Excellence is Oppressive: Princeton Needs More Failures, Student Says

Given the penchant of writers in Ivy League student newspapers for looking for victims of oppression in the halls of ultra-exclusive academe, it is hardly surprising that a student writing in the pages of The Daily Princetonian has found a new group to be coddled: failures.

Now, one would think that there is little point in having an Ivy League for driven and accomplished, promising young people to try to get into if the schools were not venues for excellence and achievement. That is, after all, the point of these bastions of academic quality and prestige. The selling point of these schools (for the record they are Brown, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, and Columbia universities and the University of Pennsylvania) is the high quality education of men and women of exceptional ability and the maintenance of standards of scholarship and support of world-class research in many fields.

I did not attend an Ivy League school and you might therefore ask, dear reader, why I blog about them so often. Well, because they still confer on their graduates a cachet that enables them to affect American society in many sectors (law, medicine, business, etc.). Therefore, it is worrying that there is a weird genre in Ivy League student journalism that argues for the valorization of mediocrity, as if exhortations to strive for excellence are oppressive and that it is somehow callous and poor taste to excel.

Let’s examine a recent entry in the “Expectations of Excellence Are Onerous” school of student writing, the November 2, 2021 opinion piece in The Daily Princetonian, Princeton needs to make more space for failure amid the abundance of success. The writer is a first-year student at Princeton. (I gather that the word “freshman” is now regarded as sexist.)

Now, this young woman having, one presumes, worked hard to get into a university that demands (or at least used to) much of its students academically no sooner arrives at it than she begins complaining that it is, you know, demanding. Now, she could have chosen to attend a second-tier school thereby freeing up the slot that she took in favor a person who is willing to work hard. But nooooooo. She prefers to garner the prestige of a Princeton degree while whining about the work entailed in getting one.

She says:

I argue that Princeton students, who are often defined by their successes, need to fail early and fail often. Meanwhile, Princeton as an educational institution needs to create an environment where students can fail without fear.

Now, I get that mental health is a big concern these days and it does make sense for students to be able to explore fields that they think (perhaps wrongly) that they lack natural aptitude for without having to run the risk of getting lousy grades. But it is not incumbent on a university that prides itself on excellence to create what the writer calls a, “failure-friendly environment.”

Let me get this straight. A student at an institution with one of the most competitive admissions processes in the world upon entry to this same institution wants it to institute policies that will facilitate and foster mediocrity. Why doesn’t this failure-friendly person enroll at a second-rate school instead of insisting that Princeton embrace lassitude?

And she doesn’t stop at Princeton. She wants it to lead the way in a campaign to inculcate the lethargy ethic at other blue ribbon schools:

It is also important, however, to acknowledge that the pervasiveness of these issues is not Princeton-specific. There are several accounts regarding how the same problem also plagues other top institutions like Harvard and Stanford, where accepted students are also under a constant fear of failure. Nevertheless, that does not mean that we should wait for someone else to take the initiative.

To her credit, she does seem to have had enough energy to write the article and to urge other schools known for welcoming students who are dynamic and enterprising to wean them off such unhealthy attitudes and to embrace laziness.

And remember—these schools produce leaders of industry, technology and science. Definitely not good for the world to encourage students there to divest themselves of energy and to be made to feel that displays of vim and vigor are psychologically damaging and/or offensive to their peers.

Conservatives often rightly worry about the precious snowflake syndrome (i.e., the aversion woke students have to any ideas that are not far-left enough). But this anti-work ethic ethos among students in the Ivy League and other elite schools is even more worrisome. It often comes clothed in the form of legitimate concerns about stress among college students and mental health issues stemming from such. But this pathologizing of the requirement that students in competitive educational environments get their work done is not good for those schools or the fields in which these students are being trained. It is hard to imagine parents saying to their children, “We are so proud of you for getting into Princeton, sweetheart. Thank goodness the admissions office saw that you lack any promise at all and that working hard upsets you!”

Let’s hope that Princeton faculty members are not pressured to put into their syllabi soothing statements assuring students that little effort will be expected of them lest that lead to undue strain on their tender psyches.

I wonder if the marketing office at Princeton is working on slogans such, “Come to Princeton—we’re failure-friendly!” or “Princeton welcomes you—as long as you aren’t ambitious or anything.”

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