Monday, March 29, 2010

Orange and Apples: Brown

Later this week a new class of potential Princetonians will receive their acceptance letters. Given that both Princeton and Brown saw large jumps in the size of their application pools, Princeton's increased by 19 percent while Brown's grew by 20 percent, some of these students will be deciding between Princeton and Providence. Anna Berman GS, a Brown undergrad who concentrated in Slavic Languages and Literature and also Comparative Literature and now studies Slavic Languages and Literature at Princeton, provides a comparison of the two institutions below.

As a graduate student at Princeton, I do not feel like I have an “insider” perspective on what the undergrad experience is like here or how it differs from my undergrad university, Brown. At the level of academics, I see a difference that is more objective and therefore easier to write about from my perch. I think the curricula of the two universities seem designed to suit different types of students.

Brown’s curriculum supports freedom, experimentation and personal initiative. No one will tell you what is important to get from your college experience — you need to decide this for yourself. There are no distribution requirements or required classes (and you can take as many classes as you want pass/fail). There is no “great books” course where a professor has set out a list of “the greatest books of the Western cannon that you should read.” You have to design your own cannon through the courses you choose. If you feel that it’s important to know Shakespeare, you can study Shakespeare, but you’ll never find him taught in a course that covers Homer to Joyce. Because of this, it can be difficult to get a general knowledge of the classics. You are challenged to question and decide for yourself what is important. If you want to write a thesis, advisers will be delighted to work with you on it and coach you through the process. But no one will force you to write one. If you have an idea for a course that doesn’t exist in Brown’s enormous course catalogue, you can find an interested professor and create a group or individual course. This is quite a popular option, but you must take the initiative. For students who are internally motivated and have the energy, direction and organizational skills to follow up on their ideas, Brown is an ideal school because all the resources are in place to help. But for students who need structure and like to have a bit more of an imposed framework for their education, I imagine it would be easy to get lost at Brown.

At Princeton, I have been very impressed by all the helping hands reaching out to assist students through each stage of their experience. Not only are there distribution requirements structuring the breadth of courses they must take, there are also more requirements within the major. Princeton students are all required to write junior papers, which will help prepare them for mandatory theses their senior year. Through this system, the process of learning to write a serious, in-depth piece of scholarly work is broken down into stages with advisers there to help every step of the way. For students who don’t just come to their advisers before senior year with a clear direction in mind, having all these stages — learning to hone in on a topic, put together a bibliography, write a proposal, break down the research into stages, work on drafts — is a great thing. Both Princeton and Brown benefit from their small size and the high level of attention undergraduates receive from faculty, but at Princeton I think it is harder for a student to fall through the cracks. On the other hand, the openness and self-direction at Brown can provide amazing opportunities for students prepared to fully take advantage of them. If I were a prospective student, I would want to keep this in mind when thinking about how I learn, because each of these schools provides an excellent education and many students would flourish academically at both, but they cater to somewhat different types of learners.

If you're a Tiger who is now pursuing graduate studies elsewhere or a Princeton grad student who attended undergrad outside the Orange Bubble and would like to contribute a comparison send an email to


Anonymous said...

Maybe having to course requirements would have helped the author distinguish between canons and cannons...