Class Day speaker Remnick '81 speaks on luck, freedom and how Princeton changed his 'dim, denimed' self
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of The New Yorker David Remnick ’81 discussed the responsibilities of freedom and recalled how Princeton changed his life in his Class Day speech Monday morning.
“The truth is, of course, I don’t want to know what led to your impoverished decision, because I’m so immensely grateful for it,” Remnick said.
Despite his grades, however, Remnick said he was changed by the University, citing the classes he took with professors Robert Hollander and John McPhee ’53, and his experience outside the classroom writing for the University Press Club after initially being hosed and founding the Nassau Weekly.
Remnick likened the seniors to the protagonist of the novel “This Side of Paradise” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Class of 1917, which takes place at Princeton. “You, like [Fitzgerald’s protagonist] Amory Blaine, made it here. You studied. You got to the end, earning the pride of your family and friends. There’s hard work in that, but there’s luck too. Crazy, sublime luck to have had the chance at all,” Remnick said, adding that now was not a bad time for the seniors to assess their “early good fortune.”
“The so-called ‘real world’ is, you may have already noticed, an appalling place at times, and the contrast with Princeton may prove injurious,” Remnick said, joking that Princeton is like a particularly well-funded assisted living facility, but with a football team and more beer. At Princeton, Remnick said, reading a novel is considered work. “As of this week, this is what is considered leisure,” he joked.
The seniors’ good fortune, Remnick explained, stretches beyond the Princeton zip code. In urging the seniors not only to assess their luck, but also to consider what they might do with it, Remnick quoted the singer Bob Dylan, who received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1970. “A hero is someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom,” Remnick quoted.
Remnick added that freedom is by no means a universal condition, calling it “rare, fragile and provisional.” He recalled covering the collapse of the Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, remembering his optimism that democracy had been born. He likened this optimism to similar sentiments felt at demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and, more recently, protests in Egypt.
“The future of freedom enlists and implicates pretty much everyone,” Remnick told the class. “Particularly people of talent, means and mobility. And that includes you.”
In doing so, Remnick said, “We cheat ourselves out of so much of what makes us much more actively and vividly alive.” He likened freedom to a muscle that atrophies when it goes unused.
“You’re needed in the larger world — and not merely to shop and take up space. The stakes are huge. The project of building a free society isn’t something you can farm out to the experts. In never ends. You must, in some parts, play your part,” Remnick noted.
Remnick concluded by acknowledging the parents and grandparents in the crowd, saying that while seniors may not remember everything about graduation, their families would surely remember every single moment. In his speech, he also thanked Tilghman for making Princeton a “more cosmopolitan place.”
“When the YOLO part was finally explained to me … I was hit by a lightning bolt,” she said. “How long can one person risk living in New Jersey? How many meetings can I sit through discussing conflict-free bananas?” she said, joking.
Tilghman thanked the seniors for the last four years and told them that the University would forever be “a refuge from the adult world.”
“We will be always waiting here … ever ready to welcome you home. So go forth and puncture the Orange Bubble,” Tilghman said, before presenting new Class of 2013 alumni class president Stefan Kende with the key to the campus.
To cheers of “Shirley!” from the seniors, Tilghman was presented with a class jacket and certificate as an honorary member of the Class of 2013.
The ceremony also included student speakers chosen by the Class of 2013, including Dan Abramowitz ’13 and Catherine Cohen ’13.
After the speeches, Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleeen Deignan presented some members of the Class of 2013 with Class Prizes.
Jake Nebel ’13 and Caroline Hanamirian ’13 were recognized as winners of the Pyne Prize, the highest University honor given to undergraduate students.
Kitan Akinosho ’13 received the Allen Macy Dulles ’51 Award, given to the graduating senior who best embodies the University motto of “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”
Sarah Chen ’13 was given the Frederick Douglass Service Award, which recognizes contributions to understanding of racial minorities.
Chen is a former senior writer for The Daily Princetonian.
Current class president Zach Beecher ’13 was awarded the W. Sanderson Detwiler 1903 Prize.
Marlene Morgan ’13 won the Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize for imagination and vision in service.
Swimmer Rory Loughran ’13 was given the Class of 1916 Cup. The Art Lane ’34 Citizen Athlete Award was given to sprint football player Ben Foulon ’13 and swimmer Kathy Qu ’13.
The William Winston Roper Trophy, awarded to the top senior male athletes, was shared by cross country and track runner Peter Callahan '13, football player Mike Catapano '13, squash player Todd Harrity, basketball player Ian Hummer, soccer player Mark Linnville, tennis player Matija Pecotic and fencer Jonathan Yergler.
The C. Otto von Kienbusch Award, awarded to the top senior female athletes, was shared by cross country and track runner Greta Feldman '13, soccer player Jen Hoy '13, basketball player Niveen Rasheed '13, fencer Eliza Stone '13, field hockey players Katie Reinprecht '13 and Kathleen Sharkey '13 and open-weight rower Heidi Robbins '13.
Outgoing class president Zach Beecher concluded the ceremony, before seniors and family members adjourned to Alexander Beach for lunch.
Senior writer Sohee Khim contributed reporting.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the team of Mike Catapano '13. He plays football, and was recently drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. The 'Prince regrets the error.