Arun Alagappan, '81

Arun Alagappan
When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

Math.

What made you decide to major in philosophy?

Bishop Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and Princeton Professors John Burgess and Paul Benacerraf.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you'd like to share?

At Princeton, I took engaging courses in Math, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, History, English, Psychology, and Engineering. From a distance, my initial take on philosophy fell into the category of amusing quotes such as "the purpose of a philosopher is to pass his headache on to the reader" or "the purpose of philosophy is to distinguish itself from anything that is useful." In the end, no courses came remotely close to the intellectual stimulation and enjoyment I experienced in my Philosophy courses. Philosophy also honed my analytic ability, an ability I have drawn upon virtually every day in my professional work.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

I tutored for a year and then went on to Harvard Law School where I also spent time teaching in the University's Math Department. (Evidently you don’t need to major in Math at Princeton to teach Math at Harvard.)

What do you do now?

I run both a 250-tutor tutoring company I founded called Advantage Testing and its public service arm, the Advantage Testing Foundation. In my AT Foundation work, I have been privileged to work with some remarkable leaders in higher education. Together, we are committed to delivering intense, innovative programs that promote socioeconomic diversity in the nation's leadership pool. Joining me on the AT Foundation's Board of Trustees are President Shirley Tilghman, NYU President John Sexton, and Dean of Harvard Law School Martha Minow. Former trustees include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan '81 who served as Vice President of the Advantage Testing Foundation while she was Dean of Harvard Law School. [This interview was conducted in January 2013]

Final words?

Many years ago, like my brother (who is now a Professor of Medicine), I was headed down my extended family's well worn path to medical school. One summer, while working in a university Genetics lab, I couldn't bring myself to bleed some quivering mice. Add to that my general discomfort around blood, pus, and pain, and I realized that I may not be well suited to being a doctor. Apart from proposing to my wife, majoring in Philosophy at Princeton remains the best decision of my life. Reading and discussing philosophy made me truly happy.  From brilliant professors who could teach and inspire to graduate students and fellow undergraduates, the Princeton Philosophy Department fostered a lively, informal, supportive, pleasantly quirky, and intellectually intimate community. Rigorous and creative thought flourished. The many talented students who majored in philosophy could have pursued myriad alternative academic paths but came together in their love of the subject. We had no quizzes or busy work. Rather, the department was characterized by thoughtful reflection, collegiality, smart students, and absolutely superb professors.