Response to: "Doing what you love?"
Like many freshmen, I am struggling to decide what I should major in, but it’s not because I can’t choose between a “practical” major and a major that I love. Barbara Zhan brought up that dichotomy in her article “Doing what you love?” two weeks ago, but it seems that post-graduation prospects, especially graduate school applications, rely much more on a student’s grades than his major. Even if a student chooses to be an ORFE or Wilson School major with the intent of working in finance or public policy one day, he won’t make it there with a subpar GPA. Unfortunately, some majors at Princeton are harder to earn high grades in than others, which ultimately drive students toward “easy” majors and away from “hard” ones.
Good grades in college, at least in introductory classes, are much more related to prior experience with the material than a student’s intelligence or work ethic. Of course, there are the occasional geniuses that can learn completely new material and understand it much better than a student who took that class in high school, but this is the exception, not the norm. Under an ideal system, if a student wants good grades and works hard enough, he will be able to overcome any initial differences in experience, but in reality the student seeing new material for the first time will be trounced by the student who took a rigorous course on that subject in high school almost every time. Sometimes students who have AP or IB credit will retake classes to get easy A’s; I have several friends, most of them hoping to attend medical school, that do this and make no attempt to hide their motives. Some high schools offer tough courses that are equivalent to AP or IB classes but are not technically part of those programs, and their students are basically forced to take a similar course at Princeton in order to fulfill prerequisites for certain majors, even if they would rather be taking a higher-level class.
Even after only a semester and a half of classes, I have come to realize that math and science are much more unforgiving when it comes to inadequate preparation in high school. Like many freshmen, I’m realizing that I’m not “good enough” at math and science to graduate with an acceptable GPA if I major in a STEM field. I am not alone in this — several of my friends have decided that math, physics, chemistry and engineering are just not feasible majors in light of post-graduation prospects. However, I have never heard of anybody giving up on majoring in history or philosophy after a tough class in the subject. Perhaps it does occur occasionally, but surely not nearly as often. This is not to say that math and science are harder than the humanities, but they are tougher to break into because the material builds on itself in a way that does not apply to other subjects nearly as much. Nathan Mathabane’s article “Nothing bad about remedial” mentioned creating remedial classes for STEM subjects as a possible way to level the playing field, but that might not solve the problem as students looking for easy courses could just migrate to those classes instead, and feigning lack of experience is pretty easy to pull off.
It seems as though the only way to major in math or science at Princeton is to have extensive experience with those subjects during high school, as introductory classes are often poorly and inconsistently taught and professors seem to have little patience for students who are complete newcomers to their fields. The humanities departments are not nearly as prone to this kind of elitism, but some people really want to major in math or science despite a total lack of experience and would feel pretty unfulfilled studying other subjects. In a sense, what you are capable of majoring in at Princeton while maintaining an acceptable GPA is determined largely by what you “majored in” during high school, which defeats the purpose of having the freedom to choose.
The idealistic view that a student can major in anything he wants must be tempered by considerations of external factors, like grades, that can severely hamper post-graduation prospects should he pick a major that is “too hard.” The phenomenon of students being “locked out” of certain majors is completely against the principles of the liberal arts education that Princeton is so quick to advertise. A school like Princeton should try to make every subject accessible to students without prior experience, but the root of the problem ultimately lies with grades and GPA. While grade deflation has its merits, it is also increasingly making grades a factor in students’ choice of major. If such a policy is potentially forcing students away from studying what they truly want to study for the sake of protecting their grades, maybe it’s time to rethink how grade deflation is being implemented. A student shouldn’t have to spend four years studying something other than what he loves just because what he loves is “too hard.”
Spencer Shen is a freshman from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.