Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright received an honorary degree at Princeton University’s 267th annual commencement ceremony today as the school awarded 1,244 undergraduate degrees and 966 graduate degrees to students.
President Christopher L. Eisgruber, the 20th president of Princeton University, presided over the exercises and addressed the graduates. About 10,000 students and guests attended the morning ceremony on the front lawn of historic Nassau Hall.
Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State in 1997 after being nominated by President Bill Clinton, was one of five people who received honorary degrees. The other recipients were: Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee; Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines; retired Princeton University professor James McPherson; and James West, an inventor who worked at Bell Laboratories for more than four decades.
Eisgruber spoke about the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of relationships in teaching, arguing that such relationships can’t be replaced by mass online learning.
“Your teachers…have tried during your time on this campus to share with you the joy of scholarship and discovery that is so thrilling to us. Indeed, at the heart of all great teaching is the desire to inspire a genuine love of learning…Some part of teaching is about transmitting information, but a lot of it, a wonderful amount of it, is about inspiring students to learn,” Eisgruber said. “Teaching is a remarkably personal act, and teaching well depends upon a remarkably personal relationship.”
Eisgruber said he is skeptical about some of the enthusiasm for the “massive open online courses” that anyone can take on the Web.
“These courses have their uses. Used appropriately, they are good things,” he said. “But it is easy to exaggerate their benefits and their power. I recently heard a reporter say that colleges, like newspapers, were likely to have their fundamental business model disrupted by online alternatives. Journalism, she said, relied upon a relationship between writer and reader, or between television reporters and viewers, in the same way that universities rely upon a relationship between teacher and student.”
Eisgruber said it is possible that online technology will turn out to be, as some have predicted, a tsunami that radically changes all of higher education, but said the reporter’s analogy is mistaken.
“There never was a personal relationship between reporters and their readers or viewers,” he said. “Once upon a time, Americans welcomed Walter Cronkite into their homes and trusted him and maybe they felt that they knew him personally — but he did not know each of them. Think now about the teachers who have mattered most in your lives — the ones in kindergarten or high school or here at Princeton. Take a moment to picture them. I’ll wager this: They mattered in your lives not because they were famous, not because everyone knew them, but because they took the time to know you. Teaching is, as I said earlier, a deeply personal act.”
Eisgruber called on graduates to become advocates for the kind personal teaching that has made a difference in their own lives.
“That kind of teaching is not something you can get from a MOOC (massive online open course). It is not cheap,” he said. “To provide it, we as a society will have to invest generously in our schools and in our universities.”
Eisgruber said he hopes graduates continue to experience the joy of creative scholarship in their own lives.
“The challenge won’t be finding the books, or the syllabi, or the lectures. If you want them, you can find them. Easily. The challenge will be to find within yourself what your teachers have given you in the past,” he said. ” You will need to sustain the will to learn — you will need, in other words, to find the inspiration to read, the time to think, and the provocation and the energy to break away from the daily routines that enable you to cope with the responsibilities of adult life. Honoring the value of learning is not always easy, but if you do, it will make your life’s journey more fulfilling. Your teachers on this campus have sought to kindle a deep and persistent love of learning within you, and, if you nurture that flame, its glow can illuminate your path and warm your soul as you journey beyond the FitzRandolph Gate.”