Though my time spent by Turtle Pond might not have been great in duration and scope in comparison to Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond, it nevertheless was stirring enough to inspire reflections of my own, reflections into my life as a Princeton undergraduate and into the lives of my classmates. I spent several hours by the fireside reading Thoreau’s musings, contemplating the parallels between 19th-century American culture and today’s. I found that many of the insights and critiques he presents in “Walden” could have been written about Princeton’s own culture.
At Princeton, we lead full lives — more than full, actually. Try scheduling something with a group of juniors or seniors if you don’t believe me. Simplicity is not a virtue among high-achieving students. We like for our lives to be fast-paced and complicated; it gives us the feeling that we are as industrious and prolific as we believe the top students in the world ought to be. A lazy afternoon spent on a bench down by Lake Carnegie observing the passage of the fall would likely be construed as a waste of time by most students, time that could be allocated to reading or meeting or studying.
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau writes. “Let your affairs be two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” Between problem sets and applications and interviews and essays and practices and rehearsals, one would be hard-pressed to argue that our lives are not detailed. Whether our lives are squandered in the details is a matter of debate, but standing by Turtle Pond with nothing but a loved one by my side and the waxing moon overhead, I couldn’t have felt happier.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Maybe our friend Henry has a point.
Thoreau calls into question more than just the density of our schedules; he questions their ultimate goals in the process. If you were to ask a typical college student — setting Princeton aside for a moment — what the objectives of his or her education were, you’d likely receive a myriad of answers. Underlying all of these responses would likely be a single common theme: the desire to be successful. Where Princeton diverges from these other schools is in its definition of success.
Owing to a wonderfully insular community and driven personality types, Princeton narrows students’ ideas of what success means. A hard-charging career with a lush salary and aggressive work schedule is commonly regarded as a fruitful outcome of a Princeton education. But “the life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind,” as Thoreau puts it. “Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” Certain career paths — finance, consulting, fellowships, business — are exaggerated at the expense of the multitude of endeavors available to bright, educated young people.
I, like Thoreau, “do not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures or ... those who find their encouragement and inspiration in the present condition of things.” I would rather speak to the “mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times.” In my own “Princetonian” terms, I do not decry the efforts of those ambitious students who truly get fulfillment through a hard-hitting lifestyle; I question the majority of students for whom the rat race is more of a burden than a blessing. Princeton has an interesting way of narrowing the definition of success of its undergraduates in a way that causes more discontent than it should. We should not limit ourselves to the definitions of those who came before us.
“Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion,” Thoreau writes. Though the “public opinion” at Princeton seems sometime insurmountable considering how aware we are of each other’s successes and failures, it is important that we remember that our personal opinions are what guide our fate. I believe, and I feel Thoreau would agree, that deliberate reflection on our lives, experiences and happiness is in order.
As I sat by the wood fire in a cabin in the woods, Henry David Thoreau reminded me “it is never too late to give up our prejudices.” Our prejudice that our lives need to be busy; our prejudice that we need follow society’s definition of success; our prejudice that our view of ourselves is subordinate to other’s view of us.
Some Princeton students lead lives of quiet desperation. But as a writer by a pond once said, it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.