President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Freshman Seminar at 25
March 17, 2010
In 1985, a special faculty committee proposed a new way to help freshmen “discover the excitement of humanistic learning,” designing a program that is now one of the hallmarks of a Princeton education. From its base in the humanities and social sciences, the Program of Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges now encompasses the natural sciences and engineering as well, while the number of seminars offered each semester has risen from nine in 1986–87 to 71 this year, thanks, in part, to the generosity of alumni and parents. As this growth attests, the freshman seminar has been embraced by students and faculty alike, who consistently rank it among their most memorable learning and teaching experiences.
The secret of the freshman seminar’s success lies in its central purpose: to expose first-year students early to a scholarly experience by working closely with members of our faculty and a select group of visitors and staff on a significant research topic. I have often described that goal as “cleansing the palate of high school’s worst taste,” by which I mean removing any vestiges of passive learning and replacing them with the rigor and excitement of intellectual inquiry. By limiting each seminar to 15 participants, students have an opportunity to engage their classmates and professor in an in-depth conversation, debating issues, testing hypotheses, probing ideas, and, above all, asking questions for three intense hours per week — questions that have ranged from “What Is College Good For?” (President Emeritus Harold Shapiro *64), to “What Disney Didn’t Tell You about Fairy Tales” (Associate Professor of French and Italian Volker Schröder), to “How Does One ‘Read’ a Portrait?” (Professor of Art and Archaeology Patricia Brown), to “Are We Alone?” (Professor of Astrophysical Sciences Michael Strauss).
These are the kinds of intellectual exchange that are not possible in large introductory courses, except in the weekly preceptorial, and they set the tone for the three years that follow. Indeed, the freshman seminar provides the groundwork that readies our students for the demands of small upper-level classes, to say nothing of their junior papers and senior theses. And, of course, the small setting of the seminars forges close ties between the faculty member and the class, ties that often last throughout the students’ time at Princeton.
While our freshmen relish the chance to be full participants in the process of discovery, our faculty have much to gain as well. When I taught a seminar — on the role of asymmetry in development — before becoming president, I used the class to test an idea I had been incubating about how to reform science education. Too often the metaphor that describes a science-based curriculum is a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are freshmen, who spend their first year learning the historical underpinnings of the disciplines — think Gregor Mendel and his peas and Isaac Newton and his apple. If they succeed in absorbing the fundamentals, they move up the pyramid to the next level, where the reward is more facts and figures, theorems and hypotheses, but all too often, none of the big ideas and challenging problems that scientists are actually trying to address today; in other words, nothing about why you might actually want to be a scientist! Only if a student has the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job, does he or she rise to the top of the pyramid, where all the interesting stuff resides.
In my freshman seminar, I tried inverting the pyramid by starting with the big idea — how cells within an early embryo differentiate themselves from one another — and then moving to a discussion of how biologists go about exploring this fundamental problem. I asked the students to invent possible ways in which asymmetry could be introduced into a perfectly symmetrical embryo, and it came as quite a surprise to them that many of their ideas were the basis for asymmetry in living organisms. By inverting the traditional pyramid of scientific learning by beginning with big ideas rather than the historical discoveries that underpin them, and by allowing participants to think originally about one of the most fundamental questions in developmental biology, this seminar was an unforgettable experience for me and, I hope, for those students.
Ultimately, it is less the topic of the seminars than the personal and intellectual connections and the qualities of mind they foster that are of uppermost importance — what Associate Professor of German Thomas Levin, who taught a seminar on film and philosophy this fall, describes as a combination of “reflective curiosity, enthusiastic analytic energy, and open-minded dialogue.” That is the essence of the freshman seminar, 25 years young this year.