President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Improving Undergraduate Education
November 19, 2003
This summer I asked Nancy Malkiel, the Dean of the College, to tell me how we could improve the quality of undergraduate education at Princeton. Without missing a beat, she replied that if she could change the way in which students distribute themselves across the 35 departments, we could have a significant impact on overall quality. An asymmetry in the choice of major has existed for a long time at Princeton as well as at our peer institutions throughout the country—the phenomenon of the “major majors.” We have world-renowned departments in all four divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering), yet over half of our A.B. undergraduates major in just 5 departments. The “major majors” are clustered in the social sciences—history, politics, economics, the Woodrow Wilson School—as well as English.
All of these are excellent departments, and at a University less committed to independent work this narrow concentration of majors might not pose a problem. But here it results in a much heavier teaching load for faculty members in these departments to advise junior papers and senior theses, and it means that other departments with exceptional faculty are not being as fully engaged in advising as they could be. It is also the case that a senior who is one of 110 majors in Politics is going to have a different experience than the student who is one of 10 majors in classics.
Perhaps even more importantly, this disproportionate concentration of majors may mean that students are choosing their majors without a full appreciation of the other opportunities available to them or of the extent to which a liberal arts education allows them to use their undergraduate years to explore unfamiliar fields and to find—and then pursue—their real intellectual passions.
We are trying to understand the complex factors at work when a student selects a major. The selection process sometimes begins even before college, and we are trying to make sure that exceptional high school students with interests in some of our under-enrolled departments are aware of the opportunities we can offer them. This is one reason we instituted an annual fall weekend Humanities and Arts Symposium for gifted high school students who have expressed an interest in pursuing these fields in college. The symposium has become a very effective pipeline for students entering Princeton with deep interests in these fields.
The physics department has stepped up efforts to make contact with potential majors before they come to Princeton. Professor Peter Meyers and his colleagues collaborate with the Admission Office to call admitted students and invite them to visit the department. The department also tracks first-year students who have expressed an interest in majoring in the field or done well in introductory courses and actively recruits them. Faculty members have modified the curricular requirements for a major to make it easier for students to select physics later in their careers here.
We also must find better ways to introduce students to areas of study that are not taught in most high schools, such as anthropology, psychology and philosophy. A number of departments are revamping their introductory or “gateway” courses to give students who are new to the field much better insight into why they might want to major in it. The Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures is a department, like physics, that is both under-enrolled and among the top ranked departments in the world. The faculty, led by Professor Jamie Rankin, fundamentally reworked the introductory sequence and incorporated into it a summer in Munich, Germany, where students can live the language and receive credit for intermediate German courses.
Other departments, such as geosciences, have used the freshman seminar program to introduce students to the field. Professor Jason Morgan, recently awarded the National Medal of Science, was a pioneer in designing these seminars which incorporate week-long field trips during fall break to locations such as the Sierra Nevada mountains in California so that students can experience firsthand the fascination of field work in an extraordinary setting.
We know that part of what drives the selection of a major is the desire of students (and their anxious parents) to see a job prospect at the end of four years. While this is perfectly understandable, I would argue that a Princeton education is designed to prepare students to meet the challenges of any field they pursue after college, and that college is a time, perhaps the only time, when a student should be free to pursue their intellectual passions. A student interested in medicine does have to complete certain science courses but does not have to major in molecular biology to get into medical school. Matt Coldiron ’99, whom I taught as a freshman in a course designed for humanities and social science students, majored in classics (his passion), but is now training to be a physician. At the same time, Kathryn Getek ’99, one of my recent senior thesis advisees in molecular biology is now in pursuing an advanced degree in theology. In both cases, what they majored in, how they spent their time, and where they focused their commitment during their undergraduate years, differ sharply from the career path each of them now pursues. Last year one of the seniors most highly sought after by investment banking firms was a comparative literature major who also satisfied the requirements for a certificate in finance. She had found a way to combine practicality with her passion.
The ability to think creatively, communicate effectively, solve problems, organize ideas, contribute to team efforts, conduct research, and make decisions are all skills highly sought after by employers and graduate schools—and these skills are all cornerstones of a Princeton education in all of our departments. Our goal is to encourage our students to take full advantage of the incredible intellectual feast we offer them and, in selecting a major, to pursue the path less taken if that is where their true interests lie.