Sunday, June 1, 2008

Farmer delivers Class of 2008 Baccalaureate address

Physician and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer exhorted the members of the Class of 2008 to "make hope and history rhyme" as he delivered the Baccalaureate address this afternoon.

Farmer took the phrase from a poem by Seamus Heaney, who he incorrectly identified as the 2006 baccalaureate speaker, and used it to lead into a description of his vision of a utopian future that he hoped this year's graduating class would help create. Heaney was actually an honorary degree recipient at the University's commencement ceremony in 2006.

He laid out his ideal view of the world in 2028, the year the current senior class will celebrate its 20th reunion.

According to Farmer's vision, while some facets of life will have not changed — Princeton will still be first on the U.S. News and World Report rankings, for example — others will be radically different. Among the many projections on Farmer's list: The Congo will be peaceful, previously endangered animals will return to their native habitats and torture and unequal criminal justice systems will disappear. Specifically regarding the United States, Farmer projected that New Orleans will be "a thriving metropolis with nary a FEMA trailer in sight," that the war in Iraq would be long over and that universal healthcare will be implemented by 2010.

Farmer also made some whimsical predictions, such as President Tilghman's completion of the Boston Marathon in 2024, "wearing bizarre orange spandex [and] becoming the first Ivy League president to do so in less than three hours."

All-in-all, Farmer made more than 50 separate projections about what he believed would happen by 2028 and then requested that any physicians listening "not pull out prescription pads to offer me anti-psychotic medications" because concrete developments can result from big dreams. "Is it crazy for the Class of 2008 to wish for something better than what has gone before?" Farmer asked.

"For hope and history to rhyme," he added, "we need to build, or continue building, a social movement."

"This has to be a broad-based movement. Bankers and lawyers ... this is not about what we do. We all need to get on board," Farmer said.

This movement, he said, needs to incorporate elements of both social and environmental justice and that the graduating seniors should follow their dreams while also following a common dream of improving the world.

Tilghman introduced Farmer and described him as one of her personal heroes. "He is truly a force of nature and a force for good," she said.

Farmer is the founding director of Partners In Health (PIH), an organization that provides healthcare for those who are sick and living in poverty, and he is also on the faculty of the department of social medicine at Harvard Medical School. He received an honorary degree from Princeton in 2006 in recognition of his devotion to saving lives around the world. PIH currently operates in nine different countries, including the United States, Rwanda and Haiti.

The Baccalaureate ceremony, which is a tradition dating back 261 years, celebrates the graduating senior class and features both the main address and readings from a wide variety of religious traditions. Members of the senior class recited prayers and blessings from the Christian, Jewish, Sikh and Jain traditions and were joined by Mustafa Tuna GS, who recited the first chapter of the Quran.

Many of the religious readings chosen paralleled Farmer's speech by incorporating themes of social justice. Blake Sercye ’08 read a passage from the Book of James that extolled the listener to care for orphans and widows, and Associate Dean of Religious Life Deborah Blanks, who delivered the Benediction, said "may injustice trouble you, may service find you."

After the service, the senior class processed out of the University Chapel past the crowd of parents who watched the ceremony at the primary simulcast site immediately outside. The reaction to Farmer's speech was generally positive, but some seniors said they wished he had made his theme more concrete.

"I really enjoyed it. I really like how he painted a picture of the future," Eva Leung ’08 said.

Catherine Richardson ’08 said, however, that "for someone that had that much experience, I wanted to hear about how it applies to me or us as a class."

Photos by Daniel Hayes-Patterson

More photos can be viewed at