Princeton has topped the U.S. News & World Report list of Best National Universities in each of the last 10 years. Perhaps we’ve gotten too used to the accolade, but it’s time to stop seeing the Best Universities List as an affirmation at all.
The U.S. News & World Report measures how well students learn; it doesn’t measure whether students are learning the right things. Princeton has no doubt expended significant resources to earn its place on the U.S. News & World Report, but if we actually want to be the “best university,” it’s important to make sure our curriculum is as good as our academic environment.
The factors that play into the U.S. News & World Report — class sizes, student-to-faculty ratio, social mobility, and outcomes — would be unaffected if Princeton scrapped its curriculum and replaced it with one focused on teaching black magic and the basics of how to be a dictator. In order to compare colleges fairly on their content, we should take a hypothetical student, hypothetically send them to every college in the country, and see from which they emerge best suited to serve society.
After sending this hypothetical student to Princeton, what can we guarantee that they have learned? We know one thing — they’ve done a writing seminar and can now construct a solid essay. But other than that, we know surprisingly little. While Princeton offers a wide array of courses in almost every academic field, the writing seminar remains the only required course for every student.
But are there other things that all people should know — things that make them better leaders and servants to society? Surely, yes. We live in a world far too complex to know everything, but there are broad sets of ideas that we should be familiar with. All of us come in knowing many of those things — how to read, form an argument, run a basic experiment, and hold premises up to the scientific method. But there are other things that are surely important that many or most of us don’t know upon matriculation.
Take politics, for one. All citizens in a democracy should get a basic political education. But there’s more to politics than seventh grade civics. In order to truly participate in good faith, everyone should be familiar with the core of our four main political traditions — liberalism, conservatism, social democracy, and libertarianism — to understand why their fellow citizens believe what they believe. But not only is there no such requirement, there doesn’t seem to be an easily accessible course at all that gives the basics of all four political traditions at all. Far more students talk about politics on a regular basis than will ever take a class on an intellectual movement they disagree with.
We also know the varying impacts — both the advantages and the pitfalls — that the rapid rise of technology is going to have on the society of the future. Can any university call itself a breeding ground for future leaders without mandating that every student grapple with the one of the biggest issues humanity may have to face? Princeton, to its credit, offers many, many courses covering this topic. But it’s not guaranteed that every student will take one.
Now, it’s true that there’s more to what a university does for a student than just the academics. But what can we point to? Princeton does not have any mandatory programming on leadership, interpersonal skills, or values — nor is our extracurricular scene so vibrant that these skills come automatically. Once again, there are avenues on campus to develop values, leadership, or other interpersonal skills. But there’s no guarantee that our hypothetical student will take advantage of them, when so many of our hand-picked students do not.
What can the University do about this? It’s clear that our loose collection of distribution requirements isn’t doing the trick. It’s time to start having a real conversation about creating a core curriculum for the 21st century.
There may not be a perfect model among our peer schools. Some of the most famous core curricula pride themselves on the age of their classes rather than their relevance to the present day, with their curricula usually centered around the great works. Solid foundations in literature and philosophy are arguably important but may not be the first priority for a university as intellectually diverse as Princeton.
Princeton should seek to look to the future, not the past. Along with getting a broad view of politics and the future of technology, students should understand the changes in the economy, analyze the demographics of the country they live in, get experience in design thinking and entrepreneurship. Are these really niche skills only for those who seek to pursue them? There may not even be space for all the content that is core and necessary. But it’s time to have that discussion — at an administrative, faculty, and student level.
It’s true that more flexible options give students room to explore their passions. But passion alone is not enough to be a leader in this century. Nor can Princeton fall back on the claim that there may be a perfect core curriculum, but it is indecipherable. If we truly are or want to be the “best university,” we can’t throw our hands in the air when we actually have to decide what comprises a good education.
It’s easy to scoff at this perspective as anomalous given what we know about the high quality of Princeton graduates — practically exactly what the University advertises. The University aims to shape students with the potential to become changemakers. It wants engineers well versed in ethics, policy, and entrepreneurship, with leadership skills who can make their visions a reality. It wants policymakers and public intellectuals well versed both in the classics and in the modern problems at the forefront of technology, who are empathetic and open with people of different types. And by and large, University graduates fit that mold.
But Princeton achieves this mostly by admitting engineers who are also interested in ethics or politics and have shown leadership in high school or admitting politics wonks who’ve expressed an interest in the problems the world faces, with a healthy track record of teamwork. Princeton indeed stimulates those interests. But it’s hard to argue that Princeton can take credit for its alumni. Shouldn’t the “best university” be able to turn an average student into an incredible servant of society?
This question is more relevant than ever. Andrew Yang, a notable liberal politician, has contemplated asking top universities to open satellite campuses in dying industrial cities rather than in foreign countries. If Princeton Toledo existed, would it have anything special to offer? Or would the school just be an empty husk without its admission policy?
Princeton’s motto, “In The Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” doesn’t come with the caveat, “if you want.” It’s time for the curriculum to speak the truths of living in America in the 21st century.
Rohit Narayanan is a first-year and prospective electrical and computer engineering concentrator from McLean, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.