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On academic standards and mental health

<h5>President Christopher Eisgruber addresses the Class of 2022 in his speech, "The Value of Persistence.”</h5>
<h6>&nbsp;<strong>Charles Sykes / Associated Press of the University</strong>&nbsp;</h6>
President Christopher Eisgruber addresses the Class of 2022 in his speech, "The Value of Persistence.”
 Charles Sykes / Associated Press of the University 

Last month, a reporter from The Daily Princetonian asked for my views about the relationship between academic rigor and mental health.

I said what I believe: that a challenging, high-aspiration academic environment is fully consistent with, and even helpful to, student mental health.

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That comment has provoked debate and discussion. Understandably so: Student mental health is an urgent priority for me and for Princeton. And any student can struggle with academic work here — I certainly did.

At a time when students report increasing levels of mental distress, in a year when we are grieving the deaths of multiple community members, and in an era rendered precarious by threats of political conflict and environmental crisis, we all need to care about mental health and treat one another with compassion.

As I said in my interview with the ‘Prince,’ we also need to pay attention to data that can help us understand and address the problems we confront.

What does that data tell us? Reports from the Healthy Minds Study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other sources show, among other things, that increased mental health challenges afflict an entire generation of young people. The problem affects young people whether they are in college or not, and it affects college students across all varieties of institutions and academic programs.

These data provide no reason to think that highly challenging academic programs are worse for students’ mental health. There are, however, strong correlations between mental distress and other factors, including poor sleep habits, alcohol consumption, or a lack of community or social support.

I sometimes hear Princeton students boast that they “work hard and play hard.”  If “play hard” involves alcohol or other drugs, it is by far the riskier element of that couplet from a mental health standpoint.

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But doesn’t academic rigor create stress? And isn’t stress always bad for mental health?

Before answering these questions, it is important to clarify terms. Educators tend to define “academic rigor” as referring to standards of excellence that are academically, intellectually, or personally challenging. Others, however, may view the term more negatively, as implying, for example, excessive competitiveness or unrealistic perfectionism.

Here’s how I understand the term. Princeton’s academic program insists on high standards of scholarly quality and achievement that even its very talented students will find challenging. Do these high expectations create stress?

They do, indeed. Stress often comes from gaps between our goals and our confidence about attaining them. Many valuable activities — including athletic competition, artistic performance, taking leadership roles, having children, and, yes, getting an education — simultaneously add meaning and stress to our lives.

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If we set personally demanding goals about anything, we — all of us — will sometimes fail. (In fact, we fail, at least in small ways, every day.) When we fail, we sometimes feel frustrated, sad, anxious, or disappointed.  

These feelings, however, are not the same as mental health problems. They are an ordinary part of a healthy life. We need to know how to cope with and manage uncomfortable emotions, but we cannot sustain high aspirations, or personal growth, without them.

It is true that we might reduce stress by lowering standards or eliminating goals: If we do not care about doing well, we will never feel stress or anxiety about our performance. But lower standards or diminished expectations have their own profoundly dispiriting effects.

So to answer the questions I posed earlier: Yes, demanding academic standards create stress. But no, stress isn’t always bad for mental health.

Of course, we should avoid needless or excessive stress. Chronic stress can indeed damage mental health; moreover, dealing with stress is hard. Princeton has and continues to explore ways to reduce needless stress, including when the University eliminated its grading curve in 2014 and moved its fall term examinations from January to December beginning in the 2020-21 academic year.

There remain, however, good reasons to do hard things.

We should bear in mind why Princeton and its peer institutions create challenging, high-aspiration academic programs for their students. Our goal is to provide students with the intellectual and personal foundations for a lifetime of rewarding engagement with their communities, societies, and professions. An intense, challenging period of academic study has transformative benefits both in the short term and the long term.

The collective pursuit of this demanding project can itself be a source of inspiration and meaning. For example, Princeton alums take great pride and satisfaction from their senior theses for many reasons, including not only the quality of the work they produced but also how they learned — with help from friends and mentors — to overcome the frustrations and difficulties of completing this rigorous and demanding project.

There are lots of questions worth asking about this enterprise and college life more broadly. For example: What goals are worth having, for our academic lives and our lives beyond campus? How do we create a high aspiration, challenging academic environment that is as rewarding and as beneficial to students as possible? How do we equip students with the skills to handle the stress that comes with high aspirations (and, indeed, with life’s hardships more broadly understood)? How do we improve mental health on campus, both by providing needed resources to treat mental health challenges and by addressing issues (including alcohol consumption, poor sleep habits, or a lack of a sense of belonging) that can damage mental wellness?

These are all important topics. They benefit from widespread campus engagement and discussion, and we should always seek to improve our answers.

It is a mistake, though, to conceive all of them in terms of mental health, or, in my view, to suppose that demanding academic standards and good mental health are at odds with one another. We can, and should, commit ourselves simultaneously to a highly challenging academic environment and to a campus culture that supports health and well-being, including mental health.

I welcome further discussion about these topics, and I look forward to talking with you about them in the weeks and months to come.

Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 is a guest contributor and president of Princeton University.

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