More nonsense on the purpose of a liberal arts education
The further away from Princeton I get, the more apparent it becomes
that my academic experience came down to six or seven classes. Without
those courses my four years at Princeton, at least from an academic
standpoint, would have been a complete waste of time and money;
with them I believe that I received an enviable undergraduate education.
But I also wonder how I managed to so utterly miss the boat in my
other 30-odd classes. What happened to all the time I spent listening
to lectures about the U. S. Senate, basic psychology, or econometrics?
In fact, I don't think I can even name half the courses I took.
I'm curious to know if other graduates share my opinion or if my
academic experience was merely a product of my major and my interests.
It seems possible, for example, that an engineer might view his
or her education as having been a neatly cumulative exercise in
acquiring the necessary information and skills to become, say, a
productive software engineer (that theory would appeal nicely to
a mind more mathematical than mine). And I suppose that you could
argue that a social science education is -- at least in a
rough sense -- also cumulative. You apply the analytic skills
you learned in previous classes to deepen your experience in the
current one. But that seems to me a tediously theoretical argument.
A class that truly deepened your analytic skills ought to remain
in your consciousness more than three years after graduation.
The majority of my lost classes fit into the following three categories:
Cocktail Party Classes
These are the classes that I utterly forget I took until I'm playing
Trivial Pursuit and my brain spits out the answer to an impossibly
arcane question and I'm bewildered for a moment before I say, "Ah,
thank you, Art 314: Religious Symbolism in the High Middle Ages."
For me, the archetypal cocktail party class was Psychology 101.
Like most students in Psych 101, I was ducking the university's
laboratory science requirement. For my first lab class I had taken
a wonderful seminar on infectious diseases, the crucial details
of which pop into my head every time I sit at a sushi bar. But then,
with my brain overflowing with visions of ignominiously failing
a second laboratory course, I took the coward's way out.
The next few months proved to be as perfect an exercise in wasting
my tuition dollars as I could have designed. As far as I could tell,
the sole purpose of Psych 101 was to provide cost-free fodder for
members of the department to experiment upon. I came out of that
class dumber than I went in (and some psychology graduate student
has the tests to prove it.)
I should distinguish between true cocktail party classes and those
classes that I took far outside my major that simply fed my curiosity.
The advantage of a liberal arts education is the chance to study
Religious Symbolism in the High Middle Ages -- if that's something
that interests you. So if Psych 101 had taught me something that
stuck in my brain for more than 15 minutes after the final exam,
it would have been worthwhile. Instead, I emerged wondering why
Princeton bothers to have a laboratory science requirement if students
can duck it by agreeing to flush $3,500 -- or one eighth of
their annual tuition -- down the tubes.
The Language Requirement
I arrived in my Spanish 101 class freshmen year and discovered that
I was the only person -- as far as I could tell -- who
didn't already speak Spanish. After all, the easiest way
to inflate your GPA is to take a class where you will be tested
on things you already know. The fact that the university deemed
me "proficient" after three terms can only be explained
by the compassion of my instructors -- although I suppose
it's more than possible that they passed me under the theory
that everyone would benefit if I spent as little time as possible
in the Spanish department.
While I certainly agree that every Princeton graduate ought to be
familiar with a foreign language, everything about my experience
in the basic language classes seemed out of whack. It was very clear
that I -- and most of my classmates -- were never going
to take Spanish literature classes. The focus should have been on
1) getting us interested in Spanish language and culture and 2)
teaching us enough about the language that we can successfully navigate
Madrid or southern California. I know that I should have been able
to motivate myself more effectively, but someone also should have
taken some time to explain why knowing some Spanish is probably
going to make you a better citizen in 21st century America. And
how hard can learning basic Spanish really be? President Bush seems
to be practically conversational.
I can only speak for the Politics Department and Woodrow Wilson
School, but I took about 10 classes within my major that were exactly
the same. We read insanely dull books on political theory. We read
moderately interesting case studies. We attended (or didn't
attend) lectures that tied the books to the case studies. We argued
about things we didn't really understand in our precepts.
We took a midterm and final exam and wrote a 20-page paper. Wash,
The few classes I remember from my department stand out because
the professor was clever enough to break that monotonous cycle in
some way -- usually by introducing a bit of reality into our
predictably cerebral and theoretical discussions. A friend of mine,
for example, took a seminar on public policy and crime in America.
It could have been utterly forgettable, except the professor sent
the entire class on a trip to see a state penitentiary. I'm
willing to bet that everyone in that class found it easier to get
through the insanely dull books on political theory and moderately
interesting case studies.