Letter from the Editor

By Rohit Narayanan


Dear ’27,

To ask what you can do for humanity, ask first what you can do for your community

Imagine some Eisgruber-shaped phantom came to you and offered you a deal. If you correctly identify which student at Princeton best embodies the phrase “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity” you will get some indispensable Princeton prize, like the right to disappear the electric scooter that almost bowled you over.

It’s a hard bet for a great reward, and there are so many options. Should you choose the student with the highest grades? Or the most revolutionary research? Should you look for who has the easiest path to the most influential position, or perhaps who has the best idea to change the world? All may be worthy choices, but for me, one factor stands out. If asked who would best contribute to the service of humanity, I’d choose the person who has served the Princeton community the most. Seeking to serve humanity is a worthy goal, but it can’t be achieved if you don’t take the opportunity to serve your own community first.

“In the nation’s service and the service of humanity,” Princeton’s unofficial motto, clearly resonates with many students. Back when I was an Opinion editor, it was so used in op-eds that I often speculated that at some point I’d just have to ban it. It is easy to be cynical about the motto at Princeton. The idea breaks down if you think about it even a little too hard. Can a few influential alumni really support the claim that Princeton creates enough positive leaders to justify the motto? How can we reckon with the fact that so many students are going into fields like finance or consulting—fields that they themselves don’t characterize as serving humanity?

Yet despite the contradictions, the motto still lives in students’ aspirations. In our upcoming Frosh Survey, almost 70 percent of incoming first-years cited the motto when asked about their career goals. And even with the weight of reality bearing down, almost 60 percent of senior respondents for the Class of 2023 characterized their career plans as “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity”.

Aspiring to serve others is deeply laudable. And yet I worry that too many students see service as a future thing, something to strive towards once they’ve reached some influential position in life.

I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. Take two students with an identical desire to serve humanity. The first student spends all their time focused on their own resume — finding internships, joining pre-professional groups where they can network, and keeping their grades up so that some day they can make an impact. The second student instead spends their time providing value to the campus community through the performing arts or leading an important affinity group, advocating for positive change at Princeton — in short, seeking to solve the relatively inconsequential problems of an already privileged community.

The second student is the one more likely to serve humanity. Here’s the problem with the first student’s strategy: I just don’t trust them. If they are making the decision to put personal advancement first now, how can we know they’re not going to do that again and again and again in the future? Their desire to serve humanity becomes more abstract as they nurture their ambition rather than their empathy.

The second student has another advantage: they’re taking the sure bet. We can make a fair bet that in the small, controlled environment of Princeton, the thankless work of running student organizations and projects that provide value to the community are going to have a small, measurable positive impact. The first student’s strategy is a lot more risky. Maybe the first student’s start-up will provide value, or maybe it will defraud its investors. Maybe their great idea will save lives, or maybe it will be used to the detriment of society. The greater the potential impact, the greater the potential for harm. That doesn’t mean the first students shouldn’t go for it. But it does mean they shouldn’t have passed up the sure chance to put some good into the world.

So with a new class of Princetonians entering campus, I urge them to care in the here and now. Be the member that stops a theater group from shutting down because of a lack of interest. Slog through the endless process to get your new community group approved. Engage in small acts of service in the local community. Pick a cause on campus and fight for it relentlessly. If you lose in the first-year class council candidate pileup, take a much less prestigious unelected role on a much more important USG committee. And don’t just do this at Princeton, of course. Serve your neighborhood, your town, your family.

The nation and humanity will still be waiting for you when you’re ready.

Rohit Narayanan is the 147th Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at eic@dailyprincetonian.com.

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