September 2, 2017
I want to speak with you tonight about two things: politics and love. Your class arrives at a complicated time in our nation’s history. Just in this summer, we’ve witnessed a devastating conflict with Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville; a war of words between our nation’s administration and North Korea; a cataclysmic storm and flooding in Texas and Louisiana that mirrors those happening at the same time in India; and threats to rescind DACA and the rights of transgendered people planning to serve in the military. The ground is literally and metaphorically shifting all around us.
Settling in at Princeton doesn’t exempt you from the issues raised by this historical moment: So let me ask, what do you think about these events and where do you stand? Does climate change exist and is the globe warming? Do you think racism is structural and systemic in America? What are your views on transgendered people in the military? What rights should immigrants hold, on our shores and globally? Whose lives matter, and who has the power to decide, and when? As a Princeton student, it’s your responsibility to learn how you will answer these questions and many, many more. And your professors will give you the disciplinary, methodological, and ethical tools with which to address them. We’ll be curious to hear what you think, without expecting you to think as we do.
Yet several of our faculty recently circulated a letter—under the auspices of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions—in which they urged first-year students to “think for yourself.” Let me quote from their letter: “Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”
Now, the James Madison Program provides a platform for some of our campus’s more politically conservative faculty. Speaking personally for a moment, I am a feminist, and probably among the more liberal faculty. But I’ve spent my own career doing exactly what my colleagues’ letter urges. I’ve questioned dominant and fashionable ideas, and learned how to make strong arguments by marshaling evidence, thinking rigorously, and writing persuasively, with clear thought and deep empathy. Thinking for yourself, in other words, as I, too, have done, is kind of a universal strategy. The point is to decide what it means to you.
The James Madison Program’s web site also rallies people to resist what they see as the tyranny of so-called political correctness. To the contrary, I believe the accusation of “political correctness” is a shibboleth, a handy allegation of conformity that itself silences argument and dissent. Princeton is hardly an echo-chamber of unthinking agreement. People across the whole spectrum of political perspectives engage profitably on our campus, and believe me, everyone does not think the same way. Just read the Daily Princetonian to see what I mean!
I encourage you to add your own perspectives to the multiplicity of circulating viewpoints, and to craft your arguments with nuance and elegance. But when you do, whatever you think, advance your ideas with respect, compassion, and kindness. Think independently. You must. But remember that it’s imperative to think about our commonalities and connections as a local and global community. We can think for ourselves ideologically while thinking in terms of others pragmatically and socially. Which begs the question: How will you address the urgencies of the world? How will the arguments you devise prevent violence, or the spread of fascism, or national inequality, or global degradation? How will you train yourself to be a global citizen?
Regardless of what life circumstances brought you here, the opportunity to attend Princeton comes with responsibility. The activist Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, once said, “There is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. . . . In a free society,” he said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” How can we be responsible to one another, in the best possible way?
I want to emphasize one more point before I end this exhortation. Being a student at Princeton invites you to open your mind to new contents and new ways of learning and new perspectives. But I also urge you to open your heart. Study what you love, since difficult learning requires quite a lot of passion to get you through. But don’t just love the ideas you study; try to love the people you interact with every day. Because love, too, requires work, and brings with it interdependence and even, grace. Love requires acknowledging our mistakes and failures, and working to forgive them and change them, because that’s the commitment we make when we belong to a community. I hope you bring love and compassion, as well as curiosity and kindness to every hour of each of your days.
Finally, I like to invoke at this meeting Heschel’s notion of “radical amazement.” He says, “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 I urge you: Be amazed every day. Open your heart and your mind, and think for yourself to benefit others. I wish you all the best, today and every day you spend on campus. Welcome to Princeton!