Opinion » Column | Sept. 22
In sufficiently complex economies (i.e., anything but a colonial “cottage industry”), the essential element is specialization — an electrician might not know how to cultivate plants, but this doesn’t practically worsen the quality of the person as an electrician. We might be deeply and intuitively connected with a particular academic field and in general ignorance of another, yet this might not impact our core competency.
Somewhat counterintuitively, as we wade back to the shores of everyday life, the information we lose becomes more essential, and building an informational silo seems harmful: not as a result of excluding the information in other silos, but rather through containing one’s own expertise apart from the wider world. Critical thinking and general intellectual confidence are both predicated on interacting with a cross-section of the world, not a horizontal slice. The reality of cultural distinctiveness can become a siren of cultural superiority, which — should either lead to isolation — can quickly lead down the path to fluid-intellectual softening and a resistance to novel situations.
Both processes have similar weaknesses: Specialization can lead to a narrowing of intellectual focus in the pursuit of persistence, but not necessarily flourishing, in one’s employment, and cultural isolation can cause — mainly through what it doesn’t include — a comparative incompetence in new scenarios. Yet our Orange Bubble is often seen as a positive element, or, at worst, as a necessary or situational problem. We somehow feel that intellectual rigorousness crowds out everything else, that outside the campus map lie distractions, things to be avoided as long as possible, profane contaminants of the Orange Bubble.
How much of our common culture, I wonder, is a result of the Bubble itself? It seems more reasonable to conclude that what brought us to Princeton in the first place is what binds us, not a particular chant or book, and certainly not a negative definition against other institutions. It might be instructive to examine just what Princeton meant to one of its most iconic participants.
Woodrow Wilson believed the Presbyterian-minister founders of the University had a broad, inclusive (for the time) institution of higher learning in mind and praised the secularity of the royal charter, which “never said a word about creed or doctrine.” The charter was a legal document, but this attitude was indicative of the college’s later development, which had in some part occurred by the time of the speech. In that 1896 document, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” Wilson exposits the links between the University and colonial, later revolutionary New Jersey: “Conceive it but liberally enough, [religion] is the true salt wherewith to keep both duty and learning [against] time and change.”
There was some evidence that the University was founded with broad-based education in mind: Correspondence with the colonial governor mentions “true religion and good literature.” Curiously, instead of too strong a culture, the early decades were peppered with quite the opposite problem. “[The College] had been brought to Princeton in the very midst of the French and Indian War … The Stamp Act agitation had come … New Jersey did not, like Virginia and Massachusetts, easily form her purpose in that day of anxious doubt … and suffered a turbulence of spirit.” In the context of Wilson’s speech, the University was cast as an essential component of the world, and the notion of a self-imposed Orange Bubble would have been anathema.
How much of the founding conditions, and John Witherspoon’s essential role as a stabilizing force, were a result of Princeton’s geographical location and individual character? While overseeing the University for a quarter-century, Witherspoon was also instrumental in the American Revolution, and students lit bonfires at the news of the Declaration of Independence. Yet this seems remarkably contextual: With Hessian Jaegers and British Regulars crisscrossing the state, and with both the Continental Congress and an imperial cannonball lodging in Nassau Hall, it rightly seems that Princeton, more than most of the state, had quite enough contact with the outside world.
In an aside on the difference between history and literature, Wilson continues: “It is one thing to sit here in republican America and hear a credible professor tell of the soil of allegiance in which the British monarchy grows, and quite another to live where her Majesty is Queen and hear common men bless her with full confession and loyalty.” Just the same, there is a difference between social philosophy and practical volunteering, or even between an academic paper and a cross-disciplinary conference. While the challenges of 2013 are far from columns of Imperials across the Hudson, we ought not to lose the revolutionary zeal of the Witherspoon era.
In a post-Cold War, omnipresent cable-news world, we might simply be rationally skeptical of “big ideas.” Should we then be wary of them as a category? We might need a broad cultural revision to keep pace with Wilson’s charge: “The men who founded Princeton were pastors, not ecclesiastics. Their ideal was the service of congregations and communities.” While we can certainly salt duty and learning against change, we ought to be equally vigilant guarding it from our own laurels.
James Di Palma-Grisi is a psychology major from Glen Rock, N.J. He can be reached at email@example.com.