The students are returning to Princeton University, and it’s hard not to get infected with the back-to-school spirit. As I strolled across the campus the other evening, I took a moment to appreciate the incoming freshmen or — as some are saying these days — first-year students. By whatever name, these kids arriving from around the world are an impressive lot.
Fewer than 2,000 of them were picked from a pool of 35,000 applicants, an acceptance rate of 5.5 percent. More than half of the applicants had combined SAT scores of 1,400 or higher. Of those offered admission, women outnumbered men by one percentage point. More students self-identifying as people of color were admitted than white students. The university announced that 17 percent would be the first in their families to attend college. About 11 percent of the admitted students were children of Princeton alumni.
Even though Princeton’s “list price” for tuition, room, and board is just under $67,000, the kids arriving on campus are not all rich kids. More than 60 percent of the incoming students are expected to receive aid — the average grant for last year’s incoming class was $50,600 per year. No student is required to take out loans and can therefore graduate debt free. It’s a good deal: The admission office expected just under 1,300 students to show up on campus. The “yield,” as they say in admissions, rose to about 1,340.
Of that group now on campus, just over 16 percent are recruited athletes, including one football player who became the subject of a Sports Illustrated story after he turned down an offer from Coach Nick Saban at Alabama to come to Princeton instead. I won’t report his name here, because I don’t want to jinx him.
Walking across the campus, I marveled at the organizational muscle of the institution that was welcoming them. Signs directed the new students to all the critical locations. Staff people were at every corner, directing cars laden with student belongings to inner campus courtyards. In the courtyards I spotted large canvas containers, eight feet by four feet by two and a half feet, “bagsters.” The university had dozens of them all over the campus, marked with signs proclaiming their intended use: “Broken-Down Cardboard.”
Genius, I thought. But then I looked more closely at one of the giant bagsters. It was already overflowing, and there were just four boxes in it. Many others were in the same condition. The word “broken-down” did not seem to be part of the vocabulary for these students with their 1400-plus College Board scores. Maybe not so genius. That made me think again. I imagined an informal seminar that could be offered to the “first-year” students in their first week on campus. It would consist of four modules:
How to recycle. In my hypothetical class the focus would be on cardboard box recycling. I would emphasize the need to first remove not only the contents of the box, but also the styrofoam and plastic wrapping, which should just be thrown away in the old-fashioned trash. The process of “breaking down” the cardboard, sometimes referred to as “flattening out” the boxes, would be demonstrated. Techniques for cutting wrapping tape to expedite that process would be discussed. I use a key. Princeton students use a plastic card to open doors, pay for coffee, and everything else. So they would have to put those 1400-plus aptitudes to work and figure something out.
How to connect with adults. Every once in a blue moon, a student will have to interact with an adult in the community. My seminar would address electronic communication. In the case of the former, I would teach students to let the adult know whether they will respond sooner to text messages or to e-mails. If they get a message from an adult and know it will take them a while to respond, they could do a quick reply and say “got it. Will get back to you.”
How to cross the street. This one is a little more complicated. Every so often a student will have to cross Nassau Street, Washington Road, or Alexander Street. If they happen to cross at an intersection with an old-fashioned traffic light, they can wait for the “walk/don’t walk” sign to say “walk” and then do what it says. But students: Beware of cars turning left or right and crossing your intended path. They may not see you. The exception here is the intersection of Nassau with Vandeventer and Washington Road. There you have to push the button to activate the “walk” signal. Otherwise the order will be “Don’t walk” until the end of time defined by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Don’t ask, just push the button.
If you cross the street at a crosswalk without a traffic light — by Firestone Library and Panera Bread, for example — you need to balance de jure law vs. de facto reality. The law says you have the right to cross in that space and the motorists must stop for you. The reality is that the motorist may or may not notice you. Before you venture out make sure that the approaching cars from each direction 1.) notice you and 2.) plan to stop for you. In the alternative you can just blithely walk across secure in the knowledge that the law requires motorists to stop. And you would be dead right.
How to agreeably disagree with people. Given all that diversity in the incoming Class of 2022, you can be sure that you will encounter a few ideas you strongly disagree with or even find totally repugnant. You can live with that reality by 1.) ignoring the opposing idea altogether; 2.) engaging and challenging the idea in an informed debate; or 3.) shouting down or otherwise preventing the opposing idea from being expressed.
Luckily for Princeton at least two professors on campus can provide good reasons to opt for choice no. 2 above. One is Keith Whittington, a professor of politics whose book, “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” has been distributed free to all incoming students over the summer (as well as to all other students and faculty) for discussion in the fall.
The other professor with thoughts on this subject is Robert George, the professor of constitutional law who has been a champion of politically and socially conservative thought on campus. In an open letter to college students he wrote a year ago (that was signed by several dozen other professors), George advised students to think for themselves, even though “thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage. In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student — or faculty member — faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.”
George also offers the good advice of hearing the other guy out. Thinking for yourself means “taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions — including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”
And I will give you one reason not to choose item 3 above. Shouting down or banning a speaker altogether gives that speaker and his views far more attention than he otherwise would deserve.
And now, for extra-credit: Invite Steve Bannon to speak on campus, and invite your fellow Princetonian, New Yorker editor David Remnick, Class of 1981, to be the moderator. You kids might have the courage that some adults are lacking.