Before I came to Princeton, I thought of college as it was portrayed in the movies. Perhaps naively, movies like "A Beautiful Mind"or "Mona Lisa Smile"came to mind. Some students would lie around chewing pencils and discussing current events; others would be arguing over brainteasers the professor introduced as an extra challenge on a whiteboard in their common rooms. Students could just gather together and think in an unstructured way, learning through self-initiated discourse. Granted, I knew Princeton wouldn’t be about highbrow intellectual discussion all the time, but I thought there would be more time to just sit around and think.
When freshman year came around, all those preconceptions went out the window. Between four to five classes a semester, extracurriculars, room-cleaning and dinner-eating, there was little opportunity for anyone to engage in intellectual discussion. Little bits of free time with friends were for small talk and joking around; there weren’t usually large enough blocks of time for friendly conversations to turn into deep-thinking discussions.
A lot of precepts involved academic conversation, but only in a structured way that adhered strictly to the class syllabus, rather than letting the conversation organically reach different topics. In a sociology class, for instance, we only discussed the book or the topic the preceptor assigned, not connections drawn from other sources. The preceptor usually guided the conversation in a way that would “help” students realize a predetermined principle, probably one that was discussed in lecture, by the end of the precept. Math and science precepts were, from my experience, mostly about homework problems or examples that were similar, so those classes were similarly formulaic in terms of content.
By the end of freshman year, I figured that perhaps there wasn’t need for intellectual discourse if I was already spending so much time learning through class time. I had learned exactly what was in the syllabus, as promised.
I didn’t realize what I had been missing until I led my first Outdoor Action trip in September of this year. My group of randomly selected eight freshmen taught me more through trail discussions than some of my classes did. With several free hours every day just to talk, we ended up devoting a morning to metaphors in "The Stranger" by Camus and its relation to "Waiting for Godot," we discussed the nature of infinity and the proof of how all rational numbers made up a countable set, and we evaluated the rise in popularity of electronic music. We came up with an idea for a murder-mystery novel inspired by a dangerous-looking hiker we encountered on the trail, using dramatic devices like Chekhov’s gun and red herrings. It stretched the bounds of my knowledge just to keep up with them and contribute.
With enough free time, like my group had on OA, I think any randomly assembled group of people could find a way to learn outside of the bounds of a curriculum through discussion with one another. It just takes an uninterrupted block of time and a group of smart, curious people.
The problem is that we simply don’t have the time. Deluged by papers to write about the books we’ve read, we don’t have time to connect them to other books or discuss an alternate ending the author had considered or the story behind how the author came up with the characters. With weekly computer programming assignments, complete with APIs and formats we have to follow exactly, we don’t have time to come up with anything on our own. They come predictably, week after week after week, with no downtime. Everything is precisely structured. We are, to some extent, fed what we are meant to know.
Since OA, I’ve never had another discussion quite as mind-bending as the ones I had on my trip, and I certainly feel like something is missing. Sitting around and thinking with classmates and friends is just as important a part of education as sitting in class and listening to a professor is. Unstructured discussion is about coping with uncertainty. We don’t know what the answer is off the bat, so we have to argue and make a decision, just like in real life. There’s no grader to say who’s right or who’s wrong in a boardroom meeting. This type of conversation is about learning to think outside the confines of what a textbook or academic authority has to say. It’s true that learning the fundamentals in class is important, and it can be easiest to learn those fundamentals in a methodical way. But unstructured intellectual discussion still should have a bigger place on campus than it does now. Whether that means cutting down on assignments or holding these kinds of discussions in precepts, we just need some time to think.
Barbara Zhan is a sophomore from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.