As Dean of the College, my staff and I are responsible for advising you through your academic curriculum and making sure you graduate with all the courses you need! But we also guide your intellectual development. With that charge in mind, I want to share a few thoughts of my own to send you off into your orientation week.
A lot of ink has been spilled these last few years about your generation. A lot of people are worried about you. Some commentators think you’re “coddled,” that all you want are “safe spaces.” They think you’re determined to turn away your eyes, cover your ears, and close your minds to any point of view that’s different from your own. Some think you’re so fragile that college should be a protective cocoon.
Well, I disagree! I think some of you, right now, might be scared about your transition to college, and worried about what lies ahead for you here at Princeton. Take your time—you’re going to be fine, and as Dean Rapelye said, we don’t make mistakes—you all deserve to be here! Each and every one of you.
In fact, I know you are resilient and discerning young people. I think you’re capable in all ways of engaging the complexities of your own transition and of this historical moment. So I want to challenge you to consider who you are, what you think, how you speak, and how you practice being a person in the world.
I hope you’ve all read Prof. Keith Whittington’s book Speak Freely, which is this year’s pre-read. And I hope you’ve considered it critically. As any good teacher will do, I want to invite you to decide what you think about the issues the book raises. I’ll start by saying I agree with some but not all of Prof. Whittington’s arguments. For example, like him, I, too, believe that the primary purpose of a university is to produce and circulate knowledge.
But I’m a feminist, who came of age when analyses of gender and race were just beginning to challenge the hegemonic presumptions of the gatekeepers of knowledge. As a result, I believe that how knowledge is produced and circulated is always marked by power. The fields in which I work—feminist and LGBTQ theatre and performance studies—weren’t always part of what’s considered “authorized” knowledge. To establish their institutional credentials required years of struggle and debate. The production and circulation of knowledge, in other words, is never disinterested, but is always inflected by power.
Prof. Whittington’s book is called Speak Freely. But does everyone have the power to speak equally freely? Who holds the microphone at the most visible events and whose perspective isn’t heard? And what about the emotion that often motivates speech? Emotions can be messier than rational arguments. Emotions are also marked by gender and race. Women, for instance, are often called “hysterical” when their anger heightens, and people of color are often seen as uncivil when their social rage flares. What some people call “civil discourse” other people might call “tone policing” or the “politics of respectability.” Are only certain ways of speaking legitimate? What do you think?
Speaking freely has consequences, which can be emotional, intellectual, and political. I was fascinated by a recent New York Times editorial (8-9-18), in which Thomas Page McBee, a transman, wrote about how differently people listened to him after his gender transition. As soon as hormones lowered his voice and made him sound more masculine than feminine, his interlocutors stopped interrupting him and listened more carefully to his ideas. McBee has decided to use his new authority to make sure, in his world, that those with less power can be heard. He wants to attend carefully to their thoughts instead of always asserting his own.
Given how speech can be received differently depending on who’s speaking and who’s listening, I would add to Prof. Whittington’s description of a university’s primary role: On a residential campus like ours, we’re not just producing and circulating knowledge. We’re also experimenting with how to best live among one another, so how we speak demands thought and intention. Last year’s class valedictorian, Kyle Berlin, often argued that “education fails if it doesn’t teach forgiveness or kindness or compassion or love, in their repeated and most radical forms” (email correspondence, 8-6-18). Kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love are practices, things that we do, habits of emotion and mind that can be rehearsed daily, to modulate how we speak.
Each of your classes and activities will offer you different speaking and listening choices. Pay attention to your posture within them: Are you speaking freely? Is everyone else? Who is silent? Are you listening? How carefully? Can you defend your arguments? Are you willing to change your mind? Think about your own identity when you speak, but don’t be presumptuous about what it might mean.
In another recent New York Times editorial (8-10-18), NYU philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appia addresses the pitfalls of identity politics. People sometimes begin a thought by stating their identity coordinates; for instance, “As a white middle-class Jewish woman” (or fill in the blanks or your own race, class, gender, geography, etc.). These gestures mean to position us within a social landscape. But Appia says they can never fully encompass the whole of our own identities, let alone those of all the people who might fit partially or wholly under their banner. He suggests that instead, we should say, “Speaking for myself . . .” and then go on to our ideas. This, he proposes, will more specifically locate us in our always partial but always worthy points of view.
Let me end by quoting the activist theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of “radical amazement,” which for me, offers a way forward. 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.”
Let me entreat you: Speak freely for yourself and listen to others fully, openly, and with kindness, compassion, curiosity, and love. Learn the history at your back and participate in the future beckoning you forward. I know you’re not coddled; you won’t melt in the heat of controversy or disagreement. You are resilient. Remember, everything is incredible. Be radically amazed every day.
I wish you all the best, today and every day you spend on campus.
Welcome to Princeton!