann Weyl, James Alexander II 1910 *1915, John von Neumann, and Kurt Gödel.

The symbiosis of the Institute and the University, essentially a constant since day one, has paid off in all sorts of ways. The contiguity of the other faculty has been a persistent twofer selling point of both institutions, essentially a guarantee of immediate access not only to your own department, but another of equal or better quality. And the day-to-day ability to hop on your bike and go chat with Einstein, von Neumann, Freeman Dyson, George Kennan ’25, Shirley Tilghman, Daniel Kahneman, David Billington ’50, Sean Wilentz, Toni Morrison, or whomever on the other campus certainly is a plus. The Institute faculty who desire some students as a guilty pleasure have the option to teach or advise at the University (remember Dyson and the A-Bomb Kid?). And the University Library offers a cornucopia of research potential the Institute didn’t have to duplicate; in return for access, the Institute donated half a million dollars — roughly 10 percent — of the cost of building Firestone in 1948. The Princeton faculty also provides a fertile source for potential visiting members at the Institute, and the Institute an infinite source of symposium participants for the University.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t a couple of curious aspects to the relationship that are worth considering. One is an idle historian’s fascination that the unbroken warm relationship between the University and the Institute stands in curious contrast to the century-long friction between the University and the other game in town, the Seminary, with its far more similar pedagogic model, before things finally settled down. I guess in the short run the dogma ran over the karma.

The other startling contrast is the goodwill between educational ventures, one of which is built around the supposed pre-eminent student experience on Earth, with a faculty custom-chosen to fit; the other built around the supposed pre-eminent faculty experience on Earth, with students accordingly banished. No less a thinker than the legendary Nobelist Richard Feynman *43 derided the latter concept. “I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas,” he said. “And nothing happens.” Now Feynman was among the more gregarious people on the planet, but you do wonder if he’s onto something.

There are now eight other versions of the Institute scattered around the globe, which certainly implies some paradigmatic success. And I’m sure a year of quiet study following a few semesters of teaching, say, Fundamentals of Nanophotonics might be a worthwhile idea. But I like to think that as an enduring educational model, teaching and learning require a bit more than thought, they require humanity. In all its admittedly sordid glory.