Opening Exercises 2018: The Miracle of Beautiful Ideas

Sept. 9, 2018

As prepared for delivery

When I climb the narrow staircase to this pulpit each September, I am reminded that in days gone by, the Princeton president would occasionally deliver a Christian sermon to instruct students about the ethical commitments that informed the College’s mission.  Those times have passed, a fact that I assume comes as a relief not only to me but also to most if not all of you:  I expect that you are no more eager to hear a sermon from me at this moment than I am to give one.

Yet, although this event now has an interfaith and secular character, it remains a moment to pause amidst the barbecues, ice cream socials, and info sessions of orientation week so that we can reflect on the University’s ethical commitments.  One of the many things that I like about Keith Whittington’s book, Speak Freely, is that it invites us to focus on the values that define research universities like this one.  Free speech is one of those values.  The commitment to truth-seeking is, as Professor Whittington says, another, even more fundamental value.

In the twenty-first century United States, we have become so accustomed to the idea of a research university that we rarely think about how genuinely astonishing it is to have these strong, durable, truth-seeking institutions in our society.  The fearless, unbounded, persistent pursuit of truth threatens conventional wisdom.  It has the potential to upend social dogmas, political ideologies, and religious creeds.  Ancient Athens executed the philosopher Socrates because he sought truth even if it meant exploding the city’s defining myths.  From that time to the present, repressive governments and leaders have sought to discredit, persecute, or even shut down universities and other truth-seeking institutions that threaten their worldview.

Throughout its history, the United States has invested magnificently in these disruptive, truth-seeking institutions.  That is a credit, I believe, to our society and its commitment to freedom.

You, personally, are about to invest in this truth-seeking institution.  I am not talking here about tuition payments, or room and board.  I am talking about something far more valuable.  I am talking about your time, your effort, your talent, and your character.

People these days sometimes use business jargon to talk about universities, and they describe students as “customers” or “consumers.”  That is a mistake.  You are not consumers of education.  You are makers of your education.  What you get out of this place depends on what you put into it.  You will have the opportunity to read extraordinary books, to meet and get to know spectacular professors, to receive demanding criticism that makes you dissatisfied with what you have done and pushes you to new levels of creativity and rigor.  Nobody will force you to take advantage of these opportunities or rise to these challenges.  Whether you accept the invitation to read books, or go to office hours, or seek out and listen to tough criticism is up to you.

You are makers, not consumers, of your education.  You have moreover chosen to make your education not at a technical institution oriented around practical skills, but at a liberal arts university dedicated to this remarkable, astonishing practice of truth-seeking.  You should ask yourself now, if you have not done so already, why that form of education makes sense.

Most of you will, I suspect, ask that question at some point while you are here.  You will complain to someone—a relative, a college dean, maybe even to me—that Princeton should teach more practical things, by which you will mean more things that can be put to use immediately to increase your chances of getting a particular job or succeeding at a particular task.  You will wonder why our courses so often focus on big, theoretical ideas, rather than the brass tacks of whatever vocation you hope to pursue.

I believe that the best answer to that question rests at least in part on what I call the “miracle of beautiful ideas.”  I promised you I would not give a sermon.  But now here I am, talking about miracles.  What do I mean by the “miracle of beautiful ideas?”

I mean that by some feature of our humanity or our cosmos, it turns out that one of the most genuinely practical things that you can do is to study the most beautiful, profound, ambitious, and challenging questions that you can find.  My favorite illustration of the “miracle of beautiful ideas” involves a Princeton graduate student, Alan Turing, who earned his doctorate in mathematics from this University in 1938.

Turing was interested in one of the most abstract questions imaginable.  It was a theoretical question about theoretical questions:  he wanted to know which mathematical questions are in principle answerable.

There is a movie about Turing, called The Imitation Game, because the mathematical ideas that he studied at Cambridge University in England and at Princeton enabled him to crack Nazi codes and save millions of lives.  They also laid the foundation for the digital revolution.  Many of the things that all of you consider enormously “practical” today exist by virtue of Alan Turing’s commitment to study beautiful, impractical things nearly a century ago.  In Alan Turing’s case, the apparently impractical questions that he studied turned out in short order to be decisively practical in the most urgent way imaginable—as a means to save human lives during a global military conflict. 

Princeton graduates also find that the “miracle of beautiful ideas” works in a second way:  exploring humanity’s deepest ideas while you are on campus prepares you to learn throughout your lives about other difficult things, both profound and ordinary.  That capacity for life-long learning is intensely practical for many reasons, and not least because many of the questions and circumstances that will confront the world when you are in your prime—when society will depend on you to lead—are impossible to anticipate today.

I said earlier that your investment in your education must include not only your time, effort, and talent, but also your character.  How you learn is just as important as what you learn.  To make your own education in a truth-seeking community like this one, you must embrace and exemplify certain demanding values.

One of those values is honesty.  In a community dedicated to truth-telling, it is essential that we be truthful about what we believe and why we believe it.  It is essential that we credit others when credit is due, and that we claim credit only when it is deserved.

That is why Princeton students have for generations taken their honor code so seriously.  There will be days when you will have difficulties with an assignment, a test, or a research project.  Truth-seeking is hard, which is part of the reason that we learn so much from it.   Because it is hard, failures are to be expected; indeed, failures are often the beginning of understanding.  Failures are entirely respectable.  Cheating is not.  There is never a good excuse for dishonesty.

A second, and related, value is respect.  The truth-seeking enterprise of this University depends upon respect.  To pursue truth effectively, we need others to respect the hypotheses and opinions that we offer, and, by the same token, we must respect the ideas and perspectives of those around us.  “Respect” is not the same thing as “acceptance:”  we are not obliged to accept whatever ideas or arguments are offered to us.  We are, however, obliged to take them seriously and to learn from them where possible, just as we want others to take seriously and learn from our ideas.

You are surrounded at this University by people—students, staff, and faculty—who deserve your respect.  If you give them the respect they deserve, I expect you will find that you have something to learn from everyone you meet. 

As with your education, so too these values demand your active engagement—you must recommit yourself to them throughout your time at Princeton.

That obligation applies not only to our individual pursuits but also to our community.  The values of our truth-seeking enterprise permeate the life of this campus, and we endeavor continuously to be more faithful to our aspirations.  The first archway through which you walk after leaving this Chapel will provide you with an example of what I mean.  Last spring, the Princeton trustees accepted a student-faculty committee’s proposal to name the eastern most archway of East Pyne Hall for James Collins Johnson, an escaped slave who worked at Princeton for over sixty years, beginning in 1839.  He served initially as a janitor and later as the first independent African American campus vendor, selling fruit, snacks, and drinks to students. Over the years, his entrepreneurial efforts made him a prominent figure in town and campus life, and upon his death, generations of graduates remembered him fondly as “the students’ friend.”

Johnson’s story was known to the committee partly because of the “Princeton and Slavery Project,” a multi-year research initiative led by Professor of History Marni Sandweiss.  As you might gather from the title of the seminar, Professor Sandweiss and her students were investigating the University’s connections to slavery.

In my view, the Johnson archway exemplifies several of the values that together make up our truth-seeking enterprise:  the need for careful inquiry into difficult and sensitive topics, including uncomfortable questions about this University’s past; honesty, not only in research methods but also in this University’s own account of its identity; and respect, for the extraordinary diversity of people who have contributed and contribute today to this extraordinary community.

I hope that those early steps through the James Collins Johnson archway will begin for you not only a joyous Pre-rade, but also a long and marvelous engagement with your classmates; with all of the undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and faculty on this campus; with the miracle of beautiful ideas; and with the truth-seeking mission of this University.  We are so delighted that you are here, and we look forward to the contributions that you will make to this community in the years to come.  Welcome to Princeton!