When I first entered the College, my expectations about the intellectual climate were non-existent. I was aware (or should I say made aware) of the high GPAs and SATs, but it was sort of hard to miss, considering the fact that it was plastered on almost all of the brochures. As such, I was somewhat unfamiliar, at least descriptively, with what an intellectual environment entailed.
So, initially, I was unable to accurately detect and describe the intellectual climate of the College. Fortunately, I was able to spend a summer at Princeton University doing research, and this experience gave me more than I needed to detect and describe what an intellectual environment entailed.
While researching there, I encountered students from all walks of life. For instance, I met students that were from countries such as China, Iran, Australia and Spain, to name a few.
More importantly, many of these students were on track to earn Ph.D.s in their respective fields and were enthused to discuss ideas and issues ranging from the economic effects of the East Asian tiger model on Vietnam to Kant’s interpretation of the categorical imperative.
These were just a few of the topics discussed throughout the summer, but seldom was it difficult to find students that were interested in ideas of some sort.
Of course, Princeton was not Aristotle’s Lyceum or a larger version of the Metaphysical club, but it was surely evident that there existed an intellectual community (outside of the professors) that had a presence on campus.
However, the same cannot be said about the College. The intellectual climate at the College is unclear and hard to find. Aside from some professors and a small group of students, it seems as if most students would rather engage in conversations about television shows, relationships, hair color, chewing gum or other irrelevant things.
This may seem like an unfair thing to say, but have you ever noticed how many Wall Street Journals we waste in a day? Or, how about the various academic events that are attended by 20 students, of which five are actually interested in the topic and the rest are there for extra credit and are bored out of their minds? At times, it feels as if I am walking with a group of mindless zombies who lack intellectual substance.
Of course, I can sit on my high horse and complain, but then I would be comparable to most of my counterparts at the College. So, I’ll try to be a bit more substantive and offer an explanation on why I think the College lacks a strong intellectual community.
The main problem is that the College attracts a lot of the same students. Most of our students are from middle-class homes and see life as a race back to the middle class. This inevitably means that they accept the status quo and become complacent with how things are.
Moreover, since many of our students are aiming for the middle class, it does not require a great deal of abstract thinking to get there, and hence it is not done.
For instance, I once had a conversation with a girl in the education department who said that her goals in life were to “get married, have children and teach them.” It does not take much thought to gain any of these, and it is, I suppose, the typical response that you would get from a student at the College.
In the end, this means that our College is not really a hub of ideas, like the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Chicago or Princeton. Rather, it is a route for middle-class students to return back to the middle class. And, unfortunately, if the College keeps accepting more of the same students, we will never become the “public ivy” that we claim to be.
Nevertheless, the students that I am addressing will, in all likelihood, not read this. So, I would like to offer a bit of advice for the few that will read: If you want to have any sort of conversation with intellectual substance, speak with a professor or take drive up the Princeton Pike – it goes directly to Princeton University.