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Letters from readers about PAW's cover story on preceptorials, March 12, 2003

March 15, 2003

It is always a pleasure to hear or read Anthony Grafton (Cover story, March 12), one of Princeton's greatest treasures, but I do want to pick two nits with him. He refers to the "minute salaries" offered by Woodrow Wilson to the first "preceptor guys." These were in the range $1,400-$2,000. Since, half a century later, in my first full-time teaching job in an independent school in Manhattan in 1956 my salary was $2,500, and since my starting salary as an instructor at a major American university located in that borough in 1958 was $3,800, I would be forced to conclude that Wilson and Princeton had been almost generous by the financial measurements of the day.

Later, Grafton speaks of Wilson's horror at the intellectual level sponsored by the eating clubs and concludes: "Then as now, the social system set limits to what even the most charismatic preceptors could accomplish." It has become nearly an article of faith for the professoriate to blame the clubs when, for whatever reason, we find students less committed to the intellectual life than we would like. While I now find the notion of bicker preposterous, I do not require such a view in others in order to enjoy their company. And I would like to say that, after 43 years of teaching at Princeton and many a meal with students in their eating clubs on Prospect Street, their level of civility and interest in things of the mind are both a great deal more observable than easy cynicism on the part of those who do not know these organizations would warrant.

Robert Hollander '55
Professor in European Literature
Princeton, N.J.

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March 13, 2003

After reading Professor Anthony Grafton's excellent article in the March 12, 2003, edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, I remembered a ditty my father, "Lamb" Heyniger ’16, sang to us when we were small children. This one went:

"Here's to those preceptor guys
Fifty stiffs to make us wise
Easy work and lots of pay
And work the students night and day
Away, Away with fife and drum
Here they come, rum-a-dum-dum
Looking as if they'd been off on a bum
The Faculty of Princeton College Oh!"

I thought the alums might be amused by this version. My father said he used to sneak out of his engineering classes in reinforced concrete to go listen to Alfred Noyes read his poetry. My father also kicked F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17out of the Triangle Club because he came to rehearsals plastered. Those were the days.

Lambert "Nick" Heyniger '53
Woodstock, Vt.

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March 12, 2003

I read with great pleasure Professor Anthony Grafton’s history of the preceptorial system instituted at Princeton by Woodrow Wilson 100 years ago (March 12, 2003).

One important aspect of the preceptorial system which I can see more clearly in retrospect is that of small group dynamics. While I experienced a number of precepts as intellectually stimulating, there was an inherent atmosphere of competition as students vied with each other to make a point or an impression. What was missing, as I see it now, was a recognition that we were all scared young men who needed to know we were acceptable not on the basis of our performance but with the understanding of our common humanity. It would have been helpful to spend a little time sharing something about our personal lives and where each of was coming from before plunging into across-the-table gymnastics.

In my teaching today I look at a classroom as a place of socialization as well as intellectualization, of feeling as well as thought. I hope some of this sensitivity is practiced in Princeton's precepts today.

Ben Tousley ’71
Woburn, Mass.

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