Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Quest for Knowledge: a Tale of Comps and a Senior Lecture Series

I handed in my Comps today with the 100+ seniors in the Politics department. In some ways it was a relief. I turned in the last piece of written work for my major. It was out of my hands. If only it had been a worthwhile experience.

The idea behind Comps is to ensure that graduating seniors have learned something in their department and can string sentences together in a coherent way. It is hardly a test of our intellect and ability to synthesize the complicated theoretical and historical material that we have been collecting over the last four years. Let me give you an example. One question might say something like: “Democracy has been the only sustainable form of government in world history. Discuss.” We each could write a thesis on the merits of democratic governance throughout history, let alone fill 1250 words with it.

Then there’s the take-home, closed book aspect of Comps. Politics students had 24 hours to write these four pages. I appreciate the department’s thoughtfulness in giving us a window of time in case people have exams. However, it also opened the window of temptation for many students. Imagine sitting in your quiet room surrounded by all the politics books you own. You can’t quite remember the name of that political scientist who said that democracy is the inevitable ‘end of history.’ No problem, just sneak a peak in your book, or even better, search it on Google, which is at your fingertips. The honor code is supposed to preclude such cheating, but I can imagine some tired, lazy seniors who don’t take Comps seriously and don’t consider such an act to be cheating. Having the exam in a classroom would take away that temptation.


It was there that I found knowledge. Over the last two weeks, seniors have been invited to lectures by prominent professors and alums. The topics have ranged from computer science and Internet security to a mini-course on mechanics. This afternoon, about 100 seniors crowded into Frist 302 to hear John Bogle ’51 talk about “Basic Finance for your 20’s”.
This Princeton alum was a funny, smart, down-to-earth and extremely successful individual who founded the Vanguard Group, one of the largest investment management companies in the world. We were all waiting to hear what nuggets of information this financial champion could give us. His message was simple: “Own the stock market, capture the 7.5 percent return, and give as little back to the government as possible.”

Bogle thinks that each college graduate should begin putting savings in tax-protected IRAs and investing in index funds as soon as possible. He called the stock market a distraction from the true “business of investment,” which is based on purchasing a share of a company and holding it forever. Modern day technology has enabled us to purchase a share of the entire U.S. economy, commonly refered to as the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000. His biggest take home messages were 1) start investing early because compounding is incredible, and 2) avoid costs associated with brokerage firms and jumping between mutual funds too quickly.

And if you think you’re smart enough to continuously beat the market, just remember what Bogle said: “We all think we’re better than average drivers ... and some of us think that we’re better than average lovers. But the reality is that we’re all average.”