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Why Princeton students don’t try new things

There are no introductory courses in Princeton. Of course, there are classes that are given a 100-level designation. But when you enter the class, you realize that everyone there not only has experience in the subject, but they’ve been (painting, speaking the language, dancing, fill-in-the-blank-ing) since they were two years old.

What the registrar’s page says: No prerequisites.

What it means: You better have done it in high school, all four years, and excelled in it.

I once walked into the studio for VIS 204: Introductory Painting, and everything in there was practically fit to be hung in our lovely art museum. The students were all using advanced techniques; they could shape and contour perfectly with their oil paints. All of these masterpieces were clearly not the work of people who had picked up their first brush at the beginning of the semester. This phenomenon is hardly restricted to art. I have talked to multiple people taking SPA 101: Beginner’s Spanish I, and I have been assured that all of the people in their sections had previous experience with Spanish in high school.

The culprit? Perhaps it is everyone’s favorite bogeyman: grade deflation. With the University’s harsh grading policies, trying something new could have a disastrous impact on your GPA. What if you’re not good at it, whatever it might be? Princeton students are smart, of course, so we end up hedging our bets — it’s better to do something that we know we’ll be good at because then we can get that coveted A (let’s be real, more like a B-plus). There is no point taking, for example, basket weaving, because you might be bad at basket weaving — unless you were captain of your high school’s award-winning basket weaving team. That could be how an introductory art class ends up filled with Michelangelos (although Michelangelo probably would have received an A-minus in Introductory Painting).

Maybe we shouldn’t blame grade deflation, though — at least not this time — since you could always elect to take a course pass/D/fail if you really wanted to take it but you weren’t sure you could do well. Maybe the problem is deeper, a little more psychological. People who make it all the way to Princeton are used to winning (your basket weaving team made it all the way to Nationals under your expert leadership). After all, it is all those wins on our résumé which helped us make it here. So it could be that after an entire high school experience made of wins, Princeton students are not ready to risk defeat. If you try something new, you might, horror of horrors, actually fail to excel. To avoid the ignominy of not being amazing at something, we stick with what we know. Introductory art classes are populated with Michelangelos because maybe Michelangelo won’t be able to weave an attractive basket.

Whatever the reason for it, the lack of opportunities to try new things in Princeton is a serious problem. College is supposed to be a time for branching out and exploring different things. At Princeton, none of that is possible. You do what you have always been good at, and that is terribly sad. I want the chance to really learn. There are so many cool classes here and I want to take as many as possible. Unfortunately, a lot of them are just unofficially off-limits. If I enrolled in an introductory art course, I would walk in and be painting stick figures as my classmates produced Mona Lisas. Whichever way you slice it, that is not a fun position to be in.

We need to ensure the integrity of our sacred introductory courses. We deserve the right to take random classes with impunity (as long as they fulfill distribution requirements, of course; we are still pragmatic Princeton students). We deserve the right to see “Introductory” on the registrar’s page and know that it is not a lie. It is a bold vision, but I think we are worth it. Luckily, it is within our power to make it come true. Every Princeton student needs to take the brave step of signing up for classes which they are merely qualified for. It will be difficult to cede control, to risk not always knowing what is going on in a class, but it will be worth it because your reward will be getting to finally learn something new. So say “no” to taking classes you might be qualified to teach. Say “yes” to maybe getting a less-than-perfect grade.

It is a cliché because it has some truth to it: College is a time for experimentation.

Zeena Mubarak is a freshman from Fairfax, Va. She can be reached at

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