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“DING! Circulation will be closing in 15 minutes,” echoed Firestone’s infamous late-night recording, reminding me that I had spent yet another evening nestled away in a cubicle on the C Floor. Usually, I found that recording affirming; it reminded me of my decision to attend a school that is known to be one of the most rigorous in the world. But that night, I asked myself: What if Princeton stopped trying so hard to be rigorous?
A statement by University President Eisgruber ’83 in the ‘Prince’ last year urged the Princeton community to think critically about how to “create a high-aspiration, challenging academic environment that is as rewarding and as beneficial to students as possible.” Guest contributor Ethan Hicks ’26 supported Eisgruber’s assertion that rigor need not conflict with the school’s broader goals of supporting mental health — as others have suggested — writing that it is precisely “this academic rigor that shapes students into the thoughtful, resilient, and intelligent leaders that Princeton is known for producing.”
I’m not entirely sure, however, why Princeton feels the onus to create a high-aspiration environment. Doesn’t Princeton naturally create one when it selects less than 6 percent of 30,000 of the most ambitious applicants to join the first-year class each year? What’s more, does rigor ipso facto really create “thoughtful, resilient, and intelligent leaders?” I think not. Academic rigor and the challenges associated with it do not inherently create great leaders, and blindly pursuing academic rigor for its own sake is foolish.
But what does academic rigor at Princeton look like?
First, there are more major and distribution requirements than students can handle in productive ways. Currently, all students must generally experience a minimum of one semester — or four if they are BSE — where they take five classes. It has become commonplace for students to take, what they refer to as “an easy fifth” to resolve both of the aforementioned requirements. What this “easy fifth” lingo suggests is that students are optimizing ease over intellectual interest to fulfill these rigorous requirements. In fact, I’ve heard countless instances in which my friends have told me they felt bad for submitting terrible academic work in the fifth class that they are PDFing but must take to hit all their distribution requirements.
The University justifies their distribution requirements by claiming that “a broad exposure to other kinds of knowledge will enhance students’ ability to discern what questions can be answered through methods native to their own fields and what questions require other methods.” I agree that such exposure is important, but if there are so many major and distribution requirements to the point where the onerous load begins to encroach upon the capacity for students to deliver high quality work in those requirements, it is likely time that we critically re-examine whether every single requirement meaningfully enriches our students.
Further, classes are known for assigning 200 or more pages of reading each week that frustrated students can barely finish, and I frequently hear students complain about extremely time-intensive problem sets that are unrelated to both lecture material or final examinations, causing me to wonder how these problem sets actually enrich students’ minds.
The implications of such rigor extend past students’ academic pursuits and into their extracurricular life. Often, we find that rigor either makes students less engaged in extracurriculars or, when they are actively involved, they must choose having strong extracurricular involvement over fulfilling academic involvement. On the one hand, Princeton students are often described by campus activists to be far less engaged with political protests than students at peer institutions, demonstrated — for example — by Princeton’s lackluster Divest protests compared to Yale, Harvard, or Penn.
On the other hand, from my personal experience, I’m currently taking a five-course semester, and I find that I’m frequently lowering the quality of work I submit for my five classes so that I can dedicate time to work on my nonprofit consulting project with the World Wildlife Fund. I’ve found that every hour spent on an unnecessary reading assignment or low-value class is an hour that could have been spent on a meaningful extracurricular pursuit.
The problem in the status quo is that professors are not held accountable to explain why an impossibly high amount of reading is assigned in the first place. The problem is that academic departments are not held responsible for justifying how their major prerequisites and departmentals actually enrich the student experience. As a consequence, the challenges that arise from academic rigor for its own sake don’t deliver a commensurate reward, instead inflicting a high burden that takes away time for students to double down on their academic interests and extracurricular goals.
Eisgruber argues that Princeton creates such a challenging academic program for its students to “provide students with the intellectual and personal foundations for a lifetime of rewarding engagement with their communities, societies, and professions,” noting that “an intense, challenging period of academic study has transformative benefits both in the short term and the long term.” But it is abundantly clear that at Princeton, many academic challenges undermine engagement with the academic interests students care most about and worsen student engagement with communities around them.
We must embrace a paradigm shift in how we think about rigor at Princeton: how can we eliminate all hard things that provide low value for students so that they can instead push themselves in areas — academic or extracurricular — that matter most? Instead of mindlessly accepting the unrealistic amount of readings that classes assign, we can push professors to be more intentional about how they choose the readings, potentially following the lead of some faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School who recommend for their own classes a maximum of 40 well-selected pages of reading before each class meeting.
I think the specific ways that we cut down on major requirements and distribution requirements is less important, however, than our change in mindset of how we justify having them: rather than accepting each requirement as a categorical good because of their contribution to rigor, we must evaluate if the tradeoffs to student extracurricular life and investment in other classes is worthwhile. Put simply, Princeton should still push students to take classes in a broad range of disciplines — but rigor should not be the primary justification for doing so.
Yes, academic rigor is challenging and challenge certainly can unlock potential. But such potential is unlocked to the greatest extent when students are left to choose their own challenges, rather than having such challenges mindlessly imposed upon us and justified under the vacuous name of “academic rigor.”
Jay Kang is a sophomore from Concord, MA in the economics department. He is a project manager for Princeton University Nonprofit Consulting (PUNC).