The Best and the Brightest?

I digress from political and economic issues to one that may seem more parochial, but speaks volumes about the absurd extent to which college administrators at elite schools refuse to accept that students can — and should — grow during their college years and at least begin to find their own way.  One wonders whether students in China, Russia or India are patronized and demeaned to this extent … and what it bodes for our future.

A brief history:  Approximately 10 years ago, the previous Princeton administration under President Shirley Tilghman embarked on a plan to balkanize the already-intimate University community (there are just about 5,300 undergraduates) into residential colleges.  The University spent tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars creating these residential colleges in order to combat purported student isolation and improve the Princeton experience.   Although the University asserts that these residential colleges “are the center of residential life and offer an array of academic and social programs that enhance the undergraduate experience,” apparently utopia has not yet been achieved.  The recent Princeton Alumni Weekly reported on the findings of a blue-ribbon task force appointed to improve on the existing model.  The 25-page Report of the Task Force on the Residential College Model  (with elegant prose, numerous bullet points, and three appendices) represents Princeton’s backhanded admission that things haven’t changed much and that there is still much work to do. (You can find it online at http://www.princeton.edu/strategicplan/files/Task-Force-Report-on-the-Residential-College-Model.pdf.  I recommend a cup of really strong coffee first.)  To quote from the report:  “The Task Force on the Residential College Model embraced the University’s commitment to provide its students with a vibrant residential experience that advances learning, enables interaction and meaningful engagement, and supports both personal growth and community development. The task force further intends its recommendations to realize a vision in which the residential colleges truly feel like home to our students. They should provide a place where they feel welcome and accepted, and where they come together to learn from their diverse experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds, and challenge and inspire one another.”

Yes, that’s a direct quote. And it’s sad.  Princeton has accepted students whom it rightly believes are brilliant, inquisitive, intellectually curious, and open to diverse and interesting experiences, but has also concluded that they lack the capacity to create or obtain those experiences without additional University intervention.  The message of the task force is that 500-person residential colleges are still too large for students to feel at home, the students are just not up to the task of meeting and making friends, and that the University must arrange, manage, and even order appropriate student interaction. 

Here’s a news flash – young adults who are continuously massaged and managed so that they never experience occasional uncertainty, confusion, discomfort and even isolation between the age of 18 and 22 are not getting value for their education, let alone preparation for “the real world.”  But the University appears dead set on making sure that is the new social order.

May I suggest a cheaper, promising alternative to the next expensive initiative?.  Hire a motivational speaker with comedic chops to deliver during the first week of school a message to all incoming students (Jimmy Fallon or Seth Myers might do it gratis, as this gig will supply material for multiple monologues, or perhaps Princeton has at least one or two charismatic faculty who are already on salary):  “Hey, newbies!  We let you into this beautiful, idyllic place because you are brilliant, inquisitive, intellectually curious, have a lot to offer to others, and are open to learning from them, too!  So go out and do it.  Don’t just learn in classes.  Walk around the campus with your head up, and (gulp) make eye contact! Make new friends!  Sit down with new people in the dining hall and ask questions! Invite people to your room for late-night arguments!”

If 21st century Ivy Leaguers with 2300+ SAT scores can’t do this on their own, then should anyone do it for them?

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One thought on “The Best and the Brightest?

  1. Well said. Thank you for articulating this point of view. I’d add that the counseling services on campus would likely agree that an over-protective, over-controlling, intrusive style of parenting prevents students from learning how to solve their own problems and take responsibility for their own lives.

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