Wednesday, April 16, 2008

After the four-year deluge: Is it too much?

It hit me last week at the Nassau Street Starbucks, as I relaxed into one of those cushy armchairs toward the back of the store, a novel in my lap and a grande coffee on the table in front of me, watching the cycle of people who filled and vacated the seats beside me, listening to the din of ice being crushed for frappucinos, my mind flitting back and forth between Charles Dickens' London and post-thesis Princeton: This is what I thought all of college would be like. With less than two months to go in my time as an undergrad, I was, for the first time in four years, living the collegiate fantasy I had envisioned as an idealistic high schooler -- idling the day away at a coffee shop somewhere, taking my time to read and ponder, to people-watch, to think.

It was a strange realization, a little bit ironic, a little bit funny, a little bit sad. I should have known, of course, that college wouldn't be all coffee-shop daydreams and relaxed novel-reading. And, naturally, some of the hectic nature of the last four years stemmed from voluntary choices I made (and have no regrets about -- I love ya, Daily Princetonian). Still, I think it says something that it's only now, with two classes and no thesis and only a few weeks separating me from the real world, that my naive high school vision of college life has become a reality. If education were like that coffee I was drinking during my mini-epiphany last week, Princeton, for most of your four years here, wouldn't be about taking a few relaxed sips every minute or two. It would be about chugging hot, steaming ventis by the gallon, one after another. This isn't an idle intellectual life, perusing pages and pausing to reflect; this is a life of skimming, of underlining hundreds of pages and thousands of words at 3 a.m., getting the gist for precept the next day, intercepting ideas by the truckload and hoping some of them stick and make sense.

Maybe most colleges are like this. Maybe. But I think it might be a different kind of learning, the kind you get here, and for all its benefits and rigor, I wonder if it can detract from a real sense of critical thinking and careful parsing -- from really taking the time to think and consider. I'm taking a history class this semester with a visiting professor from UConn Law, who commented on the difference in the amount of reading he assigns to his UConn students and what he is expected to assign here at Princeton. He told me that one of his colleagues in the Law and Public Affairs program (LAPA), also a law school professor, initially drew up for his Princeton class a syllabus that included the same amount of reading he would assign to one of his law classes. The department told him it wasn't enough. In law school, my professor said, difficulty is associated with the complexity of the text and the time it will take to really get your mind around it; twenty pages can, in that context, be a huge assignment. "Here, it's different," he said. "Here, difficulty means volume."

I don't mean to sound disappointed or bitter. I have few regrets about the education I've gotten here, both inside and outside the classroom. And, for all its stress and sleeplessness, I enjoyed researching and writing my thesis and am proud to have finished it (even if it still hasn't quite sunk in that it's over). But another part of me is ready to slow down, is happy to escape the intellectual overload. It's not that I'd like to escape learning entirely -- I hope I never want that -- but I am glad to staunch the flood of pages and ideas, to sip rather than chug, to let my mind wander and wonder and not feel guilty. That's been the lesson of the last week -- and it's one I mean to continue mulling, now that I have the time.

Arielle Gorin '08 is a 'Prince' managing editor emerita.