Commencement 2020: Touched by Tragedy

A venerable Princeton tradition allows the University president to offer a few words to the graduating students at each year’s Commencement exercises.  You’ve all heard more than enough online speeches this spring, so I’ll keep my remarks brief.  I would be remiss, however, if I did not say something to mark the special achievements, and the exceptional potential, of this graduating class.

During my own senior year, which was a very long time ago, I chose a quotation from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to accompany my picture in The Nassau Herald.  The quote was, “Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”

This was a terribly naïve selection on my part.  I wanted to say to my classmates that our time together at Princeton had kindled dreams, ideas, and friendships that could inspire us throughout our lives.  But when Holmes claimed that he and his generation had been “touched with fire,” he meant that their character had been forged through the searing challenges and tragic deaths of wartime military service.  Through that perilous endeavor—and here I will quote the next line from his speech—“it was given to us to learn…that life is a profound and passionate thing.”

My generation experienced nothing like that.  For the most part, we had it rather easy.

You graduate in much harder times.  The awful contagion that now spreads among us tends to afflict the old more harshly than the young, so you may or may not feel your own life at risk.  Some of you, however, have lost relatives or friends to this virus, or struggled with it yourselves.  Many of you have seen jobs disappear or felt the economic devastation inflicted by this pandemic.  Each and every one of you has lost something precious and irreplaceable.

In far too many ways, you have seen how fragile our world is.  So much vanished so fast:  scholarly projects, artistic performances, athletic competitions, even the simple pleasures of sharing meals or hugging friends.  This ordeal affects us all, but it comes at a particularly formative moment in your lives.

So what will you do with this hardship?  The losses are real and painful.  What they took from you was beyond your control.  What you take from them, however—that is at least partly up to you.

It is thus worth asking:  how will you remember these difficult times when you look back on them many years from now?  Might you say, do you want to say, after Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “In our youths, our lives were touched by tragedy, and so it was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing”?

You are already the Great Class of 2020 in the sense that we traditionally call Princeton classes “great”:  during your time as Princeton students, you animated this University with your creativity, curiosity, intelligence, aspiration, persistence, and energy.  I have no doubt that you will continue to impress us with your achievements in the years to come.

I believe, however, that your class has the chance to be the start of something truly extraordinary, to appreciate anew the value of ordinary human experience and to cooperate afresh for the common good.  You enter a world that needs not only your talent, but also your insight, your courage, and your compassion.  With those qualities and with the education you complete today, you have the opportunity to chart a new course. I hope you seize that opportunity.

For today, though, I hope simply that you celebrate as exuberantly as circumstances allow.  You have persisted in tough times, achieving something remarkable.  I send heartfelt best wishes to you now, and I look forward to congratulating you in person next spring.

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