Intellectual awakening can often seem an accident in Princeton. It is an accident a number of people never has the misfortune of suffering. Inherent to the structure of the liberal arts system is an unlikely conflict between the academic and the intellectual, cast crudely, the conflict between getting a good grade and finding your passion (and discovering the tools which can help you communicate that passion to the people around you.)
Ezra Pound was not reserved in his exhortation against the American university system, the “dastardliness” of which he remarked in a 1934 article, there were “no words permitted in a polite educational bulletin”:
“By which I don’t mean that the surface hasn’t been, often, charming. I mean that the fundamental perversion has been damnable. It has tended to unfit the student for his part in his era. Some college presidents have been chosen rather for their sycophantic talents than for their intellectual acumen or their desire to enliven and build intellectual life. Others with good intentions have seen their aims thwarted and their best intended plans side-tracked, and have been compelled to teeter between high aim and constriction. The evil, like all evil, is in the direction of the will. For that phrase to have life, there must be both will and direction.”
Administrators now occupying Nassau Hall fit neither of these categories perfectly. The administration’s desire to “build intellectual life” is evident, and any student who has found herself outside the thirty-five percent whom grade deflation smiled upon knows all too well that this administration’s “best plans” have not been thwarted. The question then concerns not the will or the execution of the will, but that will’s direction. I will discuss two facets of academic life here: distribution requirements and the precept.
In practice, many classes that students take to fulfill the requirements are gut courses: courses predominantly geared towards non-concentrators. Often, these courses are less demanding than even their high school counterparts. What is the value of taking a class that fulfills a distribution requirement but doesn’t do justice to the discipline?
The implicit value of distribution requirements is that they make academic exploration unavoidable. You have to take a language! You cannot escape the sciences! Don’t think for a second you will pass through Fitz-Randolph gates without having discussed theme, character, and metaphor!
The implication is that students do not have the natural curiosity to seek out these opportunities on their own. But curiosity begets learning begets understanding begets passion. Arbitrary “requirements” beget begrudging and perfunctory compliance. The gut course is born.
The gut course is peculiar because it rarely measures up to a standard honors course at a good high school. Sometimes you color little maps. Sometimes you talk about the plot. Your delusion that, because you are a humanities student (a category you assumed only upon entering Princeton) you can no longer successfully manage a TI-83 is indulged.
Drawing students from out of their self-selected disciplines and encouraging them to engage in dialogue with disparate fields should not be a matter of force. It should play upon the curiosity that is natural to the student. Chenelle Morris ‘10 describes it aptly, “It’s not that an engineering student can’t sit still and read a book–it’s that he doesn’t speak the language of the humanities. He does not have the vocabulary he needs to put his ideas about the book into the kind of larger literary context that allows him to communicate with the humanities students and professors in a challenging and engaging way. This leaves him frustrated and, ultimately, bored.”
You have a French person who wants to talk about a German philosopher. Unless our protagonist envisions a long career in German philosophy, the solution is not to make the Frenchman take GER 101. The solution is: hand the Frenchman a translation of Kafka, and suggest he study it with the aid of a knowledgeable instructor. Why do we refuse to acknowledge that asking a student to go through rote practice in service of a discipline that will not be their specialty is an unnecessary and boring process that tends to squelch rather than cultivate natural curiosity, especially since it is very likely they have already undertaken a more challenging degree of rote study in high school?
Princeton students are capable of commenting intelligently on a wealth of topics in a variety of fields–this does not mean they are fluent in every field’s specific lexicon. Why not throw out the introductory language courses and give students access to the translation?
One possible solution has its seeds in the innovation of a current administrator. The freshman seminar program was radically expanded under Dean of College Nancy Malkiel, going from nine options to over ninety. Malkiel was also instrumental in introducing the writing seminar program. Both of these programs offer incoming freshman an edifying experience: an opportunity to engage a number of different fields in a small, personal setting with an instructor who specifically chose you to be a part of the class.
Importantly, freshman seminars offer non-science or math-oriented students a unique opportunity (though at the time, one may not realize this opportunity is unique!) to take a QR or an S/T in a seminar format. Not only does the dramatically reduced time allow these students to reap the benefits of an S/T without having it take over their week–it also offers students a chance to engage the material in a different manner. Lecture classes favor certain learning styles–visual and auditory. For kinesthetic learners, the seminar format is ideal.
Creating sophomore, junior, and senior seminars would extend the benefits of the freshman seminar throughout all four years. Students tend to turn inward academically as their time here progresses. An adaptation of the seminar program would provide context for more comfortable experimentation later in the academic career. A student could consider advanced topics in a safe space where they might explore rigorous questions without being penalized for not “speaking the language”. Upperclassmen also would not have to sacrifice time necessary (measured by hours, the S/T requirement is four times that of any other requirement, except the LA requirement, which it merely doubles, and the language requirement) to complete departmental requirements and independent work.
The precept system and the Blackboard post that is its constant companion, is a complicated phenomenon. In one sense, it offers students a chance to hash out difficult or interesting material from the assigned reading. Often though, the chance to exercise the critical muscle becomes an intellectually empty exercise. A junior studying abroad, who preferred to go unnamed, remarked that while she missed being able to use the critical side of her brain in precept, she also felt that she was “learning a lot more facts” abroad: “at Princeton we tend to criticize things before we know all the facts.” She added an aside typical of informal student comments about precept experiences, “it’s a lot of bullshit, but it can be entertaining!”
In any given precept there are the basic types: there is the person who speaks endlessly about nothing, the person who speaks endlessly about something, the person who says nothing at all. There is the interloper, who suddenly realizing participation is part of his grade, will like clockwork offer a noncommittal musing approximately twenty minutes in. There is that girl who has made of her reading a rainbow, with many notes, highlightings, and marginalia. Sometimes post-its. In every precept someone is coming from another major with a different and presumably radical perspective: like an Econ major in a Philosophy precept, or a Religion major moonlighting a Politics class. The outsider’s comments are only especially distinct because they are framed as such (“Well, I guess I’m coming at this from a policy background, but…”) And finally, there is at least one person who rarely shows up: guilt, normally in the form of a foreboding e-mail from the preceptor, urges them into class at awkward intervals throughout the semester.
Though the characters are the same, the chemistry is always different. And the lack of uniformity of result is troubling. Precepts are not a reliably edifying experience. More might be done to make them so. For example, the Blackboard post. Built around vague and vast open-ended questions, Blackboard posts can become a disaster. More successful are those posts with definite and consistent structure. The new Bb guidelines from the English department are a laudable example: students in that department are asked to quote a passage from the text and to add a close reading as well as any questions relating to the text or the course topic in general. Simple yet productive. No grand questions, just a response.
The other problem of precept is not so easily dealt with. The precept room is a pressure atmosphere. You have fifty minutes to discuss what could be hundreds of pages of reading. This time is split amongst 12 students. Participation is part of your grade. The preceptor is nervous or hostile when the room falls silent. All these factors lead to sloppy answers and grandstanding. A friend of mine has told me about the “eight second rule” shared with her by a teacher of public speaking: do not ask a follow-up question without waiting eight seconds for an initial response. Why? Because, believe it or not, it takes people time to think and formulate a response. Another friend of mine had recounted how her father had come to respect Obama: “During the debates, he noticed how Obama was always pausing–he was actually thinking about the questions being asked and formulating a response.” A novelty in politics should not be a novelty in precept.
Silence in the precept room should not be discouraged, but it necessarily is–so little time and so much to discuss. Professors should show some restraint and only assign reading that students can feasibly and fruitfully discuss in precept. An emphasis on the quantity of reading over the quality of reading simply means that when students invariably decide to skip part of that week’s assignment, the probability is greater that they will skip the essential one. Reducing reading would go a long way in making precept uniformly satisfying.
It would also help if students were required to think, if even for just a period of two minutes, after each new question was introduced by the preceptor. The silence would become less loaded and students would begin to value reflection over reaction. And, not to dismiss new-age methods, but talking about how readings make one feel or how they remind one of some anecdote is the stuff of dinner tables not of precepts.
(The latter would be avoided if students felt free to talk about intellectual matters outside of the classroom and outside discussions of class schedules and looming independent work. But the anti-intellectual culture of the University is fare for another article.)
In general, both in Blackboard posts and in the precept proper, students should not speak unless they have something meaningful to say. And they should not feel pressured to act otherwise.
In a Daily Princetonian article (“Twenty years later, still shaking things up”, Matt Westmoreland, January 21, 2008), Dean of College Nancy Malkiel is quoted: “When Harvard moves next year to exams before Christmas, it’s going to put some more pressure on us as the lone school that has exams after Christmas…I think that in itself will lead students to be saying to us, ‘What is this about? No other place does this.’ “
The justification for this University is not going to be found outside it. The constant appeals and comparisons to Harvard, Yale, and other Ivies (Harvard doesn’t have early decision; grade deflation is going to make us more competitive than Yale) should have very little to do with the decisions concerning an academic structure which is tailored to a student body of a different character and number. It is unclear whether the motivation for change in the academic life at Princeton stems from a desire to be competitive or a desire to make students’ quality of life and education better. Of the many arguments that could be put forth dealing with changes to our academic calendar, “what Harvard does” is somewhere near rock bottom in terms of relevance and importance. Princeton is not going to be a leader among its peers until it loses its self-conscious pose and starts doing what is best for Princeton, for the sake of Princeton.
What Pound proposes as the benchmark of a successful university, that it has prepared its students for their part in the era, is essentially the mission of this University. How can we be in the service of our nation and in the service of the world without being intellectually prepared to honestly and maturely tackle issues of wide-ranging subjects and depths? If I can only talk about science in a hobbled and weak scientific language, whither my power to communicate the importance of that field, in its purity, to a nation whose achievement in the areas of science and math continue to be a source of shame? And again, if I am taught to respond first and not best, to think quickly rather than deeply, whither the wisdom of avoiding rashness and cherishing real contemplation?
Characters with will, but without direction, are the populations of tragedies. Direction is not something that you can fake or cobble together on the run; direction comes from focused passion and propelling curiosity. A university determined to produce leaders should make demonstrative and coherent steps towards creating a culture that rewards rather than marginalizes those values.