Halfway through Frosh Week, as I sat on the chapel steps with a handful of other freshmen meeting our academic adviser for the first time, I was invited to observe. My adviser asked us to look at the students around us and see how many stood out; how many, out of the thousands of success-driven students at Princeton, all with impressive resumes and exceptional talents, really stood out? She brought to my attention the absence of unnaturally dyed hair, of unconventional piercings and of tattoos too large to be concealed under a suit skirt or a collared shirt among the student body.
Since then, I’ve kept a quiet vigil; I have so far seen just one purple-haired boy and caught just a flash of what may have been inked skin underneath a sleeve. While I myself have no tattoos or piercings, and my hair is a nondescript brown (and it is true that many students at Princeton are not exactly the type to have a strong affinity for such things), the complete lack of these individualizers inside Princeton’s microcosm awoke me to a more troubling part of campus culture. It seems some Princeton students are so consumed by their futures and their “employability” in a growing job market that they are willing to shape their own identity around it. Far beyond a healthy preoccupation, future employment is at the forefront of student life and influencing their college experience to align with desirable employee skills. To Princeton students, an aspiring investment banker with tattoos winding down his arms is seen as one without a job.
Piercings and tattoos are the extreme; their absence is simply one representation of the career-driven attitude that rules students at Princeton. What really is being lost is the sense of originality and freedom that is historically attributed to the greatest intellectuals of human history, and that I once associated with the academic seats of America. Coming to Princeton, genius for me was embodied by a classic photo of Einstein, his wild hair at all angles and his tongue sticking out. I expected much of Princeton to have a similar quirk of brilliance, some rejection of the status quo in favor of groundbreaking pursuits. However, I’ve noticed that many here have their sights set instead upon a secure profession, repressing the penchant for questioning conventions that education attempts to foster. Instead of focusing their talents and their lessons toward avant-garde ideas, many students are inclined to construct a resume — and therefore an identity — around their preconceptions of employer desires. The job is the end and the education merely the means. Even worse, pursuits that do not directly correlate with students’ future employment goals often are cast by the wayside in favor of activities more likely to impress corporate giants and Wall Street icons.
This issue is a national epidemic, and understandably so with the economy still reeling. But as students at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, we should be challengers rather than conformers. As we learn and grow on this campus, we should be creating an identity independent of current standards and using this individuality to redefine our environments. Our aim should be to analyze and to formulate, not to accept to ensure security. This university is meant to promote this sort of exploration; I find it almost disrespectful to focus a large portion of our energies on ensuring a comfortable career with little regard to Princeton’s appeal for individual innovation. The senior thesis alone is evidence enough to show the value Princeton places on personal and creative thought. Yet some students I’ve talked to anticipate the thesis as the addition of a published work to their application, not the unique and individual production that the thesis seeks to be.
I agree that consideration for our future is prudent, but it is imprudent for us to become absorbed by such restrictions. Change is progress, and if we — the brightest of the next generation — do not instigate such change, it will never happen. And if nothing I’ve said has been compelling, consider all the black-suit, crew-cut would-be investment bankers, all with identical resumes built on identical principles and aiming for identical employment. Not one of them stands out, not one is memorable. Then consider the hundreds of people I encounter on campus daily, all gifted and all with impressive lists of credentials, but not one of which I remember — not one, that is, except for the one purple-haired boy.
Mitchell Hammer is a freshman from Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at email@example.com.