In an article on April 24, I declared that Princeton University holds onto a series of pedagogically outdated systems that are disgustingly ill-adapted to the demands of educating the students it purports to support. I critically analyzed the lecture, and strongly suggested it be eradicated. However, Princeton cannot exist as an actual school without schooling. As I noted, removing the lecture would make it even more glaringly obvious that a Princeton education is, first and foremost, a self-fulfilling, tax-exempt hedge fund. Something must fill the hole where the lecture used to be, and for that, we can turn to part of our Wilsonian heritage: the precept.
Given my position on lectures, I have to endorse an expansion of the precept system. On paper, the precept is everything the lecture is not. It is a personalized experience with an expert — a small class, with active participation that allows students to receive and defend oral argumentation. It is a way of participatory learning and a way to allow students to teach and learn from each other, as well as to be taught and learn from the professor or a Princeton graduate student in a more intimate setting. Precepts are the polar opposite of lectures, and hence, they are a structurally great educational system.
Many people will roll their eyes. In the real world, those precepts don’t exist. People may argue that precepts are dominated by uncooperative and unengaged students who are genuinely uninterested. Students will come in not having done the reading. A meme in Princeton Memes for Preppy AF teens summed it up nicely: you’re either aggressive, a useless parrot, asking questions but providing no answers, quiet, physically absent, or “taking notes” on your laptop. To be fair, I have been blessed in my Princeton experience in that many of my precepts have been genuinely stimulating affairs with talented peers able to make good points. Despite that, problems exist. Yet, these are not problems inherent in the precept, but around the culture within precepts.
Hence, I argue that there is a cultural change that must occur around precepts. Precepts cannot be arenas; people cannot be fighting to make any that pops into their heads, in order to get some sort of participation credit. Students must be active in precept if they are participating in precepts; laptops should be removed. We, as Princetonians, ought to take precepts seriously, prepare for them well, and participate in them properly. Princeton prides itself on encouraging an “individual” education; moreover, none of this is more than is currently expected of us anyway.
In order to make precepts more effective, institutional changes must take place. To begin, precepts must do away with the participation grade. The reason for this is two-fold. First, a removal of the participation grade would encourage less repetitive comments and less competition for the sole purpose of getting participation in. It would also put less pressure on students who are uncomfortable in these formats. Second, without a participation grade, students who have not done the reading would be able to sit back in precept without needing to interject uselessly. On this point, I also encourage precepts to adopt a system where students who admit to not having done the reading are not permitted to take part in the conversation. On the other hand, to ensure students do attend precepts, precepts should have a strict and mandatory attendance policy (with perhaps a standard two excused absences per semester). Students who sit out of conversation would still benefit from hearing it.
Because lectures must be removed, precepts will have to take their place. I am not entirely certain myself what the best way of doing this is, but many options present themselves. Professors could effectively have class-like precepts, where all students in the class rotate through meeting with the professors. They would then also have precepts with a TA or graduate student. In meeting a greater demand for precepts, Princeton has the structural advantage of skilled and intelligent graduate students from which to draw TAs from. In addition, because precepts would likely have a large percentage of students who do not participate or do not do the readings, precepts can be made slightly larger (no larger than 18-20 students) without losing conversations of a small and intimate nature.
When I propose that Princeton make the shift from a passive to an active form of education, I am asking that Princeton become harder. Not harder in the shallow, grade-deflationary sense, or the structural difficulty of asking students to do a semester’s worth of work in twelve weeks. I am advocating that Princeton, as an institution, endorse and support a way of education that expects and demands more of its students, without handicapping them with an outdated and poorly designed system like the lecture. It is not easy to be active and engaged as a student and an individual. Yet that is what a great education should demand — and an Ivy League education, while prestigious, is no great education. Better precepts could make it so.
Ryan Born is a sophomore in Philosophy from Washington, Mich. He can be reached at email@example.com.