I’ve often wondered why Norman Thomas, John Foster Dulles, and Adlai Stevenson came back for Reunions year after year and put on funny hats.
— Professor Marvin Bressler, in Conversations on the Character of Princeton
It can’t possibly be holiday time again, but somehow it is. Each December I take a stab at a nice little gift for you, the Discerning Historical Esthete, to make the five weeks or so between new editions of Your Favorite Periodical festive if not uplifting. In the past we’ve featured gems from a range of Princetonians, from the legendary Fred Fox ’39 to the profoundly obscure Samuel Trust Lewis 1866. This time around we go for the broad assault, with generous input from no fewer than 29 great Princetonians. Chief among them in this case is the playwright and popular teacher William McCleery (1912-2000), bedrock of the writing program, editor of multiple volumes on Princeton and Princetonians, board member at McCarter and the Prince, theatrical critic, and gifted conversationalist. It’s this latter that comes into play today, as I recommend to you one of his great works, Conversations on the Character of Princeton, written in 1986 during the Bowen administration and (crucially, as we’ll discover) updated four years later, including remarks from then-new president Harold Shapiro *64.
The brief volume (150 pages) comprises exactly what it promises: 25 one-on-one chats about what makes Princeton … Princeton. Served up alphabetically from Carlos Baker, popular English professor for 40 years, to Theodore Ziolkowski, renowned Germanist and dean of the Graduate School, they offer personal angles on the University’s wheels within wheels, creating pointillist imagery of the institution. Its colors are vibrant, thanks to the choice of faculty such as Suzanne Keller, Princeton’s first tenured woman professor; Neil Rudenstine ’56, Princeton provost and later president of Harvard; and legendary economist, dean, and provost J. Douglas Brown 1919, whose personal contact with the University then stretched back 70 years. They all coalesce on a small number of critical traits:
- Princeton’s single faculty, broadly involved in a range of activities outside the classroom
- The requirement for all faculty to teach both undergraduate and graduate students
- The close integration of the faculty and administration
- The close integration of and co-emphasis on research and teaching
- Strong support of interdisciplinary academics
- The requirement for all students to actively participate on a personal level (theses, precepts, etc.)
- The modest size of the institution, and lack of professional schools, with liberal-arts traditions infused throughout
- The tendency to discuss and debate any issue, with respect (which slows down simple things and enables very difficult things)
- The huge impact of Woodrow Wilson 1879, even 75 years after he left the presidency of the University
- Institutional loyalty among alumni
The point is made repeatedly that many schools have some or many of these attributes, but the combination and intensity of them is unique to Princeton — and this tends to be asserted most emphatically by those who have the most experiences on other campuses. Widespread interest in the welfare of the larger community also is demonstrated repeatedly: The unforgettable Marvin Bressler forcefully argues that president emeritus Robert Goheen ’40 *48 and Pete Carril have a great deal in common; McCleery immediately goes to interview them both, and finds it true.
These beautifully crafted views of the facets of Princeton and its peculiar ethos are as reaffirming and up-perking as anything I could possibly devise as a seasonal bauble, except that in this case they simply act as the elegant wrapping for the warm, personal item under the tree. My gift comes to you in the form of the introduction to the second edition of Conversations, from 1990, a rumination on the fragile nature of opportunity and experience viewed through the lens of time.
“I don’t know how many of the graduates of Princeton are beset, as I am from time to time, by guilty feelings for having gotten less than they might have from having studied in that great, dear place,” says the author of the introduction.
“My father told me that I was lucky, luckier than he and his brothers Lew and Tom. I could have, he said, a modern education… It would be up to me.
“He took for granted, as I came to do, that Princeton was a place designed primarily, maybe solely, for learning. He envied me the preceptorial system, which had come in after his time, and wished he had that experience, but even without it his memories were filled with the teachers he had known for the four years between 1895 and 1899; his one regret was that he had learned less than he could have if only he’d kept his socks pulled up and tried harder. When he talked of this, about how much Princeton had offered him and how much less he had been able to take, he sounded wistful. If he had it to do over, he said, and eyed me with a purpose.
“It is like this for me, looking back more than a half century. I had no idea at the time, back in the thirties, that the university was unique. I took it as simply given that the faculty were there as my friends, almost an extension of my family, ready to explore life itself in any complexity with me tagging along as a younger cousin, yelping in curiosity, everyone perplexed together. I could, I discovered, take it or leave it. I took some, enough to get on with, and left some. Ever since, I’ve wished I had more sense and taken it all, or anyway more than I did.”
If there is an alumna or alumnus who doesn’t identify with this wistful longing for second (and third, and fourth) chances, I’ve not met her. In a way, it’s Robert Frost on steroids, not only considering the road more traveled by, but the temptation of the warmth and siren song of the wayside inn that impedes the scope and adventure of taking either road, forever. It’s likely as universal as the nightmare in which you take your blue book, the proctor leaves, and you open your exam to find you forgot to attend any of the classes in the course. (Shudder.)
So where’s the holiday gift in that, you inquire peevishly. Well, the silver lining (golden, more like) lies in the identity of the introducer, whose laggardly ignoring of his good fortune and disdain for his dear father’s sage advice caused him such later heartache.
It’s Dr. Lewis Thomas ’33, acclaimed physician, medical administrator, writer and poet, recipient of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Award and an honorary degree here in 1976 — along with fellow underachievers Eugene Wigner and Mstislav Rostropovich — whose mesmerizing essays in The Lives of a Cell, The Medusa and the Snail, and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony dwell as deeply on the meaning of life on Earth and our role in enhancing and valuing it as any author of the 20th century. His principal focus for much of his undergraduate days was indeed The Tiger, not the classroom, and despite his subsequent fascination with biology his literary skillset would arise again while leading Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to make him the spiritual leader, if you will, of the American medical community. He was a living embodiment of the formidable liberal-arts traditions and practitioners embodied in Conversations; yet his reading of this primer in educational aspirations and practices served primarily to remind him of how much more he could have done, and supposedly could have been. That, indeed, is very hard to imagine.
So it should be a great comfort to us, in an odd Unintended Consequences sort of way, to see the melancholy of a truly great humanist and realize the extreme commonality we each have with him. We may have forgone things at Princeton that would have served us well; we might have become something very different. But the astounding richness of simply being at Princeton with Princetonians every day for four years or more — as described so well in Conversations — gives us each a broad variety of ways to be effective, valuable, and fulfilled.
In doing that this season, may God bless us, every one.