During dinner the other day, I overheard two juniors (presumably STEM majors) complaining about having to take humanities courses. “I hate the humanities!” one of them vehemently spat. “History is so important to computer science,” the other sarcastically replied. Sadly, this is not an uncommon conversation here at Princeton; from die-hard scientists lamenting their Epistemology and Cognition credit to tried-and-true historians railing against their Quantitative Reasoning requirement, the complaint of insufficient academic freedom has reared its head often enough that lamenting its poisonous shadow has become almost a norm.
Frankly, this is ridiculous for two reasons. First, the need for exploration is the basis of the liberal arts education system; this particular aspect of the “Princeton syllabus” was never hidden from anyone during application time. In fact, it was advertised. One of the biggest selling points of institutions such as Princeton is that the joy of playing around with previously unconsidered fields is encouraged, rather than asphyxiated by a death-ray focus on a particular concentration.
The beauty of such a system becomes much more obvious when you consider alternative educational systems, such as those used in Europe. For instance, in the U.K., the typical student will have essentially picked his major by the age of 16 — A-levels require that you pick only three or four subjects to study during the last two years of high school. If, come college application time, you decide you want to study physics, then you’d better have chosen physics, chemistry and mathematics two years prior. This sort of tunnel vision becomes even more extreme during your time at a university: You do not get to take courses outside of your prescribed major (note that in U.K. schools, you do not declare in your sophomore year; you come in with your concentration already set). If you applied for cognitive psychology and realized you didn’t like it after a few months then too bad — suck it up, or leave and reapply.
Princeton allows us to have safety. You can come in a physics major and leave with a degree in comparative literature. We’re given a strong, comfortable safety net in order to ensure our future happiness, and rather than embracing the latitude it gives us, we lash out at its existence.
Unfortunately, the bitterness that this perceived absence of freedom has created results in an equal absence of effort in fulfilling the distribution requirements. Rather than attempting to find interesting courses in areas outside their concentration, some students choose the classes that present the smallest challenge or the least time commitment. This misses the point.
Sure, it’s entirely possible that students are completely passionate about their chosen majors; this will be the rest of their lives, and the prospect of doing nothing but coding or essay writing or poem translating presents a future ripe with vocational happiness like no other. However, human beings are not one-dimensional creatures. It’s completely possible for you to have a deep desire to master both Java and literary analysis.
Searching for a Literature and the Arts credit? Don’t take “Clapping for Credit” because it has a reputation for being easy and low-effort; explore the range of options the music department has to offer and try one that catches your eye. Harder classes force you to actually immerse yourself in the field, to truly grapple with the material that you’re being taught — and it is this fuller sense of experience that will allow you to realize whether you’re interested. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find that you’re a Baroque concerto aficionado (thank you, MUS 226: Instrumental Music: The Concerto). Hunting for a QR? Take COS 126: General Computer Science, or MAT 215: Analysis in a Single Variable; if you don’t like it, the add/drop and pass/D/fail options exist for a reason. If you do find yourself enjoying the class, on the other hand, you’ve opened up another avenue for your own happiness in the future.
Because that’s what this is about, after all. The paradigm that underpins the liberal arts education system — the system on which this school is grounded — is that the act of exploration, of hunting through the departments, of scouring through the course listings, of attending lectures on new topics, will ultimately yield a result that will make the entire process worth it. Every seemingly long step in the arid desert of “exploration” will finally be counterbalanced by the joy of uncovering an unexpected oasis in the form of a newly discovered love — a gem extracted from the debris of distribution requirements that is guaranteed to make it all pay off.
Yotam Sagiv is a freshman from Tel Aviv, Israel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.