Continuing our analysis of the General Education Task Force’s recommendations, the Board will comment on the third recommendation proposing general education “tags” requiring students to take two distribution requirements with certain tags, one exploring international content and another on the intersections of culture, identity, and power. The Board opposes this proposal on the grounds that any such tag improperly restricts student choice and flexibility. Further, we believe the specific tags proposed cannot be structured in an academically rigorous way that avoids the danger of ideological partisanship.
The Board believes the creation of any general education tags contradicts the University’s stated goals for the distribution areas: to “serve as a broad intellectual map for students to follow...there are no required courses; instead the areas encourage students to make choices that best suit their [interests].” This flexible model positively contrasts with the far more restrictive core curriculums at institutions like Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Princeton’s current distribution program properly exposes students to “important substantive fields of inquiry and methodological approaches” without defining the course content itself that students must study.
But under the proposed requirement, students would pick from “tagged” courses across any distribution area, from HAs to STNs, with the tags united only by their common content. By thus necessarily being based on content instead of a particular learning methodology like the distribution areas are, tags are an inappropriate attempt by the University to compel students to study certain material. Implementing the tags would also create the necessary framework to further limit student choice by later prescribing additional requirements on a multitude of specific subjects at the whim of the University. The Board has consistently argued for broad student flexibility and choice in academic program selection, and we continue that precedent here in opposing any tags.
The Board rejects the international content tag because of our opposition to any such tags as enumerated above. We have additional concerns with the identity and power tag. The task force aims to define this new requirement narrowly enough so that it “meaningfully engages the manifestations of difference and their relationship to structural inequalities,” but it also would define ‘identity’ broadly enough so that “no particular ideological position dominates the courses that probe this complex terrain.”
These two imperatives, while well intentioned, are contradictory and underlie the tag’s inherent politicization. A truly ideologically neutral definition of identity would likely be so broad as to make the requirement redundant to existing HA and SA offerings, while imposing on these classes the stigma of ideological partisanship. The University aims to be narrower than that. Accordingly it cannot decide which courses meaningfully engage the manifestation of differences and structural inequalities without making a political judgment as to what constitutes structural inequality and which differences are worth studying. Further, the new requirement is premised on the notion that one of only two specific content areas that Princeton students must study is that differences in identity undergird structural inequalities. It is itself an ideological assumption to prioritize this material over the many other questions that can be addressed through study. The University, as an institution, would be mandating highly politicized content as a requirement for an undergraduate education.
As such, the decision to mandate the study of differences and structural inequality would replace intellectual training with political ideology as the purpose of a Princeton education. Through the tags, the Task Force has mistaken a liberal arts education with a politically liberal education. But serious academic inquiry is premised on a scholar’s commitment and ability to conduct research that is not guided by ideological presuppositions — be they of the left or right.
When taking courses to fulfill the culture, identity, and power requirement, students will also be aware that the University has mandated the courses to teach them about structural inequalities, and they will be expected to find these structural inequalities in the content to which they are exposed, regardless of differing conclusions they may reach independently. Such homogeneity is antithetical to the goals of an academic institution.
In the eighteenth century, when John Witherspoon was the president of Princeton University, and James Madison and Aaron Burr were his students, the University was a Presbyterian institution. Students learned right and wrong based on the tenets of Presbyterianism. This religious education was replaced with increasing secularism and openness as the University modernized, a change with which we suspect most, if not all, students and faculty members would strongly agree. The proposed tags establish the theology of modern progressivism as the University’s new standard of moral truth — its new sectarian affiliation.
If Princeton is to remain a venue for rigorous, ideologically non-partisan academic debate, there is no room for officially established University dogmas. This proposed requirement would be a dangerous first step towards erasing students’ academic choice in favor of an anachronistic, politicized curriculum. What a bitter irony that the step would be taken in the name of “progress.”
The Dissent affirms this year’s Task Force Report in its recommendation to implement tags to require all students to “take at least one course with international content and one course that explores the intersections of culture, identity, and power.”
While the Majority opinion rejects the Report’s recommendation on the premise that these tags would restrict student choice and flexibility, we argue that the tags are in accordance with the University’s commitment to offer “an academic program that allows each student to achieve a truly liberal education.” The purpose of distribution areas is to “provide all students with a common language and common skill,” so that engineers are well versed in historical analysis and humanities students develop an understanding of quantitative reasoning. It is clear that the University has established the precedent of mandating curriculum that transcends “the boundaries of specialization” so that all students engage in certain distinct conversations, such as that of structural inequalities. Similar precedents have been set by our peer institutions, Columbia University and University of Chicago, who each boast a set of requirements that represent their unique values. Thus as an institution committed to fostering diversity and inclusion, Princeton should uphold these tags.
The Dissent also critiques the Majority’s position that the implementation of the tags would lead to “highly politicized” course material. The Dissent firmly argues that the existence of structural inequality is not a subject of academic debate. The United States is undeniably a country of historical structural inequalities. At one point in its history, this country enslaved African-Americans and disenfranchised women. Therefore, by requiring students to study these inequalities, the University is not imposing an ideology. Moreover, any politicization of course material would occur within the discussion of policy implementation to address these inequalities. Since the Report says nothing about prioritizing certain policy solutions under a moral standard, the Dissent finds the Majority’s argument in this respect to be invalid.
Finally, the Dissent finds one major inaccuracy within the argument of the Majority that contradicts the facts of the Task Report. The authors of the Report clearly state that the third recommendation asks students to “take at least one course that explores the intersections of culture, identity, and power in a rigorous and intentional way.” However, the Majority piece misquotes this aim by writing that the tag’s only specific content is that Princeton students must learn “that differences in identity cause structural inequalities.” The Majority’s interpretation of the intent of the tags blatantly contradicts the definition as outlined in the Report. While the Majority opinion critiques a tag that requires a causal interpretation of structural inequalities, the Report calls for the creation of courses that explore “the intersection” of these inequalities with markers such as culture and identity. Moreover, the Majority opinion is concerned that such a tag would be implemented so broadly that it would be too similar to content currently expressed in HA and SA courses offered by the University. However, the study of these intersections is what makes this tag distinct from current distribution requirements that focus on strictly historical or social analysis without considering how these two approaches might be used jointly to observe inequalities within societies over time.
In light of debates that have erupted on campus over the past two years, Princeton’s trustees have urged the University to expand its motto to read: “In the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity.” The Dissent strongly supports the implementation of the tags mentioned within the Task Force’s Report as they clearly resonate with the University’s mission to be an institution that fosters a dedication to service across all facets of humanity.
Ashley Reed ’18, William Pugh ’20, Cydney Kim ’17, Daniel Elkind ’17
Connor Pfeiffer ’18 recused himself from the writing of this editorial.
Carolyn Liziewski ’18 abstained from the writing of this editorial.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of the ‘Prince.’ The Board answers only to its chair, the opinion editor and the editor-in-chief.