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Eisgruber won't sacrifice academic rigor for mental health. Students aren't getting either.

<h5>Nassau Hall.</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Nassau Hall.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

“I think high aspiration environments are consistent with mental health,” University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told The Daily Princetonian last week. “I don’t see any evidence that academic laxness or academic mediocrity would somehow be better from the standpoint of mental health.” This seems like a major gaffe by a university president. But the truth is, Eisgruber stands by every word in that sentence. It’s a philosophy he’s articulated many times.

Eisgruber has a vision for Princeton, which he once described as an “intense [place] where researchers and students are colliding with other people of talent and passion and imagination.” To him, that includes extremely difficult academics. How could an opt-in paradise be inconsistent with mental health, he might wonder? Eisgruber seems to feel the term “mental health” is being abused because students just want less work. But what he doesn’t recognize is the real driving force behind the mental health crisis — a culture of competition rather than growth, which is the very problem getting between him and his utopia.

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What makes academic rigor so important to Eisgruber? We have to remember his history. Eisgruber was a physics major at Princeton before he discovered a passion for constitutional law after taking a sophomore year class. Eisgruber’s entire life was built on his choice to take that class, from clerking at the Supreme Court to having his dream job: being yelled at 24/7 as Princeton’s president. Is it any wonder he considers academically rigorous classes to be the highest manifestation of Princeton’s greatness?

If Eisgruber views tough classes as simply opportunities to master new subjects and find your life path, then of course he doesn’t blame academics for the mental health crisis. After all, Eisgruber may think, Princeton students are relatively secure in terms of future prospects, at least compared to most people our age, and so they should make use of the opportunity to try lots of things, without facing very many consequences. The real threat to the mental health of a Princeton student is the possibility of “academic mediocrity.” How much worse would Eisgruber’s life be if he didn’t master the hard class that put him on the path to being the victim of constant mockery as Princeton’s president? So, Eisgruber says, high aspiration environments are “helpful to mental health.”

The problem with this logic isn’t that Princeton students don’t sympathize with the fear of academic mediocrity. It’s that we feel it deeply. Academic mediocrity has two meanings. To Eisgruber, it just means not reaching your individual potential out of laziness — something we can avoid. But once we place academic mediocrity as the enemy, it takes on its second meaning for students: not keeping up with everyone around you. And at a school specifically optimized to pit us against the most competitive people there are, not keeping up turns into a constant fear. When we pin our sense of self on avoiding academic mediocrity, that sense of self can easily go away when we inevitably fail. 

Is a school where the classes are hard harmful to mental health? Not necessarily. Is a school where students are eager to take hard classes harmful to mental health? Again, not necessarily. But is a school where classes are hard and students seek to do as much as possible to compete with other students harmful to mental health? Yes, of course. And Princeton clearly falls in that third camp. The problem isn’t the high aspirations per se — it’s the high aspiration environment.

Why is Princeton internally competitive? The better question is, how can it not be? Princeton’s admissions process is optimized to select very competitive students — in other words, students who are not particularly used to failure. No one here feels secure because it’s an uncomfortable feeling: no matter how rosy the future looks, we always strive for more, and we see everyone around us doing the same. The default for an elite school is to be competitive; it would take tangible effort to make it a space of low-stress exploration and engagement. And here at Princeton, we’ve done nothing to build that dream.

Maybe some amount of pressure is necessary to push students to work hard on academics, Eisgruber may argue, which is how they will grow into the deeply scarred University president they could be. But in reality, students adapt to the pressure by not exploring deeply: they choose the easiest distribution requirements and cram for exams rather than actually engaging with the content. Classes that can help us grow when we take them to improve ourselves can instead hurt us deeply when we overload to get a competitive advantage.

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In so many ways, a hypercompetitive atmosphere optimizes this school for exactly what Eisgruber says he doesn’t want Princeton to be. If Princeton students are all going to be granted high-paying, low-value-to-society jobs at McKinsey or Goldman or Meta, then by all means, they should work hard and suffer a little at Princeton to do some penance for the advantages they are about to reap.

But Eisgruber has consistently said he wants Princeton to be better than that: he wants students to consider what they can do for the world. In order to get there, students have to have the time to take advantage of the resources around them — which means they have to be dissuaded from constantly trying to prove their academic prowess by overloading on courses. Students have to remain confident in their own abilities even as the people around them constantly surpass them in various ways; they have to strive toward their own vision of success, not suffer through an epidemic of deteriorating mental health.

We’re talking about a cultural problem — something that the administration clearly doesn’t know how to fix or even conceptualize. Throughout his interview, Eisgruber relied on construction to demonstrate the actions he was taking in different fields. Need to prioritize STEM knowledge? Rebuild an engineering school! Worried the humanities are being left behind? Build a new humanities complex! This isn’t Minecraft, Eisgruber. Not every problem can be solved with a new building. Until the administration finds a way to wean Princeton students off high-stress, competitive academics and toward more thoughtful exploration and reflection, Eisgruber’s vision will remain a contradiction.

Somewhere at Princeton, there’s a student with their cursor hovering over the button to enroll in the class that will change their life. If they take that class, they’ll change their major, go on to reach great academic heights, make some earth-shaking discovery, and then finally be rewarded with the job of president of Princeton and happily spend the rest of their days trying to fit in work between student sit-ins in their office. But then the student looks at the number of pages of reading, remembers the last time they took on a hard class, and then had to suffer a low grade. Or they consider that it might look better for their resume to take two more specialized high-level courses. And they don’t enroll. After selecting their courses, the student breathes a sigh of relief. At least they’ve avoided academic mediocrity.

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Long before he was the Community Opinion Editor, Rohit Narayanan, a junior from McLean, Va. got a B+ in a seventh grade class and has never recovered psychologically. His emails at rohitan@princeton.edu are in the midst of an identity crisis, but they really need to stop being such snowflakes. His tweets @Rohit_Narayanan have consistently been described as academically mediocre.

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