Tilghman defends liberal arts education at Commencement; Aretha Franklin awarded honorary degree
The sky cleared up from the previous night’s rainfall just in time for the University’s 265th Commencement on Tuesday morning, as 1,230 undergraduates from the Class of 2012, five from other classes and 832 graduate students received their degrees in a ceremony on the front lawn of Nassau Hall.
The University also awarded six honorary doctoral degrees to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to their respective fields. Twenty-nine-season University men’s basketball coach Peter Carril, 21-time Grammy Award-winning singer Aretha Franklin, Miami Dade College President Eduardo J. Padron; Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton Joan Wallach Scott; University Professor of Physics Emeritus and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Hooton Taylor, Jr.; and award-winning mathematician Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck were awarded honorary degrees.
In her congratulatory speech to the graduates, University President Shirley Tilghman championed the importance of a liberal arts education such as the one Princeton provides.
“No, we are not about to administer the last rites for a liberal education,” she said.
Tilghman acknowledged that, after the recent economic downturn, many different people — including former Harvard president Larry Summers — have called for a more “goal-oriented education.” However, Tilghman noted that it should not come to anyone’s surprise that she firmly rejects the idea that a liberal arts education is now obsolete.
To illustrate her point, Tilghman recalled the relationship between renowned statesman James Madison, Class of 1771, and the University's president during his undergraduate years, John Witherspoon.
“Without taking anything away from Madison’s towering intellect, I would argue that the years he spent at Princeton ... powerfully prepared him for his life’s work,” Tilghman said. “His studies with Witherspoon gave him the opportunity to grapple with the ideas on which this nation was founded.”
Valedictorian Nathaniel Fleming ’12, a psychology major from Eugene, Ore., further developed upon the central theme of Tilghman’s speech, addressing how graduates might best use their liberal arts education for the “next step” after college. He also shared how the lessons he learned from training as a martial artist apply now to understanding the value of a Princeton education.
“Even if you don’t believe that education is necessarily an end in itself, it is important to recognize that everything that we have learned here carries a significance beyond simply meeting the requirements to advance to the ‘next step’ in life,” Fleming said. “We might not always have enjoyed or appreciated those classes that took us outside of our comfort zones ... but they are the ones that filled out our knowledge of how the world works; they were, if you will, our jump spinning hook kicks.”
Elizabeth Butterworth ’12, a classics major from Auburn, Mass. and one of this year’s Rhodes Scholars, next delivered a humorous salutatory oration in Latin.
“Four years ago we sat in our first precepts, and with great fear we listened in silence to the speeches of older classmates, which we were not able to comprehend … now sitting together for the last time you again listen to a classmate’s speech, which you cannot comprehend,” Butterworth said in an English translation of her speech provided, according to University tradition, only to graduating students.
“Be well, my friends. Today we come to a sad parting but not to the end of our friendships ... But now time flies. I must cease, lest you begin to snore. Farewell.”
Four University faculty members were also given the President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching in recognition of sustained records of excellence in undergraduate and graduate-level teaching.
Recipients included civil and environmental engineering professor Maria Garlock, anthropology professor and anthropology department chair Carol Greenhouse, history professor Daniel T. Rodgers and chemistry professor Jeffrey Schwartz.
In addition, the University awarded four New Jersey teachers prizes for distinguished secondary school teaching. The award winners were Daniel Kaplan GS ’82, Dana Maloney, Enzo Paterno and Victorina Wasmuth.
Per University tradition, the 2012 Commencement came to an end with the singing of Old Nassau as graduates proceeded out the FitzRandolph Gate. Some graduates were seen with tears in their eyes, while others were waving enthusiastically to family members who came out to support them.
As the ceremony wound down, excitement was still in the air as crowds of family, friends and students hustled to find their respective graduates and take pictures to commemorate the event.