A moment in time: Princeton senior theses

By Skye An
Brooklyn, NY

For a moment, Ethan Coen was a person no one would recognize today. He was not in Minnesota where he was raised, nor in Hollywood where he ascended as a filmmaker with his brother Joel. He was a philosophy major at Princeton University. And like all Princetonians, he faced the university’s most daunting undergraduate task: the senior thesis.

For nearly a century, students who have gone on to find fame in politics, law, literature and entertainment have completed senior theses at Princeton. But is it fair to judge people by the theses they wrote decades ago?

When Princeton alumni gain recognition, there can be intense scrutiny on their pasts. People have devoured the theses of alumni like Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor and Ted Cruz, as if they were the origin stories of beloved comic book characters. Particularly in politics, critics often try to use the past to explain the present.

When her husband burst onto the political scene, Michelle Obama’s thesis on race, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” resurfaced. She noted in her thesis that while she attended Princeton in the early ‘80s, the conservative environment made her feel like an outsider. But in the years since, Princeton has become more progressive. Over time, a person’s perspective can change, and the circumstances they wrote about can change too.

Sara Logue, 37, a librarian at Mudd Library, questions the relevance of scrutinizing a senior thesis many years after the student graduates. “[People are] probably trying to make an assumption about someone who was 21 years old,” she says.

But the thesis can still give an idea of who a person is. Coen’s thesis, “The Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” has playfulness, wit and humor, which are all present in his films. In between his analyses of religion and language, Coen often interrupts his thoughts to engage his readers, much like the characters would do in his films: “I see that we’re running out of time so I’ll skip the rest of the dull stuff. I don’t think it made things more coherent anyway.”

Though it won’t ever be quite like watching his films on screen, Coen’s thesis showcases his eccentric narrative abilities and wry humor.

Yet no matter the circumstance, the purpose of the senior thesis remains the same. It is ultimately something to look back on, and it is a point to propel the student forward.

Sarah Van Cleve, a Princeton admissions officer, said her thesis on George Eliot’s works was the culmination of years of preparation.

“A lot of schools don’t really prepare you for graduate school,” she explains. “You get used to the independent work with the junior paper and senior thesis, and it helps to have extensive research.”

“I think it’s very telling of my interests now,” she says.

The history of Princeton is the history of its individual students, and the senior thesis is one chapter. Some theses can be more telling than others, but they all tell a part of a bigger story, one that is memorialized within the red brick walls of Mudd Library.

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