Short on spires and even shorter on gargoyles, Education City in Doha, Qatar, looks like a cross between a world’s fair and Area 51. Surrounded by Arabian desert, its fancifully designed pavilions declare the presence not of countries but of universities, each sharing western-style wisdom with an ascendant corner of the world.
Many of these institutions get generous subsidies from host countries. I can imagine plenty of countries that would offer Princeton University the moon and the stars for it to plant a flag on their shores. And yet, Princeton has resisted this trend.
This is where I’m supposed to decry Princeton’s insularity and disregard for the global community. It’s where we may be tempted to worry that our University is falling behind. It’s where we worry that Princeton students are missing out.
I won’t, we shouldn’t, and they aren’t.
At a time when so many universities are flaunting themselves like brands — or, worse, like franchises — Princeton’s commitment to tradition serves it well. It serves the world well, too.
For two years I did international outreach for a tutoring company, bringing me to 30-odd countries, over 350 international high schools, and the occasional overseas university campus. If I’ve learned one thing about international education, it is this: the cliché that “education is the U.S.’s best export” could not be more true. The fervor for American education — with a disturbing, and often naïve, reverence for an Ivy League degree — is arguably more intense in Beijing and Abu Dhabi than it is in Boston and Ann Arbor.
In the case of Education City, exportation is literal. American universities including Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, Weill Cornell Medical School, Carnegie Mellon, and Northwestern have established outposts there. So has Texas A&M, minus its football team. Having gone from desert nomadism to global prominence in the span of a generation, Qatar figured that it’s easier to enlist established institutions than it is to build native institutions from scratch. Princeton has taken 270 years to get to where it is, after all.
Many more colleges are pursuing this import-export strategy elsewhere. NYU has set up a major campus in Abu Dhabi, where students can study for all four years. Yale has a program at the National University of Singapore. The brand-new Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute take students to a different city each semester. Many universities have strengthened their study abroad programs in recent years by securing real estate in cities beyond usual suspects like London and Florence. These programs offer life-changing experiences and are incomparable portals into cosmopolitanism.
These days, we assume that anyone can learn almost anything from anywhere. Students can dabble in Massive Open Online Courses, submit papers by email, and even earn Ph.D.s online. Some professors are probably happy to hit the road and earn bonus pay. So, I don’t doubt that a Georgetown or a Carnegie Mellon can maintain their curricular standards overseas.
But great institutions are not just about showing up. Great institutions encompass people. They encompass shared experiences. They rely on formal and informal relationships — among students, professors, coaches, and staff alike. They are places. To earn a degree from Princeton means spending time at Princeton. In an age when you might do billions of dollars worth of business with people on whom you’ll never lay eyes, the chance to mingle with the same 5,000 or so people every day is precious. Ideally, the same goes for any number of equally ambitious universities.
To be sure, Princeton’s quads and lawns may sometimes seem confining — I think they’re calling it the “Orange Bubble” these days. Princeton has ample imperfections, including a long history of being less than diverse and less than inclusive. But its commitment to a campus-centered life is not one of them. Anyone who runs out of ideas to ponder, books to read, labs to conduct, or people to learn from in four years behind the FitzRandolph Gate isn’t trying very hard.
Students today have their entire lives for jet-setting, tourism, international business, and global service — and, of course, Princeton rightfully offers short-term international experiences. Any Princeton graduate who wants to teach English in China, monitor oil wells in Kuwait, make microloans in Brazil, or buy bonds in London faces ample opportunities. Today’s students will meet a more diverse array of people and visit more places than did those of any previous generation. That is our privilege and our opportunity as graduates of Princeton — the school and the place.
Long before anyone paid Qatar much mind, Toni Morrison remarked in her 250th anniversary address in the fall of my senior year, “In private memory this place is its halls, its library, its chapel worn to satin by the encounters and collaborations among and between strangers from other neighborhoods and strangers from other lands.”
Leave it to one of our nation’s greatest novelists to capture not only Princeton’s role in the burgeoning spirit of globalization — a concept so new in 1996 that I don’t recall hearing it once in my four years — but also the timeless value of camaraderie. Her point, I think, is that reading King Lear quietly under the McCosh sundial or lingering long past a precept’s dismissal time unlocks levels of wisdom that no plane ticket can.
Maybe one day those buildings in Qatar will have spirits and personalities to rival those of Princeton. For now, though, the constancy of Princeton should be cherished more so than ever. It’s why now, even with the whole world to compare itself to and compete against, Princeton can still credibly claim to be “the best old place of all.”
Josh Stephens ’97 is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and former 'Prince' editorial page editor.