March 12, 2003: From the Editor

Photo by Denise Applewhite

In the spring of 1905, Woodrow Wilson 1879, then Princeton’s president, addressed the undergraduate Press Club on his plans for a new preceptorial system. The new system would not “be merely an extension of the system of classroom work by enlarging the faculty and making the classes smaller,” he said, according to a report in PAW. “No matter how small a class may be, bright men who won’t work and dull men who can’t work are invariably ranked together, and treated with the same hard and fast methods, with little resulting benefit.”

No, Wilson continued, precepts would do something else entirely: They would make men – specifically, gentlemen scholars, or “reading men.” As Wilson said that April evening, preceptors would be selected “as men who are companionable, clubbable, whose personal qualities of association give them influence over the minds of younger men.” If their qualities as gentlemen conflicted with their qualities as scholars, he explained, the former would take priority. The result, he said in language that today both rankles and impresses, would be that Princeton “shall turn out a body of men possessing such sound learning, such high development in all the essential characteristics of manliness, that whenever there is anything really difficult to be done in the nation, Princeton and Princeton men will have to be consulted.”

In this issue, Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History and chairman of the Humanities Council, writes of the birth of Wilson’s revolutionary plan, its role in his larger program for reform, and its shortcomings – even at its inception.

This year, how to make precepts live up to their potential is a question that has engaged both students and faculty members who wonder whether Princeton is “intellectual enough.” Last spring, the Undergraduate Student Government concluded in a report that the precept system “fails to provide an inspiring, intellectually stimulating environment for many students.” In an op-ed column in the Daily Princetonian, Patrick Deneen, an assistant professor in the politics department, let readers in on what he called professors’ “dirty little secret”: that they are “here to produce and disseminate knowledge – primarily to the academic community, and only secondarily and grudgingly to undergraduates. Teaching, and being an active part of college life, is seen as a chore and a burden, not as a joy and a privilege.”

While many students and faculty members disagree heartily with this assessment, there is a widespread sense that precepts need to be improved. The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning offers workshops on precepting that are open to both graduate students and faculty members, and it is conducting a “Precepting Project” in which a dozen undergraduates are researching the dynamics of their precepts. A faculty subcommittee intends to produce materials on good precepting, such as a pamphlet with tips on how to do it well and a Web site with video clips.

And, as Grafton notes, while Wilson’s vision of precepting no longer exists, the ideals that inspired it remain – in the student-professor collaboration that goes into a senior thesis, in freshman seminars, and through other innovations and daily interactions that are lauded in Princeton propaganda much less widely than precepting. “In these cases,” says Grafton, “much more than in our so-called precepts, the university achieves the sort of results Wilson hoped for.”


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