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Vol. LXIII, No. 22
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
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Pres. Tilghman Highlights Importance of the Arts At 262nd Commencement

Dilshanie Perera

The lively three-day-long graduation activities at Princeton University concluded with the 262nd Commencement on Tuesday, which saw degrees conferred upon 1,128 undergraduate and 753 graduate students.

Approximately 7,000 guests were in attendance at the ceremony, during which Salutatorian Stephen Hammer, a classics major and Rhodes Scholar, delivered his address in Latin (a University tradition). The valedictory oration, given by Holger Staude, was in English.

Honorary doctoral degrees were granted to community organizer Ernesto Cortés Jr.; actor and civil rights activist Ruby Dee Davis; Princeton Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Irvin Glassman; Academy Award-winning actor and women’s rights advocate Meryl Streep; and chef and proponent of sustainable cuisine Alice Waters.

In the days immediately preceding Commencement, members of the Class of 2009 and their friends and families attended Sunday’s Baccalaureate service, during which U.S. Army General David Petraeus, A.M. ’85, Ph.D. ’87, challenged students to consider a career in public service, saying, “This is the time to ask yourselves: What pressing needs can I help to address?”

Class Day on Monday saw student speeches, awards granted to undergraduates, and the induction of honorary members into the Class of 2009. One such honoree was CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, who gave a speech that highlighted famous and infamous Princeton graduates, stressed the importance of hard work, cautioned against the cynicism, encouraged the celebration of excellence, and challenged students to give back through service.

“Never underestimate the contribution you can make. It has been said: If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito,” Ms. Couric remarked.

Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman made note of the changes in the world over the past four years, and emphasized the importance of the arts and the “pursuit of purpose and meaning” during her Commencement address on Tuesday.

Editor’s note: What follows are excerpts from Ms. Tilghman’s address to the Class of 2009.

A great deal has changed in the few short years you have lived and studied on this campus. The world watched in horror in the fall of 2005 as Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, abandoning thousands of people — mostly African Americans — on roof tops and in the convention center. And yet, last November 4 the world watched in wonder as the same country elected its first African American president. In 2005 you created your first Facebook page and began sharing every waking moment and thought with the world. Today you are down to communicating with just 140 characters on Twitter. And of course, you arrived at Princeton during one of the greatest bull markets in history, and you leave having witnessed the world economy in free fall.


Let me suggest there has never been a more opportune time to be a seeker after purpose and meaning. Everywhere you look there are enormous problems — many of them created by my generation, I will confess — that will take the hard work and dedication of every one of you to fix. The profligate burning of fossil fuels over the last century now threatens the future of the planet, and it will be up to you whether we are able to replace a carbon-based economy with one that is powered by vibrant green technologies. The world is also in dire need of voices advocating for religious and ethnic tolerance and understanding — to counteract the ignorance and hatred that drives so much of today’s violence both between states and within them. The growing inequality of opportunity that our broken K-12 education system has imposed on too many children in this country will only be reversed by talented and committed teachers, who will ensure that every child in America has a chance to fulfill his or her potential. Our inefficient health care system is on a path to bankrupting the entire country unless we find a way to more equitably share the costs and benefits of medical care. And of course, somebody has to fix the world economy.


In this deep recession, when there have been numerous calls for universities and colleges to provide job training, as opposed to a liberal arts education, and to offer degrees that are “good for something,” it is even more important that we defend the curiosity-driven search for meaning that has been an integral part of the tradition of universities going back to the Middle Ages.


Nowhere is this search more palpable than in the creative and the performing arts.


As Neil Rudenstine, Princeton class of 1956, a former Princeton provost and Harvard president, has said, “When we are reading Anna Karenina or Dubliners; when we are watching Othello or Riders to the Sea; when we are wrestling with Thucydides or reciting Keats, Yeats or Seamus Heaney, we know that we are about as close to the vital signs of human experience as any representation is likely to take us.… If we are fortunate and alert, we may gradually learn how to see more clearly the nature and possible meaning of situations and events; to be better attuned to the nuances, inflections and character of other human beings; to weigh values with more precision; to judge on the basis of increasingly fine distinctions; and to perhaps become more effective, generous and wise in our actions.” Or as the poet Wallace Stevens said more succinctly, “Art helps us to live our lives.” Art reveals meaning — through the process of creation and the process of observation.


I am now looking at 1,881 future patrons of the arts, and we need every one of you. As a society we cannot afford to neglect what the literary scholar Helen Vendler called “the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage.” In difficult times like these, we must be doubly protective of the arts…. We must do so not simply for the sake of struggling artists, but for the sake of the future of our society.

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