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The stigma of competition

Since President Eisgruber announced his intention to create a committee to re-evaluate the controversial policy known as grade deflation, the initial furor (or excitement, or even optimism, might be better words) among the student body has largely settled down. Tiger Magazine, though, recently published a satirical article “announcing” that the committee had returned its findings early and had recommended that “no more than 10 percent of the grades given in any department should be A’s.” I found the article to be highly amusing and forwarded it to my parents, thinking little of it.

Soon after, I called home (yes, there are people who still do that), only for my mom to tell me “well, that’s a bummer” and for my dad to spew out words that are, for the most part, too inappropriate to be published. Clarification revealed that my parents, reading the first paragraph or two of the article and not knowing that TigerMag regularly publishes spoof content, took the committee’s “decision” to be factual.

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Of course we laughed it off, but it got me thinking — does Princeton really have such a stigma of competition that the ridiculous policies proposed in the Tiger Magazine article could actually seem legitimate? And is it possible that Princeton is too oriented toward academic competition? After all, if TigerMag had published a phony article about, say, a new policy limiting the number of new organizations that can be formed on campus, their readership would have hardly have reacted as strongly. The article was even re-posted on the Class of 2017 page, in which several students posted comments along the lines of “I almost had a heart attack there.” As soon as the issue of grades arises, students and parents alike are all ears.

Of course, it was first and foremost the academic aspect that catapulted Princeton to the No. 1 spot on the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings. In recent years, the boom in the college-age population coupled with the increasingly widespread societal belief that a college degree is a prerequisite for future success has led to a huge rise in the applicant pool, a subsequent rise in the number of rejections doled out each year and a drop in the overall acceptance rate. These figures certainly bolster a school’s image of selectivity and, in turn, prestige through high competition. But in seeking to maintain its status, Princeton may have taken policies to promote a competitive environment worthy of its rank too far.

When the school’s administration focuses so much of its attention on making academia competitive, so too will the students focus on adapting to the more aggressive atmosphere, until competition becomes the defining feature of the school. A high degree of competition, then, no longer serves as an indication of a school’s relative reputation, but rather become a prerequisite to it. So indeed, we may be seen as “too competitive.” The question then inevitably arises — is this a positive trend?

It has been argued, admittedly, that competition forces students to raise their academic performance and to strive for self-improvement. Multiple studies, however, indicate that competition can also have the detrimental effects of stunting creativity, fostering hostility and lowering self-esteem, hardly ideal characteristics of a school that is supposed to be preparing students to be critical and constructive thinkers in the real world. Competition is undoubtedly an integral aspect of human life, yet it is possible for competition to be taken too far — so as to be the defining aspect of an institution of higher learning — that it ceases to be a benevolent force. Rather, we should be known for the achievements, past and present, already accomplished and being accomplished by students and faculty alike and for the opportunities provided to scholars of all races, ages and creeds. Competitiveness should not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of a school like Princeton.

Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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