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Culinarily impaired independence

I could never go independent; I would starve to death – or end up eating Cheerios for dinner every night.

Such utterances are commonly heard among sophomores and juniors as they toss out independence as a future eating option. Many just don't have time to deal with shopping and cooking; but an alarming number of us simply have no clue how to prepare a good meal. Princeton students – all bright and talented people – failing miserably when comes to a basic survival skill? A puzzling paradox.


The good news for these Princetonians, who may feel spoiled or inadequate, is that they are not alone. In fact, billions of creatures, more pitiful and more spoiled than any culinarily-challenged human, live just under our feet. Zoologists call them obligatory slave-making ants.

Observing these rice crispy-sized critters, one is initially impressed, even astonished, by their skill and cleverness. They do much more than march one-by-one in the cracks of sidewalks. In armies of 500 or more, these ants march great distances to raid other ant nests where they kidnap the unborn ants to rear as slaves.

Their kidnapping forays are spectacular. Reaching a target nest, the raiders pour into various entrance tunnels and spray an alarm pheromone, or chemical odor signal, inside. Like running through the hallways of a dormitory yelling "fire!," spraying this chemical in the nest-to-be-plundered causes confusion, panic and dispersion of most of the guard ants that would normally protect their brood. Then, with sickle-shaped mandibles that protrude from their faces, the slave-makers slaughter any lingering guards. Quickly and efficiently, the slave-makers steal as many cocoons as they can carry home. One such raid will supply the slave-maker's nest with thousands of slaves.

But, in order to see their pitiful side, you need to observe the obligatory slave-making ants between raids. In contrast with their dazzling courage and cooperative action during pillaging expeditions, at home they sit in idleness and pass the long hours begging their slaves for food! While exquisitely adapted for war, they are clumsy and incompetent when it comes to basic ant activities such as digging, collecting food and even feeding themselves.

Now, let's return to the aboveground world and imagine students' daily activities on campus, such as arguing in precept, solving math problems, performing on stage, or competing in athletics. Princeton students are remarkably clever and skillful.

Now imagine the average junior's stumped look when asked the meaning of a common cooking term like sauté. I think that these ants can offer some insight into our Princeton paradox. By no fault of their own, the system of slave-making has driven these ants to be part-time warriors and part-time invalids. With other ants doing all the work generation after generation, the slave-making ants slowly lost the capacity to perform basic functions. They would truly starve to death if they went independent.


It is no wonder, then, that Princeton students – who went straight from home-cooked meals to the dining halls – remain clumsy in the kitchen.

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