Students study in Firestone Library in 2021.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

Always try the problem that matters most to you. — Professor Andrew Wiles

The Class of 2024 now begins its ephemeral reign as seniors, for a brief nine months or so the toast of the town, winners of prizes, awardees of blandishments, positioned atop organizations ancient and revered (imagine having Adlai Stevenson ’22 or Elena Kagan ’81’s old job at The Princetonian), the focus of graduate school and employment representatives and pro lacrosse teams and military units and future in-laws and…

Despite the (often time-encrusted) traditions, these folks are unique in their own ways, as indeed all Princetonians are. The COVID fiasco as a disruptor of their years will generate tales for many decades. The men’s basketball team’s wild and woolly roll to the Sweet 16 certainly has no recent parallel. The class beer jacket really should incorporate construction fencing into its design. But there is one unique element I’m willing to wager not one classmate knows of, despite its import to the University, the faculty, and to every individual reading this who has ever been a member of the Princeton senior class, without exception.

This is the 100th Princeton undergraduate class to graduate under the Four-Course Plan.

The which? (you retort, cleverly).

Let’s think of it this way: We know there are aspects of academia that change very slowly, not so much in the content of courses, but in the pedagogy itself. You got your course, you got your lecture, you got your text, you got your exam. Once in a great while, somebody wants to try something new. In my last column, I noted the groundbreaking Prussian university model from 1810, for example. Woodrow Wilson’s preceptorships embodied a huge shift of learning responsibility onto the student, which affects Princeton undergrads to this day. But the Four-Course Plan, with a very serious philosophical underpinning and (in the end) a wildly adaptive potential beyond the foresight of even the people who created it, is one of the very few things that defines Princeton (think Reunions or the tigers in front of Nassau Hall or the Dinky) instantly as unique.

The which again? (Oh sorry, digression…)

Beginning in September 1923 with the junior class of 1925 (which I’ve highlighted before), the faculty required students to major in one of the academic departments for their last two years and reduced the number of courses the upperclassmen took each semester to four, at least two to be in the major. On its own, this would seem an equitable tradeoff, but the immediate hue and cry from the undergrads arose from the inevitable “and” in the deal: Every junior and senior would also engage in independent work equivalent to the foregone course, and be tested for knowledge in their area of study in junior generals and senior comps. In the standards of the day — and astonishingly, the standards of the academic world of 100 years later — this amounted to every single student pursuing an honors program, essentially unheard of, and indeed honors at Princeton still reflect a student’s performance within their department, not an overall GPA. Beneath the surface of the plan all sorts of tinkering has taken place, with different formulae of course distributions in the first two years — which rapidly after 1925 became pointed toward exposing each student to various departments they might later wish to join — and content of various introductory and benchmark courses in each discipline that would ensure well-rounded exposure behind the independent honors concentration. But the superstructure of the plan and the academic departments has remained, if not unchallenged, then unwaveringly dominant, for a century. 

And its somewhat unwitting capstone, the Princeton Senior Thesis, remains a unique shibboleth in higher education generally, and among Princeton students specifically. The Class of 2024, many of whom have at least gotten their toes wet on their thesis topics already, now will get to join the authors of the 71,900 theses on file in the University Archives; their relationship with teachers, the University, and learning in the abstract will be changed, sometimes brutally. While Princetonians through their junior years may embody nervous anticipation of the thesis, and alumni all vividly recall the day they turned in their work, the seniors themselves will at various points be pounding their heads against the wall, trying to reconstruct the gung-ho attitude that led them to this sorry state, deep in the bowels of Firestone on a Saturday night. From the passing view of the senior, the thesis is somewhat like going to the DMV: You know it’s good for you, the rules seemingly keep changing, everybody else in the room is as confused as you are, and you frequently appear further from your goal than when you started. Then it’s over.

And it’s not technically required by the faculty. Each department gets to design the way(s) in which their independent work allows the senior to take comps of some sort and demonstrate topic mastery; the intriguing result in practice was for the written thesis, by 1930, to become essentially universal. In philosophy, the enterprising Henry Hollenberg 1924 even submitted one the year before the Plan went into effect for seniors, the very first thesis on the archives’ shelf. 

But the Plan was/is the prerequisite superstructure in which the thesis can be universal; you, the Savvy Historian, might suspect it did not just spontaneously blossom one morning in Prospect Garden, and you would be right. And so we turn to that rarity of rarities, mathematician Luther Pfahler Eisenhart, a world-ranked academician with the practical imagination to organize and lead. [Professor Joseph Henry is probably our best example in the 19th century; another in the 20th century would be Dean J. Douglas Brown 1919 *28.]

Eisenhart was fortuitously ready to go when Princeton focused on serious academics. Henry Fine 1880 was able to talk the laissez-faire president Francis Patton into hiring Eisenhart as a go-getting 24-year-old Ph.D. in 1900, so he was an instant choice for not only a new preceptorship in 1905, but assignments in the new math department while chair Fine took on added work as the dean of the faculty. Meanwhile Eisenhart’s work on Riemannian math earned him a full professorship at 33 in 1909. 

The Woodrow Wilson 1879/Andrew Fleming West 1874 catfight over control of the new Graduate College intervened, and upon Wilson’s leaving in 1910, conciliatory president John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893 was put in place principally to get the two factions to play nicely together. The Wilson adherents dominated the faculty, and in furtherance of his push for tougher undergraduate academics they operated a modest honors program from 1913 to 1917 for self-motivated students, but it fizzled out in the disruption of World War I. So to keep the faculty waters below the boiling point, Hibben formed a committee in 1920 to look into more effective honors work for undergrads. Fine made sure Eisenhart was on the committee, and Eisenhart had a plan.

Unlike most of the faculty (we won’t even address the trustees) the brilliant Eisenhart was not a prep school product, but an alum of a York, Pennsylvania, high school and tiny Gettysburg College, where he reputedly “majored in baseball” and burned through all the math courses in two years. Faced with many and various special problems his professor/tutor/mentor threw his way to keep him satisfied, his fascination for independent work deepened, and then became cemented during his three years getting his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, which then was solely a graduate institution with relatively few rules and minimal busywork. So he essentially created the Four-Course Plan in his mind from his peculiar experiences, coupled with his belief that anybody who was at Princeton could profit from it, and walked into the first committee meeting with the program fully formed (without the thesis as a capstone, fascinatingly). 

It took three years for him to persuade the committee to back the entire plan rather than some specialized portion, and for the committee in turn to convince Hibben that it was somehow capable of succeeding without open student revolt or the collapse of the University’s infrastructure. (In the end, the student objections were evident but muted — as they had been over the preceptors earlier — and the faculty rose to the occasion surprisingly well, although the library became instantly outdated, a problem not satisfied for 25 years.) And here we are according to plan, 100 years on.  

In 1945 Eisenhart retired as dean of the Graduate School and chair of his beloved math department, where his orderly mind famously precluded any need for a file cabinet in his office. But he maintained his research and writing, and a 17-year run as executive officer of the American Philosophical Society; he had previously been president of the American Mathematical Society and the American Association of Colleges. His brilliance in differential geometry empowered his deep discussions with Einstein, Veblenvon Neumann and the other local scientific giants of his day. But whenever his name arose among the faculty or those 71,900 alumni of the University, it did so first and foremost as creator of the Four-Course Plan, the vehicle for any student to face their own potential, their own fears, and hopefully their own humanity.