A recent editorial in Princeton University’s most conservative publication, the Daily Princetonian, predictably dismisses all of the demands made by the Black Justice League during the recent protests against racism on campus. But what is surprising, not to mention embarrassing for the University, is the anti-intellectualism expressed by the editorial board members, who seem to think that requiring students to learn about different cultures and histories is somehow beyond the limits of a liberal arts education.
The more moderate members of the Princetonian’s Ayn Rand book club argue against requiring students to take a class on historically marginalized peoples. Instead, they argue, the University should create “a one-course Global Thought distribution requirement,” which would “concern topics outside of the traditional material offered to American students in grade school [emphasis mine], which focuses primarily on modern American and European literature and history.” This is a patently ridiculous sentence. I would hope that the material in any class at Princeton, even one on American or European history and literature, would “concern topics outside of the traditional material offered to American students in grade school.” I was under the impression, as I’m sure many others were, that the whole point of going to an elite university was to get an education that exceeded the one I received in grade school. Evidently, the scholars at the Prince have lower expectations for the kind of education Princeton is supposed to offer.
Around the country and on campus, various publications have criticized the anti-racist protesters for claiming false victimhood, for being overly sensitive, and for embracing postmodern academic notions about historical truths. But if there is any group that claims a false victimhood it’s campus conservatives, who complain of how beleaguered they are and how their politics are disrespected all while living in a world that roughly reflects their views. Inequality is growing, the rich get richer, and US companies continue to exploit people in nations that are underdeveloped due to US foreign policy and centuries of brutal imperialism. Don’t worry, campus conservatives—you’re doing just fine. And yet at Princeton, the young Goldwater contingent has the gall to claim, “we do not believe that University administrators should be in the business of determining which groups of people are or have been marginalized.” Suddenly, the Republicans are postmodernists, concerned with who gets to decide what is legitimate knowledge and prepared to contest what general academic consensus considers to be historical fact.
The editorial board’s Strom Thurmond-style refusal to recognize historically marginalized people or learn about their histories reflects a fear of encountering new ideas and challenging one’s preconceptions that has no place at an elite institution in the 21st century. Three board members, who found the statement “courses should not be limited to the history of people who are marginalized in American society” too charitable, argue in an addendum that “the proposed Global Thought requirement is nothing more than a cover for mandating courses in the hyper-politically-correct ‘studies’ departments.” This is an astonishingly disrespectful and dismissive way, especially for a bunch of conservatives, to refer to the hundreds of celebrated Princeton professors in all of those “studies” departments, and completely absurd; no one would consider the Hellenic Studies and Medieval Studies bastions of “hyper-politically correct” leftist radicalism. It is also an ignorant and sloppy thing to write that betrays the board members’ barely hidden bigotry. Why does taking a course in African American Studies or Gender and Sexuality Studies frighten these students so much that they view the possibility of having to do so as a kind of tyranny?
The conservatives on the editorial board save their venom for those non-white and non-Western subjects of the classes that they don’t want to take—those whose histories they don’t consider worthy of learning. Requiring that students take a course on topics outside of the Western tradition (which many concentrations already do), argue the country club reactionaries, “is not merely vacuous but would also harmfully prevent students who who hope to study the Western tradition from taking worthwhile courses.” The University’s distribution requirements mandate that students take courses in a variety of disciplines that do not relate to “the Western tradition.” And yet none of the self-styled Burkeans would ever write in an editorial that the University’s two science requirements “harmfully prevent students who hope to study the Western tradition from taking worthwhile courses.” It is appallingly anti-intellectual to claim that studying courses outside of the Western tradition is “vacuous.” It is also a real shame that the opportunities of a Princeton education are being wasted on these editorial board members who cannot fathom that there might be something to gain from understanding other cultures and histories.