July 7, 2004: On the Campus
Defining a Princeton education
By Tom Hale ’04
The Oxford educator Sir Claus Moser once said, “Education costs money, but then so does ignorance.” Though Moser wasn’t referring to a Princeton education, it comforts recent graduates like me (and our parents and benefactors) who processed through FitzRandolph Gate significantly wiser but decidedly poorer.
Professor Moser was a statistician, and this suggests we should analyze his declaration more rigorously. Education may be better than ignorance, but the real question is whether a Princeton education — which carries an annual price tag higher than my salary next year — is better than the differential in ignorance one might acquire by attending another school.
Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye makes a strong case for the University in her letter to prospective students: “The undergraduate education at Princeton is superb. At the same time students are pursuing academic options, we hope they are developing new talents, skills, and personal interests. College is a time of discovery, and Princeton has the resources to help students reach unimaginable heights in whatever area they pursue.”
But what does Princeton really teach us? The graduating seniors I asked agreed with Dean Rapelye that Princeton is certainly worth it, but when pushed to answer why, found themselves hard-pressed to pin down a definitive list of reasons.
Academic knowledge would be an obvious candidate; but while Princeton can teach you about everything from alleles to Zarathustra, students rarely mentioned course content as a significant part of their education. Princeton students have internalized the progressive view of education that is now cliché — college should teach us how to think and not what to think.
Still, not everyone agrees that Princeton has boosted his or her abilities to analyze, write, and persuade. A few members of our class say they already were highly formed in those areas prior to matriculation. More modest classmates stress that thinking and communicating are difficult to teach and that problem sets or writing seminars — regardless of the pedagogical skill of the professor — can only do so much.
Some of this cynicism may be misplaced. A few weeks ago, in a bout of nostalgia, a group of senior friends dug up some of their old papers from freshman year. What they found — driveling essays, clumsily written and substantively vapid — shocked them. How could they, now academic veterans, have written such slop? Perhaps Princeton has taught them more than they realize.
Another cliché of college education that just-graduated Princetonians endorse is that some of the best learning occurs outside the classroom. Many mention how sports, clubs, and various organizations contributed to their Princeton career, or even defined it.
The newest graduates also see their classmates as a source of knowledge: Princeton exposed them to new perspectives, backgrounds, and life stories, and this made their thinking about the world more sophisticated. The value we saw in diversity was not necessarily the stuff of “Kumbayah,” however. Princeton did not teach us how to stand in a circle and sing “It’s a Small Campus After All,” but rather to live and study and work with a wide range of types, nationalities, and races.
These interactions, of course, gave rise to one aspect of the Princeton education that was universally touted — friendship. Some saw the various friendships as intimate bonds between individuals, others saw them as a network of future contacts, but everyone saw them as substantive parts of the educational process.
So what makes a Princeton education special? The answer cannot be conveyed in a list of reasons, because it is greater than the sum of its parts. It is, perhaps, what Toni Morrison has called “the sense of the place.” But even those words do not capture it. What we learned is not just what to think or how to think, how to communicate or how to interact, or even how to have fun. It is all these things and something more, a certain je ne sais quoi.
Thus it seems that Professor Moser’s claim must remain unanalyzed; if we cannot quantify the value of Princeton, we cannot weigh it against some equally unquantifiable quantity of ignorance. We are left with the cliché, and perhaps rightly so. I suspect that many clichés are simply facts that unsentimental people find sappy or trite, and indeed here we find one that rings true.
Tom Hale ’04 is a special assistant to the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School.
On the Campus Online: Go to www.princeton. edu/paw to read “Cookie Mavens: How Two Girls and a Team of Helpers Won the Hearts of Fellow Students,” by Jen Albinson ’05.