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Ignorance is not academic freedom

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In a recently circulated piece, a group of around twenty students warned the University against implementing anti-racist training and curricular reform. All of these claims are made under the purported grounds that it would limit free speech and academic freedom.

I deeply disagree with this rationale. I do not often find myself disappointed with writings I disagree with, especially if written by fellow students. Usually, their concerns are grounded in sincere viewpoints and expressed in good faith. This is not the case for the piece written by the magnanimously-named “Princeton Open Campus Coalition.”

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Their plea to President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 to disregard the demands of student activists can only be deemed terribly disappointing and — if you excuse my lack of decorum — outrageous. The piece’s core arguments are the product of an ignorance that is neither honest nor neutral. This ignorance is deliberate, unapologetic, and weaponized — it is nothing but another attempt to protect deliberate, selective ignorance under the guise of academic freedom and free speech.

Preventing widespread education on these topics is not an enlightened measure — rather, it casts a profoundly obscuring shadow over truths this country desperately needs to acknowledge.

Such a desire for ignorance can be seen in the first of their attacks, which opposes the creation of a new departmental core requirement that focuses on topics including race, identity, and power. Their rhetoric is particularly disheartening, as they rationalize their opposition by declaring that this constitutes “politicization of the curriculum” and a “one-sided” approach.

This egregious language portrays these classes as some sort of novel political indoctrination devised for the express purpose of perpetuating an ideology. This rhetoric naïvely — and dare I say, deliberately — portrays these classes as monolithic and homogeneous sets of ideas, focused solely on the purpose of advancing a single ideology.

These courses have been for quite some time a staple of academic life at Princeton, and the realities they present are based in the ideologically diverse, heterogeneous work of the nation’s most renowned academics. To dismiss these classes as politicized and one-sided illustrates their blatant disregard for the work of underrepresented groups in academia and insults the work of many of our most insightful scholars.

These claims are also founded on the assumption that all core classes are politically neutral, which is hardly ever the case in a policy school. Current classes in economics, political theory, international relations, and ethics often rely on capitalist, patriarchal, and Western conceptions of society. Clearly, a far greater portion of the curriculum reinforces these worldviews.

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This outdated academic focus is most inappropriate if we are to educate the policymakers of the future. In an increasingly globalized and interdependent political climate, diverging from the dominant narrative will be key in informing policy that adequately addresses the needs of all citizens, not just white Americans. To say that they “welcome” courses coming from “diverse intellectual traditions” after uttering the previous arguments is a contradiction in terms.

Perhaps they do welcome some diversity; maybe instead of taking so many classes on microeconomics, we should spice it up with something more diverse — like macroeconomics! But nothing beyond that, please. That would be too political.

To add insult to injury, they “strenuously oppose” any kind of measure that makes anti-racist training a requisite for any member of the University community. Their disregard for concepts such as cultural competence and unconscious bias relegates these phrases to mere buzzwords used to justify what they regard as a ploy to restrict free speech. If they hope to foster a polite, egalitarian, and diverse community on campus, why do they remain willfully ignorant of the experiences of their non-white, underprivileged peers?

This kind of attitude shows only one thing: their willingness to erase different, real, and influential narratives in order to preserve their flawed view of society. Since Princeton is an educational institution, awareness of others’ experiences and of one’s own biases is an integral part of the University’s educational mission.

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Anti-racism is not an exercise of ideology but a central element that needs to be firmly set in human dignity. There is no excuse to remain ignorant on these topics, especially in recent circumstances, which have propagated numerous educational resources on the topic. To dismiss these real and often painful experiences and opting to relish in one’s ignorance is nothing short of malicious.

The twisted rhetoric with which they surround their points is almost as despicable and empty as the arguments themselves. They purport that their voices are being silenced and their opinions erased, while simultaneously commanding a larger platform than any of their dissenting counterparts. They justify themselves with empty allusions to historical platitudes that deeply oversimplify and twist their narratives to whatever suits you best.

Galileo surrendered his freedom for the pursuit of science, not for them to go around preaching racist rhetoric. To compare highly-regarded and verified concepts such as implicit bias to medieval, doctrinal orthodoxy shows contempt towards any work that dares challenge one’s own doctrinal and orthodox beliefs.

Is their right to say “where are you really from?” worth this kind of aimless defense? Is their ability to discriminate among their peers really worth fighting for? Do they, students of one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, think it is right to embrace the enemy of learning — ignorance — in order to grow as intellectuals and people?

To be a philosopher — as many of them fancy themselves — one must love knowledge. Instead, this statement of rejection is a great act of hate against knowledge, particularly the wisdom from the minds, experiences, and works of your non-white peers. Free speech is a fundamental pillar in modern, democratic society, but it is not wise to build a temple upon a single column.

These students compare their zeal with Socrates’s willingness to die for knowledge, but their words reveal them to be nothing more than Narcissus, unable to stop looking at their own reflections, even if it means drowning in them.

Juan José López Haddad is a junior from Caracas, Venezuela. He can be reached at jhaddad@princeton.edu

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