Opening Exercises 2013: Princeton’s Honor World

Oct. 9, 2013

Published in the Oct. 9, 2013, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

At Opening Exercises on September 8, I enjoyed the privilege of making my first formal remarks as Princeton’s president in welcoming the 1,286 members of the Class of 2017. I told the freshmen that I expect that we will always share a special bond, as we are embarking on our exciting new Princeton journeys together this fall. My address focused on encouraging the freshmen to reflect upon questions about how to live life well, which are explored in the book I assigned in our inaugural “Pre-read” program, Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Here is part of what I told the Class of 2017. — C.L.E.

Addressing the Class of 2017 at Opening Exercises. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

One of the great joys of collegiate life is the sense of renewal that comes each September, when new undergraduates and graduate students infuse the campus with fresh talent, energy, perspective, and enthusiasm. We know that the great Class of 2017 will enrich this University enormously, adding to Princeton’s lore and luster in ways that we can for now scarcely imagine. We are excited to have you here.

And, truth be told, I think that my fellow administrators, faculty members, alumni, and trustees who are in attendance today would admit that not only are we excited to have you here, we also envy you. You are at the beginning of a Princeton adventure that will challenge you, thrill you, and transform you. Unanticipated possibilities await you, and most of you will later look back on the next four years as among the best in your life. Most Princeton alumni retain vivid images of their first days on campus. Certainly that is so for me. Yet, for all the things that I do remember, I do not remember what the then president of the University, Bill Bowen, said to us that week. In fact, over the course of my academic career as a student, faculty member, and administrator, I have heard a great many addresses by university presidents at formal academic gatherings, and I remember almost none of them.

As you might imagine, I reflected on that fact as I composed these remarks. You might think that it would be depressing to me, as I sat down to write my first ceremonial address as president, to recognize that few if any of you would remember anything that I said. But in fact I found it rather liberating. It relieves me of any concern that my advice might somehow lead you astray or compromise your Princeton experience. What you won’t remember will not help you, but it cannot harm you, either.

And, of course, I have done what professors traditionally do to reinforce their lectures. I have assigned you a book, Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code. I am hoping, above all, that you will remember the question that motivates Professor Appiah’s book — the question of what it means to live a successful human life. Professor Appiah believes, as do I, that living well has at least two parts to it: living a life that makes you happy, and living a life that is of service to others.

There is an oft-quoted expression, attributed to both the charismatic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and the renowned activist Marian Wright Edelman, that “service is the rent we pay for living in this world.” I admire this sentiment — namely, that service will be part of any life well-lived — but I worry that the formulation is misleading. Describing “service” as “rent” makes it seem like a price that we pay for our happiness. You can do whatever makes you feel good, in other words, so long as you pay for it by donating time to others.

I suspect that is not what either Chisholm or Edelman meant. They undoubtedly recognized that service, far from being a price that we pay for happiness, is the precondition for it. To find an activity truly fulfilling, you must both take pleasure in it and feel a strong sense of connection between it and a larger purpose for your life.

You can achieve that connection in a wide variety of ways. Nearly any honest vocation will enable you to make a contribution to the world if you do it right. What matters is not so much which career you have but how you do it, and how you do it matters a lot.

One of the reasons that Princeton’s students and alumni so treasure their time on this campus is that they feel a connection to a larger purpose while they are here. Over the years to come, you will find yourselves challenged, stimulated, and engaged, and you will also feel that you are doing something that matters — preparing yourself for the future, for your future, for important but as yet unknown things to come.

Freshmen enter the University Chapel for Opening Exercises wearing the colors of their residential colleges. (Photo by Danielle Alio)

Indeed, one of the great gifts of college life, and one of the defining insights of liberal arts education, is that you can and must prepare for important things to come without knowing exactly what they are. You will inhabit a world, in this week and in the years to come, defined by possibilities that are almost unlimited. The person seated in front of you today, in this chapel, may turn out to be someone whom you see only rarely, or someone who becomes one of the closest friends of your lifetime. He or she may end up being a pathbreaking scientist, a celebrated writer, a dedicated public servant, or an influential business leader. Their futures, and yours, are for now unwritten.

Professor Appiah’s more specific concern is, of course, with honor. I suspect, given who all of you are and how you got here, that you are disposed to take honor seriously and to pursue it. You have been inducted into honor societies, graduated with honors, and honored in one way or another throughout the past year. Caring about honor, as Professor Appiah makes clear, can be a very good thing — it can help to guide you in the direction of vocations and practices that make your life fulfilling.

Princeton’s own Honor Code is an example of that. That code is part of what it means to be a Princetonian. It insists not only that you observe basic principles of scholarly integrity in your own work, but also that you care deeply about the scholarly integrity of your fellow students.

Over the last decade, I have spoken to many Princeton alumni, and I have been impressed by how much the Honor Code means to them. One alumnus from the 1970s told me this summer that he always gives the benefit of the doubt to Princeton alumni partly because he knows that their character has been reinforced by their commitment to this University’s Honor Code.

But as Professor Appiah’s book makes clear, a concern for honor can also lead to self-destructive behavior. His examples, such as dueling, are historical, but you can easily find others that are closer to home. Consider, for example, the hazing rituals that take place on college campuses, including this one. Decades after dueling went the way of the dinosaurs, German fraternities encouraged pledges to participate in sword fights known as “academic duels.” The scars they received were regarded as badges of honor. American hazing rituals involve alcohol rather than weapons. But the behavior is equally driven by a desperate desire for social esteem, equally self-destructive, and, if anything, more lethal — unfortunately, studies indicate that at least one American undergraduate dies in college hazing rituals each year.

Whether honor ennobles or degrades depends on the values and practices of your community — on the content of what Professor Appiah calls your honor world. When you arrived on this campus a few days ago, you became part of Princeton’s honor world, a community devoted to learning, to integrity, to being “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,” and to sustaining a warm and inclusive network that has its heart on this campus but extends across geography and time, binding together alumni of all generations.

Within that community, you will find yourselves surrounded by people who share these ideals but disagree — sometimes vigorously — about what they entail. I hope that during your time you will seek out conversations with all of these people — with professors, coaches, deans, counselors, chaplains, staff members, and, of course, fellow students. Learn from them. Question them. Question yourself. Rarely if ever again will you find yourself in contact with so many thoughtful people who can help you reflect upon your life project — what, in days gone by, people might have referred to as your calling.

All of you have been blessed with exceptional talents, and your time on this campus is itself a great gift. When, four years from now, you graduate from Princeton, you will find it easier than most people to be successful at whatever career you pursue. But being successful is not the same thing as being fulfilled or living a life that matters.

So I hope that, as you pursue classwork and research, as you compete on the playing fields, as you sing, dance, and perform your way through Princeton, as you enjoy the camaraderie of the wonderful students around you — as, in other words, you experience all that this University has to offer — you will also find time to wrestle with and to delight in the question about what it means to live life well.

If you are like most Princetonians who came before you, you will not find your calling until sometime after you graduate from this University. But if you are like most Princetonians who came before you, you will also find that it helps to start asking the relevant questions sooner rather than later.

So, I hope that long after you have forgotten my words this day, you will nevertheless remember why you came here: to immerse yourselves in Princeton’s honor world. To challenge yourselves. To seek your callings. And to enjoy yourselves, for you have now become, and you shall forever be, Princeton’s great Class of 2017. Welcome to Princeton!