I was an idealist, OK? Seduced by the romantic freedom college offered, I made a choice that now seems absurd. I told myself I was being naive, that there was no way things would work out between us, that she was too good for me, but I didn’t care. Risking denial, rejection, laugh-in-your-face dejection, I did it. I submitted my admissions application indicating my interest in the Planets and Life certificate. Astrobiology has epitomized the ideal course of study for me since early adolescence, a period of experimentation defined by guiltily hiding science fiction books under my mattress. (I’m sorry you had to hear it this way, Mom, but I’m sure Dad would understand the infatuations of a teenage mind).
But nothing ever came of my declaration of love. When classes started this fall, the romance flopped, and we began drifting apart, until I forgot her. Real life, as it has a habit of doing, smashed what could have been a beautiful relationship.
Since then, I’ve had fleeting flings with other certificates: Applied Math holds undeniable attraction to guys of my type, but she was too aloof for me — let someone else run futilely after her. I had a thing for Biophysics and Engineering Biology, but these and others are now remembered only in a trail of click-darkened links on the certificate webpage, a laundry list of DFMOs (Doesn’t Feel Marginally Obtainable). Late-night study sessions with Integrated Science have inevitably led to flirting with Quantitative and Computational Biology, but neither of us is really serious about it.
Now I’m in a serious relationship with Materials Science — to the point that I find myself idly planning our future together. I have to remind myself that I barely know her and that there is plenty of time. Despite occasionally feeling that I may be in too deep, things are stable and I am happy. Or at least I thought I was.
Then I ran into Planets and Life again. I was talking with my friend in the astrophysics department, and he mentioned her name. I nodded, smiled demurely and replied that I knew her, but not well.
But I could not stand against the inexorable flood of memories. Astrobiology was my first true love, and for the brief moments after I heard her name again, I didn’t care how many classes I had to cut, how many other certificates I had to let down, how many opportunities I had to sacrifice so that we could be together again.
I realized I had allowed the illusion of total academic freedom to stifle me. Assuming that an ideally balanced and engaging education would magically spring from Princeton’s potion of distribution requirements and certificates, I was complacent in choosing classes. Though I meticulously planned out my science prerequisites, I paid no mind to anything else, thinking it would be no hassle to fill the holes with a well-structured elective sequence. But the very structure of learning means that intentional effort must be made to avoid becoming trapped by one’s chosen field.
Princeton strives to embody the ideals of a liberal arts university, mandating classes in areas outside of our comfort zones and encouraging exploration through pass/D/fails and certificates. But especially in STEM fields, the focus is, by necessity, less on exploration and more on fulfilling serial prerequisites. In the natural and physical sciences, each class builds upon the last, ever leading toward that monument of academic depth, the senior thesis. While exhilarating, this leaves little room for breadth and undirected exploration, both so advocated by our University and important for life after college. After all, even in graduate school, our careers and lives are seldom built upon a single, well-delimited discipline.
By choosing the sciences, I have laid out a specific four-year plan. The only degrees of freedom are my intended certificates, both of which (Materials Science and Applications of Computing) were chosen as much on the basis of “it compliments chemistry well and isn’t too many extra classes” as “it sounds amazing.” This is the very opposite of academic choice, though I have taken this burden by my own free will.
Now, there is nothing wrong with choosing classes that make one’s concentration more fulfilling or even make it more economically viable. But this cannot be the only criterion. College is the last time we will have the opportunity to spend our days learning anything we choose. Let’s not waste it on the “safe” choices.
So maybe I will go explore the universe with my old friend, Planets and Life. Or maybe I’ll pursue something even more exotic — the siren’s call of Creative Writing beacons, and I refuse to tie my hands to the mast of a four-year plan and a non-creative thesis. I’m not afraid to hurt Materials Science’s feelings by hooking up with another program — I have my own needs. The wars over “hookup culture” may wage on, but put me down as a staunch defender of the importance of experimentation (and even a touch of adolescent stupidity) in our relationships with all the hot certificates Princeton has to offer.
Bennett McIntosh is a freshman from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.