In August, I found myself in Rancho Mirage, CA, swimming around under the unrelenting sun next to my 91 year-old step-grandfather, listening to him tell and re-tell various quips and stories. After reminding him where I went to school, he began to talk about his father, whom I had never known. I had forgotten that his father had gone to Princeton, having graduated sometime in the early 1910’s. He fought in World War I, and the most coherent detail my grandfather could muster was something relating to his helmet. Returning to campus, surrounded by 100-year-old buildings, I was reminded of my similarly aged distant relation, and went to see what information the internet could summon.
According to the 1912 Undergraduate Catalogue, available on Google Books, my great-grandfather resided at 020 East Entry Witherspoon Hall, one of only 263 men in his junior class. He was the only student at Princeton from Pontiac, Illinois, and one of only 36 from Illinois period, the vast majority of whom were from Chicago. A year after he graduated, he worked in Parma, Idaho in the farm loan business. Walking by Witherspoon, I attempted to vaguely imagine what his experience at Princeton may have been like. His room cost him about $125 for the year, around $3,000 in 2012 dollars, and tuition was $160, approximately $3550, less than the “medium” level of board costs, which the university estimated as being $180. Every Sunday at 11 AM, he was required to attend services and brunch at Marquand Chapel, which burned to the ground in 1920. The annals of Princeton, at least as exist on the internet, do not impart any further biographical or specific relevant information.
However, the 1912 Undergraduate Catalogue offers other scattered glimpses into campus life one hundred years ago as a whole. All entering students were required to pledge, “without any mental reservation,” that they would have “no active connection whatever with any secret society.” In that year, Greek and Latin were required subjects for Freshmen and Sophomores. Additionally, they took a one-hour hygiene course, billed as a “discussion of the fundamentals of health and physical efficiency,” and three hours of physical education. Many of the departments extant today also existed then, with a heavily Occidental/Classical focus. The descriptions of courses are vague and sweeping, giving no insight into what coursework or grading were like.
I’m tempted to call my grandfather again; maybe there’s an old diary lying around, or some other relic of his father’s life at Old Nassau. Being on campus renders my distant relation somewhat concrete, and the Undergraduate Catalogue provides a sense of the largely mundane concerns in his life: fees, rules, and regulations. The various annals of Princeton are most useful in charting Princeton’s development as an educational institution; however, to attempt to reconstruct a person through an educational institution is an essentially fruitless exercise.
In one hundred years, Princeton alumni will have left more traces of themselves on the Internet than a class of 1914 alumnus, clues to what their lives might have been like. Yet through the lens of the 2012 Undergraduate announcement and the now online directory, we are as people nothing more than names, net ids, and college affiliations that pay up to $38,650 yearly in tuition and are subject to relatively obscure regulatory minutiae such as the “Rule of 12” limiting departmental courses. To come to a complete understanding of what Princeton is requires a delineation of what the word Princeton is understood to represent: the institution or the students that comprise it.