kitchen table math, the sequel: John Fleming - 2007 Baccalaureate address - Princeton University

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

John Fleming - 2007 Baccalaureate address - Princeton University

Ed just sent me this.

a ktm-2 moment:

The word "baccalaureate" of course refers to the bachelor's degree you will receive on front campus two days hence. This will be a sacramental action, a sacrament being the "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." The degree is an inward and spiritual grace conveyed by President Tilghman by the authority granted to her by the trustees. Its outward and visible sign, the diploma, you will pick up on Cannon Green. Don't forget to get yours. Even though it's only outward and visible, it did cost well over a hundred grand. Baccalaureate is a Latin word invented in the Middle Ages by translating the Old French bachelier. A bachelier was an apprentice knight, a warrior of such modest means that he fought beneath the banner of a superior knight. The etymology of bachelier is obscure, but we think it might derive from sub plus chevalier. This would mean "someone beneath a horseman." Being beneath a horseman, though perhaps preferable to being beneath a horse, still strikes me as a less than exalted status. Other associations of the bachelier are suggested by Chaucer's description of his squire, son of the knight, of whom he writes:

With hym ther was his sone a yong SQUIER
A lovyere and a lusty bacheler ...
So hoote he lovede that by nyghtertale,
He sleep namore than dooth a nyghtyngale.

As readers of "Romeo and Juliet" will remember, the nightingale is a dirty bird. And you have Chaucer's word for it that bachelors, of whatever gender, are hot.

Within a hundred years of its first appearance in English, its semantic field had expanded to include its academic meaning and its more common and current sociological one — a man as yet unmarried but ripe for the marital state. This suggests, doubtless, that the closest social analogies to medieval warfare must have been undergraduate life and matrimony. But the implication of a preliminary stage, a transition beyond adolescence but not too far beyond it, remains. Hence the perfect fit of Baccalaureate and Commencement itself. In every Commencement address I have ever heard — or given, for that matter — it has been pointed out that the word "commencement" clearly denotes a beginning, not an ending.

Of course there is an ending, and I must warn you about it. Beginning on Tuesday at noon, you are no longer the younger generation — and it's all downhill after that. The plenary valorization of the youthful, the contemporary, the innovative, the preference for 12-year-old violinists and 19-year-old metaphysicians, and the appetite for all the daily Apple updates, these are necessary features of American dynamism; at your age I embraced it completely, but I find I have grown in wisdom wonderfully in the last five decades, and I think you will do so soon. I now realize that at the very least the quintessence of the here-and-now must be tempered with the wisdom of the ancients, meaning something written, thought or said sometime before the day before yesterday.


From this elevated pulpit my view of the class of 2007 is one of extraordinary uniformity — hardly surprising, given the fact that you are all wearing the same uniform, the uniform of a bachelor of arts and sciences. Yet I know for a fact that the black robes are covering a near riot of individuality. You are an allegorical tableau of the philosophical problem of the one and the many, and the social and spiritual challenge of the individual and society — subjects which you have undoubtedly touched upon in your careers here. Neither as a nation nor as a university have we got this one fully worked out yet. It still says on the penny "E pluribus unum" with the emphasis clearly on the unity. For the last 20 years in the academy we have been extolling the "pluribus" part.

The magic word here is "diversity." "Diversity" aspires to the status of a terminal good and therefore a terminal goal. What does it mean, and what does it not mean? Actually academic "diversity" has a quite delimited range having to do with obvious racial, ethnic, sexual and religious distinctions: Some folks are black, some white; some straight, some gay; some are Hispanic, some Asian-Americans, some Methodists, some Muslims. "Diversity" does not mean that at Princeton we have many students of below average intelligence, or many who are illiterate, or quite a few who are dying of AIDS. I will not go on with a list of the underprivileged but very real categories of world diversity, but I will ask you to think, as Princeton graduates, how you are and how you are not like everybody else in the world.

From the 18th century we have inherited in 18th-century language, the doctrine that "all men are created equal," and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," then enumerated as including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Incidentally, the feel-good phrase "the pursuit of happiness" was a last-minute substitution for "the possession of property," and it was a mistake. The pursuit of happiness is the stuff of dreamers. The possession of property is the stuff of lawyers.

The stealth appearance of the Deity in our Declaration of Independence has proved something of a political embarrassment, abused by some on the so-called religious right as a charter of theocracy and by others on the so-called secular left as, apparently, a typographical error. As a Christian believer, I am less bothered than some of my colleagues by Jefferson's mixing of genres. Our founders were wise legislators, and one mark of wisdom in a legislator is a healthy appreciation of what law cannot do, no less than of what it can do. Legislation could not make of the whole world a family of brothers and sisters. The recognition of the universal fatherhood of God one day might. Hence the messianic requirement to "respect the dignity of every human being" belongs where it is in the baptismal covenant, but not in the New Jersey statutes. Where do Princetonians stand with regard to the universal equality of all humankind?

I see from U.S. News and World Report that Princeton is an "elite" university. The specter of elitism has haunted all my years here. Who wants to be an elitist? Many of my faculty colleagues are appalled by elitism. They combat it valiantly by wearing blue jeans to work, by sharing first-name terms with their students, and by maintaining rigorous neutrality concerning the competing moral and aesthetic claims of "Paradise Lost" and "Spiderman III."


Not long ago I was on an appointments committee reading the recommendations of job candidates. Concerning a certain candidate one letter said that this person's work was "always exciting and often brilliant." The adverb "often" spelled his doom. What? Only often brilliant? Princeton professors are brilliant 24/7. Reee-jected! These are the professors who moan about the evils of "elitism."

the project method

And you people, you Class of Destiny, you are if anything even worse [more elite] — meaning in this instance, naturally, even better. What it took to get into this institution is exceeded only by what it took you to get out. My career at Princeton was not paralyzed by self-doubt. I modestly considered myself capable of handling not merely my job, but any job in the place. But to one height I knew I could never ascend. I could never, ever have gained admission to the freshman class — yours, or any other Princeton class. I simply don't have what it takes. I had never done any of those things that you wrote about in the autobiographical statement of your admissions packet. I never backpacked through the Carpathians. I never made a papier-mâché model of the New York subway system. Not even with an unrusted nail did I perform an emergency tracheotomy on an asthmatic camel in the Gobi desert, thus saving myself and my companions from certain death. I did not in fact ghostwrite the enabling legislation for the most sweeping program of environmental remediation ever undertaken by the Ohio State legislature. My big "extracurricular" was the 4-H Club.

on gratitude

One mark of the mature elite sensibility is the capacity to experience gratitude and the power to express it generously ˜ in action as well as in word. So I hope even amid so much exuberant emotion you are grateful for this place and, above all to those in many generations whose support, encouragement and not infrequently sacrifice allowed you to be here.

on money and banking

So, Class of Destiny, we must be on our separate ways. As you go, be sure to take with you not merely your diploma but your whole education. I shall hope to see you around. That is a platitude, but then this is a Baccalaureate address. Besides, it's a platitude plus. One of the particular pleasures of long service as a Princeton professor is that just about half the time I am in or on my way to a really interesting place, I am likely to have a chance meeting with an old Princeton student. ....Once, in O'Hare Airport, a man in a business suit practically jumped over the security barrier to accost me. "Professor, uh, Professor!" he screamed. "You changed my life, Professor uh!" he continued, as the crowd formed. "You taught me 'Money and Banking!'" Well, I try to take the larger view. You cannot expect that a fellow who takes a course called "Money and Banking" when he is 19 years old will be particularly sharp when he is 49. Perhaps the firing of the synapses was slightly out of time, but the heart was in the right place. He knew that I was from Princeton, and that someone there had taught him something.

full text here

bonus: Fleming on procrastination

I learned the following things, among others. There are quite a few Princeton students who, six weeks into a course, do not know their preceptor's name. (I take comfort from the fact that only a comparatively small number do not know the name of the course lecturer either, and even those could usually give me a physical description leading to a positive ID.) I learned that it is quite possible for a Princeton undergraduate to take a course, indeed to write a passable paper for a course, without being able to tell an interested bystander (i.e., me) the number of the course, the title of the course or, most amazingly, the general subject matter of the course. Nor was it always possible for the interested bystander to deduce from the title of the paper to be submitted the course — or, sometimes, the department — for which the paper might have been written.

I cannot without hypocrisy impugn the undergraduate propensity for procrastination possibly revealed by this experience. I myself have long taken it as a rule of life that one should not postpone until tomorrow what one can postpone to the next day. Several students stayed on to chat after delivering their papers, and one opined that it was impossible to enjoy the full measure of anxiety offered by the writing experience if you handed the thing in more than five minutes before the final deadline.

Fleming wrote columns for the Daily Princetonian for years, though they're a bit hard to find. Some are here.

1 comment:

Tracy said...

I learned that it is quite possible for a Princeton undergraduate to take a course, indeed to write a passable paper for a course, without being able to tell an interested bystander (i.e., me) the number of the course, the title of the course or, most amazingly, the general subject matter of the course.

I had lecturers like that too.