Published in the October 21, 2015, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly
In PAW’s previous issue, I shared the speech that I made at Opening Exercises to welcome Princeton’s great Class of 2019 to campus. I thought that you might also enjoy reading the comments made during orientation week by our new dean of the college, Jill Dolan. Jill, who is the Annan Professor in English and professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, took office on July 1, and she is off to a tremendous start. I hope that you find her remarks as illuminating and insightful as I did. — C.L.E.
Since I became dean of the college, I’ve been thinking a lot about why people go to college. I’ve been a professor for a long time, but my new role demands that I have good answers to that question, for people who have made the cost and practicality of a university education such a flashpoint issue, and perhaps especially today, September 11, fourteen years after the World Trade Center towers crumbled to dust in New York City. One reason to go to college, in fact, is to recall our common history, as well as to prepare for and imagine the future. So why do people go to college? Why are you here?
In his recent New York Times op-ed piece, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who once taught on Princeton’s faculty, describes two opposing views of what college is for: utility and utopia. Appiah says, “As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they’re getting a good return on their investment. They believe in Utility University.”
Appiah also reminds students getting a liberal arts education that “liberal” comes from the Latin liberalis, which means “befitting a free person.” “Here,” he says, “college is about building your soul as much as your skills. … College, in this view,” he continues, “is where you hone the tools for the foundational American project of the pursuit of happiness. Welcome,” he says, “to Utopia University.” Now, which version of Princeton have you just joined?
Your parents, as well as some of your new classmates or roommates or teammates, might urge you toward utility, even as your heart and soul tempt you toward utopia. I’d personally suggest that you give yourselves some time at Utopia before transferring to Utility — or perhaps vice versa. But try to cross-enroll in both.
Yes, your future beckons. But the present is rich — the present is awesome, in fact, and you won’t be able to relish it properly if you’re only thinking about how your choices now will get you a job when you graduate. You will get a job, even if you can’t yet imagine what it might be! Utopia University gives you space to map a route that might be much more circuitous and unpredictable than you’d think.
As someone who leans toward the utopian myself, I want to end with three exhortations.
First: Take time every day to reflect on your experiences here. Keep a journal in which you write — every day. Go for a walk by Lake Carnegie — every day. Sit in Murray Dodge Hall with a cup of coffee and nothing else in front of you — every day. They say it takes 28 days to establish a new habit. Make one of your new habits reflection, so that you can capture and curate your time here at Princeton.
Second: Spend part of that reflection time thinking about the meaning and purpose of your education. Regardless of what life circumstances brought you here, you are all privileged to attend Princeton. This opportunity comes with responsibility. How will you make the world a better place? How will your life and work, even now, in your first year, help and enrich others? How will the example you set in your daily life on campus inspire your family at home and friends and strangers here? I hope you bring curiosity, compassion, and kindness to your lives — every single day.
Finally, because I lean toward the utopian, I like to invoke the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of “radical amazement.” Heschel said, “Our goal should be to … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.”
So my third and final exhortation to you: Be amazed every day while you’re here. And in your choice between Utility University and Utopia University, I hope you’ll lean, like me, toward utopia, not because Princeton is perfect — it’s not perfect for any of us. But lean toward utopia because in your astonishment every day, you might find a way to make the world that much more amazing for yourself and for others.
Know that the faculty are here for you, and so are your terrific residential college deans, directors of studies, and directors of student life. Know that we have your backs. Know that all we wish for you every day is radical amazement and, of course, the best of luck.