In the fall of 1958, Princeton’s aura of excellence lost some of its luster. One salvo came from John Davies ’41, editor of PAW, who decried the state of undergraduate writing in a note accompanying a published lecture by Willard Thorp *26, chair of the English department.
According to Davies, “a surprisingly large proportion of each freshman class are what might be called ‘demi-literate’: They can read but they cannot write. That is, if a substantial number of the previous generation of Princetonians made no pretense to learning, at least they were able to present their small stock of erudition with reasonable clarity and a modicum of grace, whereas many of this new breed are unable to express their presumably deep thoughts in any very comprehensible form.”
Thorp, speaking with the authority of long experience, pulled no punches either, lamenting the rise of “No-English” and indicting the corrupters of student prose: bloated “officialese”; the “hot-rod style” of popular magazines such as Time, Look, and Life; the ubiquitous hyperbole of “ad-men”; and his fellow scholars’ use of specialized vocabularies, substituting impenetrable jargon for a common language.
A student rejoinder was inevitable, and it took the form of a trenchant editorial in the Oct. 1 edition of The Daily Princetonian. If Thorp had rooted his critique in the character of American communication, the Prince took the University itself to task.
Acknowledging the importance of junior papers and senior theses, the editors asserted “there is little stress on writing at Princeton” and “the writing which counts ... is exam-book writing.” The University, they argued, should “take some pains to see that Johnny is told how to write; that he is made to practice writing over and over again; and it should tell Johnny that writing means something here,” not least by increasing the number of and weight attached to papers.
The discontents of 1958 would find their ultimate affirmation in the establishment of the Princeton Writing Program in 2001.
John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.