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Eisgruber '83 chooses "What Is Populism?" as Pre-read

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has chosen “What Is Populism?” by politics professor Jan-Werner Müller for the Class of 2021’s Pre-read. Out of the five books in the Pre-read tradition, “What Is Populism?” is the second to be written by a University professor.

“What Is Populism?” argues that populism is defined by a rejection of pluralism, and that populists are politicians who claim that they and they alone truly represent the people. 


Discussing contemporary politicians such as Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen, and Hugo Chávez, the book shows that people have used the term “populism” in varied and often inconsistent ways. 

Eisgruber said in a press release that he chose the book because “populist movements have implications for political issues that will matter deeply during [students’] time on Princeton’s campus and beyond” and that “according to some definitions of populism, being a student at a very selective college makes you part of an elite class at odds with ‘the people.’”

He also said that “all of us at this University need to think about these arguments and what they mean for our responsibilities at Princeton and in the world.”

The Pre-read tradition, first created in 2013 for the incoming Class of 2017, aims to introduce incoming students to intellectual life at the University. First-year students and orientation leaders receive a copy of the Pre-read over the summer, but the entire University community is encouraged to read and discuss the selection. Pre-read discussions are then held in the residential colleges and other areas on campus during orientation week and throughout the academic year. The program’s title mirrors the name of the “Pre-rade,” a ceremony for first-years held during Opening Exercises in order to symbolize the complementary residential and academic components of University life.

Eisgruber’s first selection, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," was written by University philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah. The book argues that modern democratic movements were driven by changing societal conceptions of honor, exploring how new ideas about honor brought about the end of once-common practices such as dueling in England and foot-binding in China. It uses “honor killings” in Pakistan as an example of how honor can facilitate atrocities in addition to ending them.

Eisgruber’s choice for the Class of 2018 was “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters”by Susan Wolf GS ’78, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Based on a series of lectures that Wolf delivered at the University in 2007 as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, the book challenges the division of human motives as either egoistic and altruistic, claiming instead that humans act out of love for objects and derive meaning in life from these actions. In a press release from the Office of Communications, Eisgruber said that the question of what makes a meaningful life is “at the heart of a liberal arts education.”


“Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude Steele, was selected for the Class of 2019. A first-person account of Steele’s social psychological research on stereotype and identity, the book deals with the stereotype threats faced by people of different races and genders. Steele was the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also served as a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Graduate School of Education. He traveled to the University during orientation to discuss the bookwith students. Eisgruber wrote he chose the book because “events of the past year underscore the need for all of us to think carefully and critically about how stereotypes affect our campus, our society and the world.”

The Class of 2020 read “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” by Danielle Allen ’93, the director of Harvard’s Center for Ethics. The book offered a close reading of the Declaration as a profound, original document arguing for and emphasizing democratic equality. Allen joined President Eisgruber, University professors Melissa Lane and Sean Wilentz, and members of the Class of 2020 for an assembly on “Our Declaration” in September 2016. Eisgruber wrote that the book “speaks to urgent questions about the relationship of liberty to equality, the significance of historical legacies, and the meaning of political documents.”

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