I could be unraveling wherever I’m traveling, even to foreign shores
But I will always be emotionally yours.
— Bob Dylan, 1985
Some years back, my path crossed that of an esteemed American historian who, I suspect because he had a well-adjusted set of values, chose to teach at one of America’s great small liberal-arts colleges, in the company of a small gem of a department. His daughter had been a high school all-star in their corner of the Midwest, and had chosen to attend Princeton and major (not to his surprise) in history. He had been concerned that as an undergrad she might not receive the same attention in a huge department with a pile of grad students as she might at a well-staffed small college, but was relieved, and then subsequently highly impressed, as the faculty pushed her to extend herself, devoted significant time to her independent work, which earned departmental honors, and helped turn her into the type of rabid alum we would all recognize in an instant in any P-rade. He had a delightful time at her Commencement, meeting with her student and faculty friends, and when he got home he impulsively sent a note of thanks, for the occasion and for his daughter’s education, to Harold Shapiro *64, then the president. It just made the professor feel good, and he figured his Princeton history colleagues could always use an “attaboy” when budget time rolled around, or whatever.
Barely a week later, the professor was stunned to receive a letter — handwritten, no less — from Shapiro, thanking him profusely for taking the time to write, noting how important it was to hear from parents and friends of the University about its performance and priorities, and expressing Princeton’s gratitude that such a renowned scholar and educational expert would take the time to be so gracious and supportive. Shapiro regarded it as a major vote of confidence from an admired colleague.
It won’t surprise you to learn that it was, at least when we spoke, an open question as to whether his daughter or the professor had the warmer fondness and respect for Princeton. They certainly both felt they had dramatically succeeded in one of life’s major decisions. Not to mention the great beer jackets.
And so to the question: Is it even marginally sane to have warm personal feelings, to go so far as volunteering valuable time, energy, intelligence, and bucks, for the largest corporate employer in Mercer County, N.J., complete with the usual nagging parking problems?
Princeton is, for many of us, one of the most dramatically thick institutions we will ever encounter.
In my eternal quest to steal only from the best, I encountered recently an op-ed piece that addresses that very conundrum, although of course not to the specificity of Lot 26. The New York Times’ David Brooks, who tends to muse on philosophy when he can’t bear to address current politics, recently wrote a column regarding “thick” and “thin” organizations, as he put it. A thin organization (think, oh, your bank branch) may be practical, may even be necessary, but bears little or no emotional attachment. A thick one, in contrast, “becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul,” in Brooks’ words. And, I believe correctly, he doesn’t even raise the issue of size, leaving his conceptual framework open to a dramatic range of institutions, if they can somehow measure up to the challenge.
Princeton is, for many of us, one of the most dramatically thick institutions we will ever encounter. Let’s take a look at various qualities, defined by Brooks along with his friend Angela Duckworth, the brilliant author of the intriguing tome Grit, related to thick entities and their impact on our lives:
- A physical location where members meet on a regular basis. This refers conceptually not only to the campus, with Reunions and Alumni Day and Big Three weekend, but to the thirty gazillion Princeton Clubs around the world. If you want to get together with some Princetonians, just about all you need to do is go to the online alumni directory and clear your throat.
- A set of collective rituals. Oh, wow. If the P-rade doesn’t satisfy you, there’s the Alumni Day Service of Remembrance, various athletic events, concerts, faculty lectures, Hoagie Haven… . And any time you get together, and eight or 10 times at Reunions, you’ll end up singing “Old Nassau.”
- Shared, coordinated tasks. Here we consider two biggies with strangely complementary purposes, Annual Giving and the Alumni Schools Committee. Interviewing applicants gets the alums closer to the current student experience, which is a huge motivator toward the insane level of Annual Giving donors, which has been hovering in the 60 percent range for the past few years, the envy of colleges across the globe. My guess is most $25 or $50 donors — and there are many thousands — picture their money going to financial aid, not to Icahn Lab.
- Overnights (so you see each other the next morning). I’ve considered many facets of Reunions over the years, but the grim reality of facing your, uh, game-worn compatriots as a bonding experience isn’t among them; it makes sense, though. On a more cosmic level, living on a 98 percent residential campus as an undergrad certainly serves the purpose of burning images of undecorated classmates into your hippocampus.
- Sacred origin story. The best. John Witherspoon and the Declaration of Independence. James Madison 1771 and the Constitution. The Battle of Princeton. George Washington in Princeton, with Nassau Hall as the United States capitol.
- Near-death experience. The great story of the selfless bachelor John Maclean Jr. 1816 and the rescue of Princeton before the Civil War.
- Music. “Old Nassau.” “The Cannon Song.” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” “Rock Lobster.” PLOrk.
- A common ideal/shared goal. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service, and [whatever else it is today].”
- Idiosyncratic local culture. If Reunions and the P-rade don’t qualify, then we have a basic disagreement on the term “idiosyncrasy.”
- Initiation rituals. On the front end: Outdoor Action. The Pre-read. FitzRandolph Gate. The Pre-rade. Explaining the difference between the Pre-read and the Pre-rade. Opening Exercises in the Chapel. Freshman Step Sing. On the back end: Your thesis. Your dissertation. Reunions (before you graduate). Senior Step Sing. Baccalaureate. Class Day. Commencement. FitzRandolph Gate.
- A sacred guidebook or relic. There are two against which all others in North America fade to insignificance. Nassau Hall is the relic. And, bubby, you’re reading the sacred guidebook. If PAW isn’t a sacred guidebook, and Rally Round the Cannon its backstory, then we’re all in the wrong place.
- Distinct jargon. Aside from the enigmatic (Why “Cottage Club”? Why “Triangle Club”?), you only need two examples. P-rade. D-Bar.
- A unique label. You are a Princetonian. Bill Bradley ’65 is a Princetonian. Toni Morrison is a Princetonian. Ben Bernanke is a Princetonian. Michelle Obama ’85 is a Princetonian. There aren’t many folks around who don’t know what that means.
- Uniforms or emblems, “even secret underwear.” Now, of course, Reunions regalia is enough to retire the trophy in this category many times over, but I did have to cogitate a bit upon the underwear detail. I believe it’s a tie between the Class of ’82’s legendary striped Butt-Furr (you really had to be there) and the everyday splendor of Tiger Band and its trademark (literally) plaid blazers, America’s earliest foray into solar-power co-generation.
Brooks goes on to summarize the thick organization as having a focus on moral ecology, or higher aspirations than simply using its participants as resources. The whole existence of the entity and its operations, along with all its participants, should involve higher aspirations, and I think, for your consideration, that Princeton University and its activities around the globe reflect two of those that are hugely challenging: 1) developing and improving the best undergraduate education on the planet, and 2) Princeton in the service of all nations and/or humanity. And if that involves the president handwriting letters to the parents of new graduates, or you donning your Butt-Furr and stopping by the D-Bar for a cold one, so much the better.
But I would say this: Although the current thickness, built up literally over centuries, may be robust, it can always be stronger, and it can always degrade or even disappear altogether in the face of corporate structural regimentation and efficiency. To describe that fate as thin is inadequate; “tragic” is more like it. Recall the final line of the great movie, Patton: “… all glory is fleeting.”
A word to the wise, and striped: Stay thick. And see you at Reunions!
Dei sub numine viget. [Distinct jargon]