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Big fish, bruised egos

Big fish from a little pond comes to Princeton. It’s an old cliche, one painfully familiar to many undergraduates who are in theory excited to dive into a rigorous intellectual environment but not quite prepared for the reality. Many who can’t wait to engage with intellectual equals are soon crushed by the realization that some of these “equals” leave them far behind in terms of brainpower. The caliber of classes and peers may provide an intellectual feast for a few students who are particularly grateful to have escaped the ennui of unchallenging high schools, but for others, the prospect of no longer being the smartest person in the room is terrifying. In academic forums, this reaction often translates into a tone of apology or self-effacement. Students enter each new precept gingerly, qualifying their most interesting and controversial offerings with that sterile little addendum of, “I feel like,” or “I think,” then recoiling in shock if a classmate is ill-bred enough to challenge the comment.

Two years ago, Princeton commissioned areport of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, also known as the Keohane Report. Although the report highlights the tendency of women to underrate their mental powers more than their male counterparts, the disparity is qualified by the finding that “over the course of their careers, both men and women lower their self-assessments about intellectual self-confidence.” This is one of the many things they don’t tell you on Orange Key tours: Princeton turns out humbler students.

There’s nothing wrong with a little humility. I can think of more than one classmate who could use a larger dose of it. These are presumably the outliers in the Keohane study; the University environment has done nothing whatsoever to affect their good opinions of themselves. Overall, however, when students who are accustomed to academic domination suddenly find themselves in a position of intellectual mediocrity, the development of humility is complemented by painful feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

These character traits don’t have to go hand-in-hand. Humility implies the capacity to be honest with one’s self about limitations and weaknesses. Insecurity is the opposite —there’s no opportunity for honesty when you’re plagued by neurotic uncertainty about your own worth.

I have yet to meet a stupid Princeton student. I do know many who are technologically, mathematically or literarily challenged. Just the other day, one of my friends announced over breakfast that he found “Middlemarch,” the darling of all 19th-century lit scholars for its unparalleled insights into human relations, a painful read because “nothing happens.” This student is one of the most interesting, sharply analytical thinkers of my acquaintance, and my general estimation of his intelligence is not in the least weakened by his obtuse approach to Victorian literature. I even admire his unapologetic dismissal of George Eliot. To me, he’s a tone-deaf concert-goer critiquing a masterpiece, but he’s more interesting to talk to after the show than an appreciative listener who doesn’t trust herself to pass judgment.

Princeton students have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, but we tend to overemphasize our weaknesses and play down our strengths. I am currently battling a two-year-old mental block that causes my brain to switch off as soon as I hear words with mathematical connotations: “integral,” “derivative” and “logarithmic function” all have the power to send a shiver of fear down my spine. The strange thing is that in high school, I was a decent math student. As a college freshman, I quickly dropped out of MAT 104: Calculus II and developed an allergic reaction to anything containing numbers. My confidence in my own math skills is currently at an all-time low. This is a self-inflicted state of mind, a way of sidestepping intellectual expectations by buying into the myth about a left-right brain dichotomy. It is easier for me to invent a mental handicap for myself than to engage with a subject I find particularly challenging, especially one that puts me on such unequal ground relative to my math-oriented friends. At the end of the day, my mathematical ineptitude is a pretense and a cop-out.

We need to stop selling ourselves short in our own minds and discourse. In terms of the size of the fish and the pond, we haven’t shrunk just because our borders have expanded. True, some of our peers outshine us in the very subjects we used to dominate, but that’s no reason to pretend to be smaller than we are. Swallow the humble pie, but don’t fall into the easy trap of doubting and devaluing yourself beyond what the situation calls for. Our time is better spent trying to grow bigger.

Tehila Wenger is a politics major from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at