Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, Princeton University
August 31, 2019
I have the pleasure of ending our session today with a few final thoughts of my own to send you off into orientation week.
This is the time of year when pundits prognosticate about what’s wrong with American college students like you. Some commentators think your generation is “coddled,” that all you want are “safe spaces” and that you’re easily “triggered.” Others think that your intersectional identity activism sullies the “excellence” for which university campuses strive.
I don’t believe any of these things about you. I believe that your intersectional identities are what make you excellent. And I’ve read your applications—I know that you’re all smart, strong, and resilient and that you will do remarkable things with the education you receive here. You are well prepared to inhabit spaces of intellectual inquiry in which to explore the world as it was, as it is, and to dream of the world as it might be.
I’m curious whether you agree with James Williams, who argues in this year’s pre-read, that social media is the biggest moral challenge of our time. Do you think digital technology robs us of our attention and of our agency? I’m not sure I agree. But I do want to pick up on Williams’ theme of attention and think with you for a moment about paying attention. I know without a doubt that you’ll be able to focus on your studies. But as you start your year, let me suggest that you pay attention more broadly.
Perhaps you agree with me that the world feels quite precarious lately. I often find myself anxious, especially when I read the news about climate change, about borders, about the preponderance of xenophobia in national and global rhetoric. I confess that I often fear for our common future. But I’ll share with you one of my strategies for paying attention, in a spirit of hope and possibility. In the face of our fear, I want to urge us all to cultivate a predisposition to be surprised by joy.
At this assembly every year, I share my favorite quote from the great activist Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s notion of “radical amazement” seems more relevant than ever. 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.” I find that a lovely exhortation. If we see through an always refreshed attitude of wonder, we might pay attention differently.
Here’s one simple example: Do you remember the flash mobs that were popular five or 10 years ago? Flash mobs are unannounced, choreographed performances in public places, like train stations or food courts at the mall, at which people you thought were random strangers suddenly break into song and dance with hundreds of other people who’ve gathered for the occasion.
The fun of these events comes from their surprise. And what makes them thrill a performance studies scholar like me is that they appear to instantly transform regular people into performers and anonymous passers-by into an audience. Flash mobs make unexpected, memorable performance experiences from everyday life. These events invite us to pay attention to a joyous, fleeting moment of unanticipated connection that elevates our lives by radically amazing us. Those who participate—even by watching on the internet, which I encourage you all to do—can experience moments of joy and wonder, in which our lives are raised above the ordinary.
But when I watch videos of these performances, I always notice a passer-by looking at their phone or somehow shunning the impromptu display of enthusiasm and whimsy these performances embody right in front of them. By refusing to engage, these naysayers reject a transformative experience.
Don’t be that person. None of us can anticipate when flash mobs might happily disrupt the daily-ness of our lives. But we can await other surprises and open our hearts and our minds to what we in performance studies call “co-presence”—the act (and the art) of being present together in time and space and moment with sincerity and curiosity, vulnerability and hope.
Heschel says, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” So let me end by entreating you: Be present and approach every moment with radical amazement. Let wonder inspire a daily happiness. Find joy in a stranger’s humanity, or by becoming part of an earnest audience, or by thrilling to new experiences and ideas.
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!