Academic Evolution

Candle light and book
Photo: Denise Applewhite
Princeton's academic evolution would astonish the founders. Laboratories, seminars, academic disciplines (especially those with names like genomics or neuroscience), graduate students pursuing Ph.D.s, and a faculty for whom the doctorate is a requirement — none of these existed in 1746, nor would they for a century or more.

Contrary to conventional belief, colonial college curricula were not dominated by religion — that came after graduation for those entering the ministry. Princeton's first students studied subjects inherited from the "pagan" ancient Greeks in a liberal arts structure originally shaped by Aristotle (undergraduates were required to study ancient Greek until 1917). Although religion suffused student life, including mandatory daily chapel services and prayers at each communal meal, its formal role in the curriculum was limited to a senior year moral philosophy course taught by the president.

More than a century after its founding, in 1868, President James McCosh pushed the College of New Jersey in new directions. While rejecting Harvard's wholesale abandonment of required courses, he accepted some student choice, and broadened the offerings by adding art history and founding a School of Science. McCosh instituted formal graduate study at Princeton for promising alumni and sent others to study in Europe. His "bright young men" became the core of a more cosmopolitan and specialized faculty.

Lewis Library "Tree House" reading room.

Lewis Library "Tree House" reading room. Photo: Denise Applewhite

As part of the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1896, the College of New Jersey changed its name to Princeton University. A few years later, at the turn of the 20th century, Princeton created the Graduate School and became a founding member of the prestigious American Association of Universities, still limited to 61 research universities. Between the World Wars, Princeton's excellence in mathematics and physics thrust it into international prominence. Princeton regularly ranks in the top 10 of 21st-century international research universities, while providing an excellent undergraduate education that the founders might vaguely recognize.