“I think high aspiration environments are consistent with mental health,” University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told The Daily Princetonian last week. “I don’t see any evidence that academic procrastination or academic mediocrity will be any better from a mental health perspective.” This sounds like a huge mistake by the president of the university. But the truth is, Eisgruber hangs on every word of that sentence. It is a philosophy he has expressed many times.
Eisgruber has a vision for Princeton, which he once described as “intense”. [place] Where researchers and students are colliding with other people of talent and passion and imagination.” For him, that includes extremely tough academics. He may wonder how an opt-in paradise can be incompatible with mental health? Eisgruber feels the term “mental health” is being misused because students just want less work. But what he doesn’t recognize is the real driving force behind the mental health crisis—the culture of competition, rather than growth, that plagues his And there is a lot of trouble with his utopia.
Why is academic rigor so important to Eisgruber? We have to remember their history. Eisgruber was a physics major at Princeton before discovering a passion for constitutional law after taking the class sophomore year. Eisgruber’s entire life was built on his choice to take that class, from clerking on the Supreme Court to getting his dream job: being yelled at 24/7 as the president of Princeton. Is it any wonder that he considers academically rigorous classes to be the highest expression of Princeton’s greatness?
If Eisgruber sees difficult classes as an opportunity to master new subjects and find her life path, she certainly doesn’t blame academics for the mental health crisis. After all, Eisgruber might think, Princeton students are relatively secure in terms of future prospects, at least compared to most people our age, and so they have opportunities to try a lot of things, without facing too many consequences. should be used. The real threat to a Princeton student’s mental health is the prospect of “academic mediocrity.” How much worse would Eisgruber’s life be if he didn’t master the difficult class that led him down the path of constant ridicule as Princeton’s president? So, says Eisgruber, environments with high aspiration are “helpful for mental health.”
The problem with this argument is not that Princeton students are not sympathetic to the fear of academic mediocrity. It is that we feel it deeply. Academic mediation has two meanings. For Eisgruber, this means not reaching our personal potential just out of laziness—something we can avoid. But once we put academic mediocrity as the enemy, it takes on another meaning for students: not keeping up with everyone around you. And in a school specially adapted to pit us against the most competitive of the lot, one that doesn’t live in constant fear. When we pin down our sense of self to avoid academic mediocrity, that sense of self can easily slip away when we inevitably fail.
Is a school where classes are harmful to mental health? Not necessarily. Is a school where students are eager to take difficult classes harmful to mental health? Again, not necessarily. But is a school where classes are tough and students want to do as much as possible to compete with other students harmful to mental health? yes of course. And Princeton clearly falls into that third camp. The problem is not the high aspirations themselves – it is the climate of the high aspirations.
Why is Princeton internally competitive? The better question is, how could it not be? Princeton’s admissions process is optimized to select very competitive students—in other words, students who are not particularly used to failure. Nobody feels safe here because it’s an uneasy feeling: no matter how bright the future, we always strive for more, and we see everyone around us doing the same. The default for an elite school is to be competitive; It will take a concerted effort to make it a place of low-stress exploration and connection. And here at Princeton, we’ve done nothing to fulfill that dream.
Maybe some amount of pressure is necessary to nudge students to work hard on academics, Eisgruber argues, which is how they’ll grow into the deeply wounded university presidents they can be. But in reality, students adapt to the pressure by not looking deeply enough: they choose the easiest delivery requirements and cram for the exam, rather than actually engaging with the material. Classes that can help us grow when we take them to improve ourselves can instead deeply harm us when we overload them to gain a competitive advantage.
In so many ways, a hypercompetitive environment suits this school in exactly the way Eisgruber says he doesn’t want Princeton. If Princeton students are going to be offered high-paying, low-value-to-society jobs at McKinsey or Goldman or Meta, then by all means, they should work hard and do some austerity at Princeton to benefit Must suffer a little. They’re going to bite.
But Eisgruber has consistently said that he wants Princeton to be better than this: He wants students to reflect on what they can do for the world. To get there, students must have time to take advantage of the resources around them—which means they must stop constantly trying to prove their academic potential by overloading courses. Students have to believe in their own abilities, even as those around them constantly outdo them in various ways; They have to strive towards their own vision of success, not suffer from the epidemic of deteriorating mental health.
We’re talking about a cultural problem – something that the administration clearly doesn’t know how to fix or even conceptualize. During his interview, Eisgruber relied on the construction to showcase the work he was doing in various fields. Need to prioritize STEM knowledge? Rebuild an engineering school! Worried that the humanities are being left behind? Build a new humanities campus! This is Minecraft, not Eisgruber. New building cannot solve every problem. Until the administration finds a way to steer Princeton students toward high-stress, competitive academics and more thoughtful exploration and reflection, Eisgruber’s vision will remain a paradox.
Somewhere in Princeton, there’s a student whose cursor is hovering over a button to enroll in the class that will change his life. If they take that class, they’ll change their major, reach great academic heights, make some earth-shaking discoveries, and then finally be rewarded with the job of President of Princeton and live happily ever after for the rest of their days. Will try to spend Fit in work between sitting students in your office. But then the student looks at the number of pages they read, remembers the last time they took a difficult class, and suffered a lower grade again. Or they believe that taking two more specialized upper-level courses might be a better fit for their resume. And they don’t enroll. After choosing their course, students heave a sigh of relief. At least he has avoided academic mediocrity.
Long before he became a Community Opinion editor, Rohit Narayanan, a junior from McLean, VA, got a B+ in seventh grade and never quite recovered psychologically. His emails to [email protected] are in the midst of an identity crisis, but he really needs to stop being such snowflakes. His tweets @Rohit_Narayanan have been consistently described as academically mediocre.