The Path to Education

Eva Marie Haine

Eva Marie Haine graduated from Princeton in 2011, where she studied Art History, Studio Art, and Modern Dance. She currently lives in Annapolis, MD, where she is pursuing her Masters in Liberal Arts at St. John's College. Her writing has also appeared at First Things.

            The modern university’s conception of the relationship between the individual and knowledge is governed by a powerful paradigm. The individual is defined by what he does: the aspects of his identity have to manifest in activity. Knowledge likewise has to be made useful in public “doing,” otherwise it is wasted, barely legitimate. Every talent, interest, and aspect of one's identity must be expressed in a student group, an internship, a study abroad term, a choice of major. There is no place in this paradigm for a solitary individual devoted to the fundamental activity of internal reflection upon his thoughts and beliefs; only specialized and applied knowledge has value.

             I was happy with this culture of “doing” during the first years of my undergraduate life at Princeton. I studied eagerly and enthusiastically took advantage of every opportunity the university offered me: grants for study and work abroad, archaeology classes with trips to famous sites, dance classes taught by famous choreographers. Yet in time I began to feel uneasy about my approach to my education, and by the end of my four years, I had become deeply dissatisfied with how little I felt that I had actually learned.

            Sadly, I know that I am not the only one to feel this way. Many of my friends, particularly students in the humanities, share my dissatisfaction. Through conversations with them I have found common threads that I think connect the experiences of students at many universities across the country. I am recounting my experience at Princeton both to draw attention to a nationwide trend at universities and to ground my suggestions on how we might make our universities better.

            I don’t mean to blame Princeton for all of my frustrations; what I regret most is that they largely result from my own naive choices. But most college freshmen are naive, so it is surprising how little Princeton prompted me to think about the trajectory of my education, about its largest goals and fundamental values. Princeton encouraged me, as it encouraged all its students, to indulge in the vanity that I could guide my own education, both in my curricular and extra-curricular life. After all, we were praised from the beginning of freshman orientation until graduation as the “best and brightest,” constantly recognized for all that we could “bring” to the community, and given free rein to explore our every whim and interest. No wonder that I was instantly absorbed into my own self-seeking, both in my curricular and extra-curricular life.

            Princeton’s general “distribution requirements” for all students governed a large amount of my course selection each semester. Princeton requires students to take classes in several different areas, including “Epistemology and Cognition” and “Historical Analysis.” Each distribution requirement can be fulfilled by a broad variety of classes spread across many departments, and bachelor of arts students like myself must fulfill them by taking eleven to fifteen separate classes. Then there were the course requirements for my degree in Art and Archaeology, which similarly mandated that I take a set number of classes distributed among various time periods and cultures, and still more required courses for my certificate (=minor) in Dance.

            The majority of my coursework thus was dedicated to fulfilling these three separate sets of requirements—but these gave only the loosest framework to my incoherent education. Most of these requirements were intended to give students a good deal of freedom in their course selection, and so I frequently based my choices on fickle, short-sighted, and immature whims: what seemed “cool,” what my friends wanted to take, what related to some aspect of my own recent experience or my “identity” as an artistic, travel-loving dancer, and what corresponded to my vague notions of my future career. My History of Southeast Asia class followed a grant-funded volunteer summer in Thailand: both were wonderful, but unconnected to the rest of my education. Neither did the archaeology class on Mayan art with an attached trip to Mexico connect with any of my studies before or after. A friend pointed out the Taiko Drumming class to me, and it just seemed too cool not to take. Even my decision to be an Art History major—a choice which I made almost as soon as I arrived at Princeton—was based upon my identification with my mother, an artist, and my own familiarity with and knack for “artsy” things.

            It can be good to connect coursework with practical experience, and to broaden that experience with subjects outside of one’s specialty. Yet although many of my classes were interesting and enjoyable, the resulting hodgepodge contained little continuity or progression within disciplines or on specific subjects. If I had the choice I either would not take those courses again or I would take them in an order that provided a coherent accumulation of knowledge. It is no wonder to me that degrees in the humanities increasingly need to be justified to students; my own intellectual buffet, unrooted in any intellectual tradition or at least an intentional progression, has inspired few sustained interests or pursuits.

            Princeton’s intellectual fragmentation also affected the assignments in courses. I rarely had to read entire books. Even in Muslims and the Qur’an, I was not assigned to read the whole Qur’an. I particularly regret that I did not have the opportunity to approach the influential texts of our culture on their own terms, such as the Bible or Dante's Divine Comedy, rather than through the prisms of other people’s interpretations. A friend of mine who studied Political Science at Princeton was never required to read Plato’s Republic. Surely this friend lost the chance to read an essential text in the history of his field. Perhaps more importantly, he lost the chance to read a book that presented first and best some of the most important questions about how man should live and society should organize itself.

            I see these problems now, but at the time I was happy and successful enough at Princeton. I came to question my education in part because of the gradual deepening of my religious faith over the course of my four years there. As part of this process, I had to address more fundamental philosophical and spiritual questions—and I realized that my coursework was useless in helping me answer them. Friendships aided the education of my soul and the transformation of my life’s goals toward the transcendental values of goodness, truth, and beauty; Princeton’s classes did not. My dissatisfaction with my academic studies grew as I saw how little they provided for this deepening sense of my life’s meaning.

            My engagement during junior year to a fellow Princetonian, already graduated and set to begin his active duty in the U.S. Army after my graduation, furthered my reevaluation of my education.  In choosing to get married to an army officer soon after college, I knew that I was choosing to accompany him wherever and whenever the army posted him. My career choices would have to be different from those of my peers: it would not be easy for me to pursue a typical career in the art world and move to a big city to work in a museum or a non-profit. Even going to graduate school would not be an easy option. My choice to accompany my husband forced me to look at the use and value of my education and to wonder about the ends to which it was directed. 

            Would my education be more than career training or the satisfaction of passing interests? Was it going to provide me with enduring knowledge, values, and personal habits of study and inquiry that would enable me to flourish in my life?  Without institutions, deadlines, peers’ expectations, and other worldly incentives to buoy me along, would my education be able to sustain my scholarly pursuits and intellectual engagement?  My intuition was that it probably would not, and my life since graduation has confirmed these doubts. Princeton instilled in me curiosity, but curiosity only goes so far in establishing deep intellectual roots. My desire and ability to engage with the world of the mind has relied on a love of truth and beauty that the university never taught me to cultivate.

            Now, I do know of people who are entirely satisfied with their Princeton degrees. Some are students whose sense of purpose gave coherence and structure to their education. Others took the same “hodgepodge” of courses I did, but aren’t bothered by the results. On the whole, however, my most satisfied friends were science majors, who had much less choice about which classes to take or when to take them. They had to learn the basics of their fields before they could branch out. To me, that seems like a freeing lack of freedom! If only someone had told me, as the Dominican scholar A.G. Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life (1921) to “mistrust your specialty at the beginning,” to “lay your foundations according to the height that you aim to reach.”

            Based both on my own experiences and those of my peers, I have come to identify a few key principles that I wish would have guided my choice of courses at college. The first is an emphasis on exposure to primary texts, especially at the beginning of study, and the development from these foundational works of a few themes that could be pursued further in various disciplines. I wish this textual emphasis would guide specialized studies in the humanities departments as well.  Furthermore, instead of simply requiring individual classes, there should be required sequences (as there are in learning foreign languages), so that students in the humanities can take classes that build upon one another so as to provide a coherent education. At Princeton, course prerequisites communicate this latter objective sotto voce, but in my experience they were neither strictly enforced nor structured so as to enable students to plan from the beginning on taking certain educational sequences. Both of these principles would require more advance notice of course offerings, as well as more consistent course offerings from year to year, so that students would be able to predict and plan their course sequences.

            But most Princeton students are content with what they have, so the University isn’t likely to change its ways soon. How do we enable students like me to pursue an education informed by the principles I just laid out? One could insist that those students should just go to a different kind of school, but then they would lose the access to the renowned scholars, academic specializations, and opportunities that these big schools provide. Moreover, many students, like me, will not realize what kind of college education they would like until they’ve already gone to college. Universities such as Princeton will continue to receive students who would like a more coherent, text-based approach—and I think that individual departments, professors, students, and outside organizations could assist them by developing “academic paths” to guide their studies that are tailored to each school’s course offerings. These guides would chart a course for students and give them a sense of what the whole trajectory of their four years could look like.

            For example, a “Western Civilization” guide for Princeton students would offer a list and suggested sequence of available courses that would expose them to the some of the major texts and intellectual developments of the Western tradition while also fulfilling the general distribution requirements. The first year could include a history class on antiquity, as well as a religion class on Judaism or Christianity and a philosophy class on Plato. The second year could recommend more philosophy, theology, and history or art history classes on the Medieval or Renaissance periods. For science, it could include a history of science class followed by a biology or chemistry course. Next, the third year could emphasize courses on the post-Enlightenment and modern periods, or look to the founding era with an American history class coupled with a politics course on constitutional interpretation. The fourth year could leave room to look more closely at particular pivotal figures, such as Aristotle, Galileo, Shakespeare, Monet, or Churchill. This is a most basic sketch, obviously there are many ways to approach it.

            Other interdisciplinary guides might be developed for those eager to focus on a sequence within a single discipline or learn about particular religions, countries, cultures, or historical periods. They could be as varied as students’ preferences, but because of their long-term nature, they could draw important connections between classes that have less-than-obvious course titles and terse descriptions. This would enable students to pursue, less haphazardly, studies relevant to their intellectual aspirations and questions. These guides would be entirely compatible with the current structure of majors and minors—in fact, they could contain a note about which requirements they fulfill for which majors. But the key to this plan is that such multi-year course guides require a four-year plan from the beginning of freshman year, so that students will be able to follow this educational sequence throughout their time at college.

            In order to draw students out of themselves in a meaningful way, we have to give them a clearer sense of how they can structure their long-term studies around a progression of pivotal texts and themes. Otherwise, they are left to the guidance of their own naive whims and those of their peers, which usually direct them to gratify a short-term desire to act in the world rather than to engage in the more long-term project of educating character and soul.  We should provide another path, a way dedicated to building an interior sense of knowledge by reading great and challenging books, progressing through studies in a deliberate and productive manner, and by these means beginning to understand major intellectual and historical developments and questions. This form of education could inform students’ knowledge of who they are rather than just train them for a career. Where do we start? My first attempt at an answer is more advance notice of course offerings in combination with the creation of a network of suggested curriculum guides. It is an incremental step towards a more coherent approach that nonetheless respects the kind of diversity of interests present at most colleges today. I would appreciate hearing from others as to whether this is feasible, and I welcome additional ideas. 

Image Credit: Андрей Романенко, cropped.

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