PhD Students at Princeton Theological Seminary

This has all the makings of one of those posts that I’ll regret later on, but nevertheless…

I’ve been an M.Div student at Princeton Seminary for five months now, and while that’s hardly enough time to make a definitive study of the people and culture here, some impressions are certainly forming in my mind.  First among them is a rather stark, mostly unspoken, dichotomy between master’s level students and PhD students.  I’ll make the early disclaimer that by no means have I met all the PhD students at the seminary.  But I think by now I’ve met enough of them to see a pattern: They all seem to fall into one of three broad categories:

  1. Assholes – You don’t even have to ask them if they’re PhD students.  You know.  And even if you did ask, it’s doubtful they would deign to respond.  When they do speak to you, it’s either because they are correcting you, or because they’re being paid to speak to you as Preceptors (Teaching Assistants).  They know just about everything there is to know, unless in the presence of an actual professor, in which case they suddenly become the most delightful, congenial people in the room.  The idea that an MDiv student might know anything worthwhile is preposterous — nevermind that as a “second career” student, I’m actually older than many of them, and have often had several more years of experience in both church and academic settings.  They are condescending both in and out of class. Fortunately, the genuine assholes are not nearly as numerous as the next category…
  2. Wannabe Assholes – These are PhD students who, perhaps through insecurity, indecision, or apathy (I’m not sure which, possibly all of the above) don’t fit into categories 1 or 3.  Maybe they’re trying to be more humane assholes. They are the ones who will strike up a friendly conversation with you as long as no one else is around, but then ignore you when in the presence of others. They may not correct you in person, but from a distance, you can overhear their opinions of MDiv students easily enough. They don’t *tell* you that your opinion/knowledge/experience is insignificant, but they still think it (and usually do a poor job of disguising their thoughts).  In my limited experience, this is the largest category of PhD students at Princeton Seminary.
  3. Human Beings – Although I can count this variety on the fingers both of my hands, they are the few PhD students who make my experience here interesting and worthwhile.  They treat other students as peers, genuinely listen to and consider their thoughts, and go out of their way to make new MDiv students feel welcome and part of community life.  One in particular actually reached out to me and my family several months before we arrived on campus, and has continued to offer thoughtful and kind guidance in both academic and community matters.  They do not flaunt their intelligence at the expense of others, and are just as accessible in and out of the classroom.  They are a credit to their institution, and I only wish they were the rule, not the exception.

I have had all of the above as both acquaintances and Preceptors.  If you’re reading this as a PhD student at Princeton Seminary, and you happen to ask me which category you fall in, I’ll probably tell you “category 3.”  But there’s a 33% chance I’m lying to save face for both of us.  Actually, if you bother to ask me at all, you couldn’t really be in category 1, because you wouldn’t waste time reading the blog of a mere MDiv student (unless for the purpose of admonishing me about this blog post, or correcting my flawed and ingorant perspective). Instead of asking me, I’d suggest asking yourself how you *really* percieve the students you teach and interact with in community, and if your actions reflect your perceptions.

I’m resisting the temptation to draw conclusions about Doctoral work as a whole, but it does seem to me that perhaps the “PhD” as the pinnacle of academic achievement in our culture is likely to reflect its shortcomings — the cutthroat competition, the jockeying for position and influence, the arrogance (I know a few things about arrogance) and narrow-minded suspicion required to stake out a small patch of intellectual territory and rabidly defend it against all intruders (read “my precioussss…”) — these are all characteristics conducive to climbing the ivory tower, but they are not conducive to genuine education, learning, or sharing of knowledge for the benefit of others.  Even more so at a seminary.

Anyhow, I’ve got three years to change my mind on all of this, and I suspect that the PhD students in closest proximity will be the most influential in whatever final conclusions I come to.  Prove me wrong, Princeton.  Prove me wrong.

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25 Responses to PhD Students at Princeton Theological Seminary

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