I've gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover.
Gee, that was fun and a half.
When you've been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
anything else is a laugh.
— Carlotta Campion, “I’m Still Here”, Follies, 1971
Your Favorite Periodical is continuing its tradition of January theme issues with a focus on “resilience,” a timely question during a pandemic; seemingly more upbeat and useful than “things to do with a flashlight while hiding under the covers,” at least mostly. This subject seems a natural here at History Central, since the University’s 275th birthday later this year would imply something to do with resilience, even beyond trees planted and tended here many decades before any of us came along.
When I hear the word resilience, I just simply think of Dr. Joe Schein ’37, the incumbent and five-time winner of the Class of 1923 Cane given to the most senior alum returning to the P-rade. Joe is certainly the very model of an admirable character, not only in his choice of orange-and-black attire, but also his distinguished career in psychiatry, which continues cheerily unabated in his 106th year. I think we can all agree that listening to Americans prattle on about their spirit animals, inkblots, and insecurities for that long certainly puts Joe somewhere high in the Resilience Pantheon.
Perhaps, however, we need to consider the difference between resilience on a human scale and resilience on an institutional level. You can certainly argue that the very purpose of a place like Princeton is to transcend people and continuously improve pedagogy, in which case we would hope for resilience beyond the capability of any individual, no matter how talented, influential, or long-lived. With that logic, we move directly to the front steps of Nassau Hall.
It seems to me about as resilient as an inanimate object can be. No one in 265 years has screwed around with the color scheme, local Mercer County sandstone being about as dependable in hue and texture as the most recent Ice Age could make it, and the odd suggestion of such improvements as orange mortar having been rebuffed by those otherwise raucous folks at Buildings and Grounds. Humans have thrown a lot of challenges at the Old Girl, but she consistently emerges with her head held high. There was the 1777 unpleasantness with cannonballs after the British tried to tax our tea. There were the fires in 1802 and 1855 that virtually gutted the place — a not-shocking side effect of using it partially as a dorm for 150 years. Those then necessitated some internal upgrades including “architectural changes” by one John Notman, whose sanity obviously was completely expended in earlier designing the lovely Prospect House. His towers on the ends of Nassau Hall were an instant punchline, not really topped until New South (ironically, the literal antithesis of Old North, one on the long list of historic Nassau Hall nicknames) was unveiled in 1965; like most controversial occurrences in academia, they took uncounted decades to resolve before vanishing without comment. You also must consider that, until the slang term “Princeton College” came into vogue during the early McCosh years of the 1870s, the entire institution was colloquially known as “Nassau Hall.” Now, sans student residents absentmindedly setting fire to their rooms, it is a convenient focus for demonstrations, complaints, paperwork, and uneven floors with their sense of “history.” But it also contains our formal recognition of the preeminence of learning — in the 1906 Faculty Room — and the import of sacrifice — in the 1919 Memorial Hall. When you dwell upon these, even the president is literally off to the side. The feel of transcendent solidity and dependability pervades.
Yet sandstone is, well… sand. So resilient as Nassau Hall may be, might we continue to look for something even beyond the hugely symbolic walls, something a little more resilient?
Well, I can name you three Princetonians who thought so, to the degree they even tried to put it into words. Woodrow Wilson 1879 called it Princeton in the Nation’s Service. Harold Shapiro *64 embellished it to Princeton in the Nation’s Service, and the Service of All Nations. Sonia Sotomayor ’76 refocused it to Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity. You get the gist. The service to which they explicitly allude is a very specific type. It is the highly risky sort of service from the front, initially exemplified by both John Witherspoon and the sons of Nassau Hall he taught, the service that leads to freedom and the unleashing of the human spirit to fully become our better selves. Wilson first gave it a name in 1896; 100 years later, on the same spot, Professor Toni Morrison recalled his message, recalled the revolutionaries, and called it the Idea of the Place. The spot, of course, was in front of Nassau Hall. Behind her were the vivid reminders of that service in the Memorial Hall, and in the Faculty Room, reminders far too numerous and varied to absorb at once, but all crucial in reflecting the resilience of Princeton.
This service stems from what the religious folks term grace, the knowledge of the recipient that they have been given an undeserved gift. In this instance, it’s the opportunity to be part of, and learn with, a community which prizes the individual mind and the difference it can make to others — to everyone, in fact. In return, we are obliged in good faith to use that opportunity and to make the planet a better place. What that service entails on the ground has dramatically changed over the years in ways that even now are continuing and accelerating, but the necessary resulting variation in approach is at the core of our resilience as an institution, as well as (and here’s a personal payoff, in case you thought there wasn’t one) in our own realization of our abilities beyond ourselves.
I’m almost sure it was my mom who first mentioned to me the old saw about shallow minds discussing people, most minds discussing things, and great minds discussing ideas. There have been many great Princetonians, there are many vivid visual triggers around Princeton that recall its transcendence to us, but it may well be the service that each of us performs each day that provides the true historical resilience of Princeton.
Dei sub numine viget.