The Board claims that the reason students aren’t pursuing an academically diverse education is that not enough departments offer certificate versions of their majors. If more departments were like the three they claim to be alone in offering certificates — the Wilson School, Near Eastern Studies and East Asian Studies — students would be able to major in one department and get a certificate in another, thus broadening their horizons academically. However, simply instituting more certificates in departments cannot be the answer to the observed lack of academic diversity among students, if only for the fact that many more departments than those three offer certificates — for example the computer science department offers a certificate in applications of computing and most language departments offer language and culture certificates.
What is important about these, and most other, certificates is that they are not merely a certificate version of any major. Princeton chose not to have minors but instead to have certificates for a reason. Presumably this had something to do with the thought that a student should not simply complete a less strenuous version of a major but instead a defined program of study in a different — sometimes related, sometimes not — field. The Wilson School certificate is like a minor in the sense that it is not a fundamentally different academic course. It is effectively a double major, and this is part of the reason they are ending that program.
The Board is essentially asking the University to institute minors, when really the certificate model is a better fit for Princeton. A student is lucky if he or she can make a meaningful contribution to one field of study, let alone several others. The certificate program acknowledges this fact. The specificity of certificates allows students to approach not all of psychology or biology but rather the relatively smaller field of neuroscience. Indeed, in the above-mentioned Program in Applications of Computing, students most often do not take on the entire field of computer science but rather apply a part of it to a problem in a different field of study, like computational biology or psychology.
I do agree with the Board that Princeton students often use certificates to narrow rather than widen their focus. They cite the example of economics majors pursuing certificates in finance, implying that it is because of the lack of a certificate in English that these economics majors choose to confine their studying to economics and finance. This is where I think their argument points to a common method of critique on this campus. People see something often legitimately wrong with Princeton and assume the problem is the University’s fault rather than the students’.
Do they really think the reason many economics majors aren’t studying history is that they refuse to take American studies, African studies or medieval studies and are holding out for a certificate in history? Or would English majors take a biology certificate but not the currently offered biophysics, computational and quantitative biology or engineering biology? The reason that students, as the Board rightly points out, restrict themselves with certificates is not because the system doesn’t give them enough options, but simply because they are not taking advantage of what is given to them.
It is not even as if there is some de facto limitation on taking certificates wildly different from your major. I have several friends getting the theater certificate with home departments ranging from engineering to comparative literature. This combined study usually requires a separate piece of independent work. Furthermore, students from many departments incorporate a computational component into their independent work with applications of computing.
Whether these examples are anecdotal is not the point, the point is that it is clearly possible to use certificates as they are, in my opinion, intended: to broaden your intellectual and academic horizons. The great benefit of many of the certificate programs is that they are interdisciplinary by nature, so in many cases they supplement academic study in another field without forcing a student to grapple with the entirety of that field. For certificates to be successful in this regard, the onus falls on the students to craft an academic program for themselves — they should not blame the administration for a lack of opportunity.
Luke Massa is a philosophy major from Ridley Park, Pa. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/24/31608/