October 10, 2001: Letters
Letter Box Online
PAW welcomes letters. We may edit them for length, accuracy, clarity, and civility. Our address: Princeton Alumni Weekly, 194 Nassau St., Suite 38, Princeton, NJ 08542 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Alex Rawson 01s On the Campus on historical illiteracy (May 16) probably resonated with more Princeton graduates than would wish to admit it.
I would have shuddered, especially as a graduate of Princeton and a history major, had I been given such a test as Rawson discussed in his article when I walked out FitzRandolph Gate in June 1997.
I also would have shuddered if someone told me I would be one of those pitiable and gloomy creatures called a grad student getting a masters degree in history at the University of Montana four years later.
Only now, as I wrap up my masters and finish grading a foot-and-a-half-high stack of American history blue books, can I honestly say I feel confident about my historical literacy.
Princeton students can get through four years debating theory (for instance, the philosophy of Rousseau or Hobbes) without really having to learn about the times in which the theorists lived nor their influence on American history. I fault an advising system that is too lenient or apathetic to deal with the bulk of students, favoring instead a non-imposing style that gives undergraduates too much room to wiggle.
Make a standard U.S. history course mandatory (two for history majors). Why? While bright minds deserve some flexibility and diversity in their course choices, many of the same bright minds will skirt important courses and choose an easier route if allowed. GPAs are all too important these days, and, frankly, the course descriptions of some American history classes can impress upon young minds such an impending sense of torturous, rheumatic suffering amidst dusty, ancient tomes in Firestone Library that they simply choose one of the many alternatives to what may have been a rewarding and fundamentally important class.
Dan Wennogle 97
I found Alex Rawsons column Condemned to Repeat It to be narrow-minded and aimed at the wrong problem. I am sure that Mr. Rawson is correct in stating that many college students even Princeton students dont know as much history as they should. But I think he misses the point entirely when he states global understanding should build on rather than replace national identity.
To whose national identity is Mr. Rawson referring? His own as an American? What about the identities of over 400 of his fellow Princetonians who arent from this country? While Mr. Rawson laments the fact that most embarrassingly, five students . . . could not identify John Adams as the second president of the U.S., I would be surprised if he could name the second president/sovereign/prefect/prime minister of more than a handful of countries other than his own. Should this ignorance disqualify Mr. Rawson from admission to Oxford, McGill, or the University of Kinshasa? I would hope not.
Yes, history is important, and yes, most Princetonians probably do not know enough of it. But knowing the minutiae of which chief justice presided over Marbury v. Madison, which U.S. president was second and which was third, and which army general was present at Yorktown, is not the history that Princetonians need to know.
The history we need to understand is about the British and French Mandates in the Middle East that formed the basis for the half-century of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We need to analyze the U.S.s shift from an agrarian to an industrial to a service economy, and the effects of that shift on urban and rural poverty. We need to learn about the tragedies of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, and the Stalinist mass murders so that we are not, in fact, condemned to repeat them. But memorize which Supreme Court justices presided over which cases? I dont think so.
Ben Edelman 93
I was delighted to see in your May 16 issue that visiting religion professor Jenna Weissman Joselit one of the best professors I had at Princeton continues to blaze her own trail. As a teacher and a scholar, she continues to show how religion is relevant in everyday life. Her fresh, invigorating approach to the study of religion was a great source of inspiration to me. Buoyed by her seminar on the relationship between religion and money, I wrote my junior paper on the history of church collections and tithing. I also recall that her sense of style was impeccable, so I imagine she is quite the authority in her latest course on the role of religion in fashion! I only hope that this visiting professor will one day decide to stay at Princeton permanently.
Theola S. Labbe 96
A bit of ancient history to go with the PAW accounts of senior theses (June 6). In the original plan of study adopted in the 1920s a senior thesis was not mentioned or required. Years later as dean of the college (195561) I looked over the fields of the faculty of that period and found that the emphasis of the new plan for departmental concentration was on a comprehensive examination. It lessened the importance of individual courses and sought to test the students grasp of the entire subject. The number of courses to be taken during the senior year was also reduced from five to four; hence the term four-course plan. All this is described in then-Dean Eisenharts little book, The Educational Process (1945).
The new plan did actually include such independently written papers as the several departments may require (or words to that effect), and two departments, English and biology, chose to require a long essay or thesis. The idea caught on, and soon every department adopted the thesis as part of its senior program. Since then the testimony of many graduates makes clear that the thesis was a valuable part of their Princeton experience.
Thus, what began as an experiment has developed into an integral part of the undergraduate program.
Jeremiah S. Finch h31
I enjoyed and appreciated the March 7 Presidents Page describing the Art Museum. In the piece, President Shapiro noted the arrival of the museums new director, Susan Taylor, and her plans to enhance the museum experience and to broaden its appeal, especially to students. He also noted the need for modernization.
For many years the Art Museum has been the jewel in the crown of the universitys cultural offerings. It has an illustrious history of distinguished directors and generous alumni (and other) contributors. Their gifts have given the museum an outstanding collection, which has enabled the museum to carry out its educational mission.
Readers of PAW should also be aware of the essential role in the museums work of the Friends of the Art Museum and the Docent Association, both volunteer organizations. The Friends, with a multiplicity of fundraising efforts, have contributed many thousands of dollars to the museum during the past 50 years. They have financed exhibitions and major renovations, and contributed important works of art. The docents continue to be the museums principal contact with the viewing public, with their gallery talks, childrens activities, tours, and service at the museum desk. Each year they contribute thousands of hours to the museums enterprise.
Harvey Rothberg 49
This is to express my concern about communications with Princeton University. During the last admissions period, I wrote a letter to the university recommending the admission of a highly qualified candidate who is no relation to me. Sadly, her application was denied, and I accept that Princeton has the unfettered right to admit or decline to admit whomever it chooses. The strange aspect is that I never received any acknowledgment, written or oral, that the university received my letter of recommendation. At the same time I was subjected to an unremitting Annual Giving campaign seeking a contribution to Old Nassau. I decided, finally, not to give because I was scared that my check would not get there and end up wherever my recommendation letter ended up.
Robert C. Lang, Jr. 70
In early February, I interviewed Micah Hall, valedictorian-to-be at Machias Memorial High School in Machias, Maine. Shortly thereafter, Princetons trustees announced the abolition of student loans in favor of scholarships. I called Micah, who had also applied to the University of Maine, Bowdoin, and Harvard. He replied, Unless the others follow suit, Im going to Princeton. The others did not follow, and he matriculated last month with the Class of 2005.
In abolishing student loans and assuring students theyll graduate debt-free, the trustees stewardship of the universitys endowment was magnanimous; that magnanimity will diminish undergraduates fear of graduating with debt and liberate them to take courses for the sake of the courses themselves rather than as means to ever-higher-paying jobs to repay debts. The decision also gives Schools Committee members an extraordinary edge when interviewing students. Three cheers for our Nassau.
Cuthbert Russell Train 64
At my 55th reunion, at Blair Arch, some students were selling wristwatches with the university seal. At $35, it was the greatest bargain I ever made.
You would be astounded at the large number of people who notice it. The following exchange usually occurs:
Curious Observer: Ive noticed your watch.
T. F.: Theres a story attached to it. The face has the Princeton motto in Latin.
C. O.: I know Harvards is Veritas.
T. F.: Yes, and Yales is Lux et Veritas a bit of oneupmanship, for which our Eli friends are well known.
C. O.: What is the translation of Princetons motto?
T. F.: God went to Princeton.
It never fails to draw an unexpected and respectful chuckle.
Ted Fenstermacher 40