Letter to the Editor: Diversifying Princeton's Pre-read
An Open Letter to President Eisgruber| May 1, 2017
Like most universities, Princeton is committed to the “robust expression of diverse perspectives.” But there is little value in the expression of diverse perspectives, if they are not also rigorously entertained. We should actively encourage students to consider views they are disposed to reject, lest our many avowals of the value of free discourse amount to empty platitudes. The Princeton Pre-read is an ideal opportunity for us to do so.
Each year, President Eisgruber chooses a book for all incoming students to read and discuss. The small-group discussions are often unstimulating, but not because students are intellectually incurious; their thirst for knowledge and debate is what led them to Princeton, and they are never more eager or passionate than at the beginning of their journeys. These discussions are dull because many students find the texts tedious and arid. By assigning a reading that challenges students to consider views strikingly unlike their own, Princeton could induct students into a culture in which they are expected to engage openly and rigorously with the best arguments for views they reject. We would thereby promote one of our most important ideals – the free debate of diverse perspectives – and transform students’ introduction to scholarly and residential life. In place of awkward silences punctuated by one or two dominant students, the Pre-read might provoke students to challenge one another rigorously on questions of immense significance.
In practice, this will mean embracing one of two options. Ideally, Princeton should assign two texts each year, one to represent either side of a relevant issue. But this may not be practical. The other option is to sometimes – perhaps, once every three years – assign an engaging, scholarly book that argues for a non-liberal position. Happily, there is no shortage of such books. For example, Thomas Sowell’s work on culture and race is as controversial as it is thoroughly argued, and any one of his books would challenge Princeton students to think lucidly about difficult arguments and to reflect on the values that undergird them. To take another example, social psychologist Lee Jussim’s "Social Perception, Social Reality," which argues for the rationality and accuracy of stereotypes, would contrast fruitfully with the former Pre-read, "Whistling Vivaldi," which argued for the harmfulness of stereotypes.
For some students, the challenge such texts present may be enough reason to avoid the Pre-read, but they will not be many. There are few things more intellectually invigorating than seemingly cogent arguments for heterodox views about issues of great ethical significance. It is precisely because students won’t all agree on these arguments that they are certain to provoke passionate, generative debate. It may be objected that a controversial Pre-read would divide the Class of 2021, but the exact opposite is more likely. Princeton students can discuss contentious topics respectfully, and Pre-read discussions are moderated by senior students trained to encourage productive conversation. There is little reason to fear hostility.
The robust debate of diverse perspectives, and not their mere expression, is the lifeblood of our university. Students will not leave unopened texts like Heather MacDonald’s "The War on Cops," or Ayann Hirsi Ali’s "Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now." And few who read their first pages will be able to resist reading the rest. Inevitably, students will wish to debate these ideas. Their conversations will be heated, but there is little danger that Princeton students will not apprehend their value. Moreover, these conversations will not end on the night of the official Pre-read discussions; rather, they will fill Princeton's dining halls and dorm rooms for months. And we may hope that the spirit of fearless, open-minded debate will inform all of our students’ years at Princeton as they confront the most difficult questions of philosophy, politics, and life.
Carrie Pritt is a freshman from Frederick, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.