Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

September12, 2001:
Staying Power
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.

Departmental Repeats

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, rinse, repeat.

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.

Now that I have already indulged in my usual round of Politburo-style denouncements, I should confess that I am also aware of my own culpability in the limitation of my Princeton education. A truly self-motivated and engaged undergraduate -- the kind of student who appears on the cover of the E-Quad Monthly -- would have learned some psychology and would be fluent in Spanish. That, however, is precisely my point. People with that kind of internal discipline and drive are going to learn anywhere, even in a sink-or-swim academic atmosphere such as Harvard's. But Princeton sells itself as being something different. Only the most obstinate and dull-witted students should ever be able to stumble through Princeton without having some class they take utterly engage their attention. Because that is the point of attending a liberal arts university.


You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu