Some magic is headed toward the Princeton University campus next Monday, April 19, as the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project sponsors an evening of magic at McCarter’s Berlind Theater and as members of the Class of ’69 gather to remember their late classmate and celebrate the unconventional research that his bequest supports at the university.
Maybe I should say “some more magic” is headed toward the Princeton campus. If a magician takes a single handkerchief out of his pocket and suddenly transforms it into a dozen handkerchiefs with a snap of his fingers, something like that happens in the reverse at Princeton every year. Most recently the university got 26,247 applications for the Class of 2014. A finger snap or two later and 2,148 applicants were deemed the best of the best by the college that has been judged the No. 1 school in the nation 9 out of the past 10 years by U.S. News & World Report.
So what kind of magic does a university have to provide to keep a crowd like that stimulated?
Part of it is underwritten and encouraged by the munificence of my late classmate David Gardner, a chemistry major from Ohio whose admission application had an unusual credit: member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Gardner helped pay his tuition by putting on magic shows at birthday parties and at the undergraduate eating clubs. He then earned his MBA at the Harvard Business School, where he met Lynn Shostack, who became his wife and partner in a venture capital and commercial real estate firm.
Afflicted with muscular dystrophy, Gardner died in 2001, and his widow sought to honor his memory with a bequest that did something other than build another sports venue or bricks and mortar classroom at his alma mater. Instead she wanted to promote some of the magic — literal and figurative — that he experienced as an undergraduate.
The mission of the David Gardner Magic Project, administered through the Council on the Humanities at Princeton, includes enlarging “the curriculum in ways that encourage both faculty and students to adopt new modes of thought that transcend traditional academic boundaries.” The mission statement notes that “the word magic is used metaphorically to signal the possibility of unexpected, imaginative, and expansive thinking.”
The two-hour professional magic show at McCarter is preceded by a dinner for classmates of Gardner, attended also by some recipients of the Gardner money who chat about their research. For me it’s a chance to consider some of the ethereal research going on in the heart of our business community for which there can be no cost-benefit analysis, no bottom line, no measurement of return on investment. Among the projects being funded by the Gardner Magic Project:
A conference on “Pure and Perverse Love in Russian Culture” with Slavic Languages and Literatures professor Olga Hasty.
A workshop in Japanese Taiko drumming with Noriko Manabe, assistant professor of music.
An international exchange program with the Paris National Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, led by Florent Masse, and including a group workshop for the Princeton students in Paris.
A Buddho-Daoism conference, led by religion professor Stephen Teiser in partnership with the East Asian studies department and the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient.
And then a course taught by ethnographer Mitchell Duneier, “Sociology from E-Street: Bruce Springsteen’s America.” The support from the Magic Project includes guest speakers and a class trip to Atlantic City.
Springsteen? E-Street? Atlantic City? Is this the stuff of a bachelor of arts degree from a renowned university? Back in my day I would have sought out a course like this as a refuge from the academic grindstone, a subject I could have faked reasonably well through a term paper and a final exam. I did some research and discovered that enrollment in introductory sociology at Princeton has tripled since Duneier began teaching in 2003.
At last year’s commencement Duneier was one of four faculty who received awards for distinguished teaching. The citation noted that “under his leadership as department representative, the number of concentrators in sociology has almost doubled over the past five years to an all-time high.”
“Duneier is known for sitting in a chair on the stage of McCosh 50 and delivering his lectures without notes as if he were speaking to friends.”
Sounds like my kind of teacher. But then I dug a little deeper and discovered that Duneier’s relaxed lecture style is accompanied by intense research. His 1992 book, “Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity,” was based on four years of research at a working class cafeteria on the south side of Chicago. For his next book, “Sidewalk,” he worked for several years as a street vendor in New York alongside scavengers and panhandlers. He also co-wrote an introductory textbook in sociology, which is used by hundreds of universities.
So I might be in over my head if I ended up in Duneier’s class on Springsteen’s sociology. But I would give it the college try, and I would concentrate my scholarship on Springsteen’s 15th album, issued in 2007. You probably have heard some of the lyrics, from songs such as “Devil’s Arcade,” “Girls in Summer Clothes,” and “Gypsy Biker.” In honor of David Gardner, I would hope to be awarded a few points for the album’s title: “Magic.”
Monday Night Magic, McCarter’s Berlind Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org. David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project. $45. Monday, April 19, 7:30 p.m.