In the fall of 1986, as a sophomore student at Princeton University, I decided to enroll in organic chemistry. This course was so memorable that I wrote about it extensively in my memoir, Undocumented: My Journey to Princeton and Harvard and Life as a Heart Surgeon. Please let me share some of my thoughts on the course, and on the legendary professor, Dr. Maitland Jones, who recently was fired from NYU — making waves across American academia — because students complained that his course was too difficult.
For starters, the students at Princeton who were about to enroll in Dr. Jones’ course realized that it was going to be a challenge. As I recalled in my memoir: “There didn’t seem to be any other course at Princeton with the history, expectations, hovering anxiety and colorful lore of organic chemistry. Among students considering careers in medicine, this was probably Princeton’s most feared course. It was make or break for medicine.” When I was at Princeton, I was an undocumented first-generation student in America. I had nothing to lose, and I welcomed the challenge that was Dr. Jones with a refreshing rush of excitement and energy. I viewed it as an opportunity to do well, and to prove that I belonged.
But while we were aware of the challenges we would face during the semester, we approached Dr. Jones’ course with the fervor and vigor that a gladiator probably would feel before entering the Roman Colosseum. And, even more importantly, we looked forward to the privilege and honor of being under the instruction of a luminary in the field of chemical research. This is the Dr. Jones I knew and remembered: “The professor for this course was the legendary Dr. Maitland Jones, Jr., who in physique and personality oddly resembled Hollywood’s daringly adventurous professor, Indiana Jones. Slender and bearded, he had a discursive mind and published dozens of papers about many exotic and rare molecules. But he was also the kind of offbeat character who could be passionate about jazz and the Grateful Dead. He would make each lecture more animated than the previous one, and his enthusiasm for chemistry was contagious.”
Organic chemistry, in general, can be a dry subject. This was not the case in Dr. Jones’ classroom. As I once thought, and still do: “There were over two hundred students in his course, and it seemed that he hypnotized them all. Each morning, he lit up the board with rainbow-colored pictures of organic molecules interacting with their environment and with one another. All students had a special pen for this course that contained ink cartridges in several colors, so we could then imitate the same patterns that he used on his board drawings. When he changed chalks, you could hear, almost in unison, students clicking their pens to change the color of ink. By lecture’s end, the board looked like something dazzling and flamboyant out of Sesame Street. Dr. Jones was not there to teach students the basic chemical nomenclature, the equations, or the simple properties that govern the behavior of carbon-based compounds. That, he figured, students could learn by reading the textbook. And the fact that many of us wanted to go to medical school was the farthest thing from his mind. Indeed, many students gave up their dreams of pursuing medicine because they could not handle the intensity of his course. He was exploiting all his powers to show us esoteric aspects of organic chemistry, to show us the behavior of molecules we had not considered, molecules that needed to be imagined in three dimensions even if they had to be drawn on our two-dimensional notebooks.”
A professor who possesses the rare talent of making organic chemistry animated, interesting, and magical should not be punished because some students were not up to the challenge of meeting his expectations. Students at any university in the world would feel privileged and honored to learn from this legendary professor who has made learning organic chemistry an adventure for thousands. He should not be punished because some of the students feel so entitled that they cannot accept the idea of not doing well in a class. Organic chemistry in college is not supposed to be an easy feat. There are students who will not do well. There are even students who will fail the course, especially in more selective universities where some of the courses are taught at a faster pace and students are expected to cover vast amounts of material in short periods.
This man, and his life and work, should be celebrated in our society because of his lifelong dedication to research and teaching several generations of students who have made many contributions to medicine and science. We should be more open to taking on complex tasks and challenges and accept that not everything in our lives will come easy. We will all face many complexities in our lives, and we should be ready to find solutions. The solution for encountering a difficult course at a university is not to fire the professor, especially when he is a legendary American scholar. His reputation at Princeton was so high that at the end of the course, we would proudly wear T-shirts with the words, “I Survived Jones.” In my current practice as a heart surgeon, getting into the chests of my patients and fixing their hearts, I do not use the knowledge I learned in my organic chemistry course with Dr. Jones, but I am a better person, doctor, and surgeon because I learned many lessons of discipline, persistence and grit that were required to do well in his course. The NYU students are not any different from the Princeton students, but as a society, we are too eager to celebrate a mindset of entitlement that puts more emphasis on getting unmerited rewards, than on hard work, learning, exploration and accepting the concept that, sometimes we will fail, and that is fine.