Princeton University’s alumni magazine last year struck on the genial idea of trying to identify the University’s 25 most influential alumni. Presumably many other colleges and universities could do the same, but Princeton brings the advantages that come from being 261 years old and having stood near or at the top of the academic heap during much of that time. Publishing such a list may be an exercise in institutional vanity, but it is hard to think of a better way to reinforce the pride of alumni.
The panel completed its work and Princeton Alumni Weekly(PAW) published the results in January. Why bring it up now? Mostly because it just swam into view. I met two Princeton alumni this week who were wanted to underscore the degree to which the University had drifted to the cultural left. One of them urged the point that the public often misperceives Princeton as fair-minded and open to conservative ideas because of the prominence of Professor Robert George and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions which he directs. The other alumnus made his point by describing the PAW survey, noting that James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution, was selected as the #1 most influential Princeton alumnus, but #12 was Jeffrey Moss, the author of “Rubber Duckie.” He proceeded to sing:
Rubber Duckie, you're the one,
You make bathtime lots of fun,
Rubber Duckie, I'm awfully fond of you;
Woo woo be doo
There seems, he said, a certain falling off in cultural seriousness when Princeton considers its more recent grads.
I made a note to follow up. What follows is, I guess, already known to Princetonians, but may still count as news for the rest of us.
To sort through the 120,000 or so graduates, PAW appointed an eight-member panel of seven current faculty members and one civilian—Todd Purdum, national editor of Vanity Fair. The results, announced in January, were generally reasonable:
#1 James Madison 1771
#2 Alan Turing *38
#3 Woodrow Wilson 1879
#4 John Rawls ’43 *50
#5 John Bardeen *36
#6 George Kennan ’25
#7 Benjamin Rush 1760
#8 F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17
#9 George Shultz ’42
#10 John Foster Dulles 1908
#11 Gary Becker ’51
#12 Jeffrey Moss ’63
#13 Wendy Kopp ’89
#14 Richard Feynman *42
#15 Paul Volcker ’49
#16 Nicholas Katzenbach ’43
#17 Charles Scribner 1840
#18 Laurance Rockefeller ’32
#19 Robert Venturi ’47 *50
#20 Jeff Bezos ’86
#21 Alfred Barr ’22 *23
#22 Philip Freneau 1771
#23 John Bogle ’51
#24 Norman Thomas 1905
Ralph Nader ’55
Donald Rumsfeld ’54
James Madison, check. Alan Turing, check. Woodrow Wilson, check.
But there were a few puzzles.
Jeffrey Moss, as my friend mentioned. Wendy Kopp? Alfred Barr? Robert Venturi? Norman Thomas?
And is John Rawls really the fourth the most influential Princeton alumnus of all time?
I wouldn’t want to say that these folks were not influential. Jeffrey Moss (who died in 1998) was the head writer for Sesame Street, and penned such memorable ditties as “Oh, I love trash!” as well as “Rubber Duckie.” Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America. Barr was the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. Robert Venturi is the architect famous mostly for “quoting” low brow elements in his designs and bringing postmodern irony into modernist architecture. Norman Thomas was a perennial Socialist Party candidate for president from the late 1920s to the 1940s who never polled more than 800,000 votes.
So, indeed, these are influential people, but seeing them on the same list as James Madison, Alan Turing, and Woodrow Wilson does seem somehow disquieting.
To be sure, the list is not merely a list. Each of the 26 figures named in “Portraits of Influence” receives either a short laudatory biography by a well-known writer or at least a few sentences. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas explains the bravery of Norman Thomas. George Will extols the virtues of James Madison. This is evidence of the thoughtfulness and care of Princeton Alumni Weekly’s approach. The panel of eight judges likewise was made up of sober people, including the dean of the Graduate School, the chairman of Astrophysical Sciences, and the historian Sean Wilenz. This just deepens the mystery.
Of course, putting figures such as Moss, Kopp, Barr, Venturi, and Thomas on the list might make sense if Princeton had few others to choose from. But on the way to celebrating the creator of Rubber Duckie, the panel bypassed: “James Baker ’52; former defense secretary James Forrestal ’15; and two former CIA directors — Allen Dulles *16 and William Colby ’40.” Moreover, says PAWS, “None of Princeton’s nine U.S. Supreme Court justices made the list. And, considering the University’s origins as a training ground for Presbyterian clergy, it is interesting that no religious leaders made it, either.” While Norman Thomas lost six presidential elections by overwhelming margins, fellow unsuccessful candidates Adlai Stevenson ’22, Bill Bradley ’65, and Steve Forbes ’70 fell short.
The value of this list as a cultural artifact is what it reveals about the views of contemporary faculty members. Once we are past the colonial era, the list seems to fall under the magnetic pull of liberal assumptions. I guess only time will tell if John Rawls, whose accomplishment consists of having created an elaborate philosophical fantasy to justify the welfare state, will have lasting influence. Sesame Street made its mark on American childhood, and though many parents now doubt it has been for the better, the early indoctrination in diversity is accepted as an unqualified good by the liberal professoriate. Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America seems like a wholesome bit of volunteerism. But her elevation to #13 on the list seems to vault her past people who have done much greater things of lasting influence. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose literary portraits of jazz-age America continue to thrive in college classrooms eclipses entirely Princeton alumnus Thornton Wilder, best known for his panorama of small town America.
If there is bias here, it is a complex one. The panel wasn’t engaged in pumping up every liberal at the expense of every conservative. It allowed for this historical importance of Cold Warriors such as George Kennan and John Foster Dulles. It included a fair sampling of wealthy financiers. But all in all, the panel seems to give the edge to 20th century figures who helped accelerate the whirlpool of modern culture. The bias is in favor of the anti-establishment, the experimental, and the venturesome. Perhaps this is indeed where “influence” is most to be found, but it clearly plays down those whose achievement lies in the realm of sustaining a culture or heritage.
And that I suppose explains why some Princeton alumni were not entirely ready to join in the chorus of “Woo woo be doo.”