What do conservatives want? David Walter ’11 seeks to answer this question in his recent Princeton Alumni Weekly article. Walter notes a trend among controversial campus leaders and ill-at-ease alumni, who, despite “the successes of their movement — including, most recently, the overturn of Roe v. Wade” feel “embattled as never before.” He keenly identifies the biggest question for those of us seeking to understand conservatives: Why do they spend so much time decrying Princeton’s “dominant” political culture? Or, more simply put: Why do conservatives feel such extreme discontent?
To understand conservative malaise, conservative goals — and the goals of their liberal counterparts — must first be understood. So what is the debate between conservatives and liberals on campus? Yoram Hazony ’86 explains that conservative theory begins with the question of preservation in “Where Did Conservatism Go?,” an episode of the podcast Madison’s Notes (as a student, Hazony founded the Princeton Tory). He explains that conservatives act on the basis of ensuring that the good things of today are preserved so that they can be transmitted to future generations, thus “living a life of conservation and transmission.” Liberalism, in Hazony’s words, says that tradition has been holding us back, and that individuals must employ enlightenment rationalism, which will eventually “all converge on a certain set of ideas.” However, Hazony believes that after World War II, liberalism was given free reign, thus failing to conserve anything, leading us to the “woke neo-marxist movement” of today, as he puts it.
Applying this general principle to University life, two things are revealed. First, Princeton conservatives, in accordance with their belief system, argue that the best characteristics of the University were developed in the past, and that those characteristics are being swiftly lost. The only way these can be maintained, they claim, is if the University defines its values for itself, instead of letting each generation of students do so — as liberals might.
Conservatives such as Hazony argue that the University should define its own purpose for students, whereas liberals push for students to define the purpose of the University on their own. But now that the University has a greater liberal influence than before, conservatives are caught in a pickle. Hazony disagrees with the direction of the University, but conservative ideological commitments prevent conservatives from changing it on their own. For conservatives to win, the Princeton administration must recognize their ideological perspective — which doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. And so they sink into despair.
Based on his interviews with alumni, including Hazony, Walter notes that conservatives are “apt to speak in pessimistic — or even apocalyptic — tones about the future of the place they once loved.” He notes several specific complaints that depict a severe unhappiness with the direction of the University. McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George notes that “the kids come in pre-indoctrinated.” Sev Onyshkevych ’83 wrote that conservatives are “excluded, explicitly, and with malice.” And Matt Schmitz ’08 says that elite universities like Princeton preach “a new creed — called ‘social justice,’ ‘wokeism,’ or ‘the successor ideology.’”
If we bought this theory, we might say that Princeton has a terrible habit of political profiling: that it has a vitriolic agenda that pre-selects students with the right ideas, purposely oppresses those who engage in “wrongthink,” and pushes the new American religion of wokeness upon everybody. Conservatives attempt to justify their inability to win battles on campus by suggesting the dominant ideology is oppressive to any debate at all — “woke neo-Marxism,” to be exact.
But this misunderstands what the dominant forces on campus are. Let’s take one of the most criticized apostles of the modern University: Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, who states that students need “the tools to tear down this place and make it a better one.” Though my grasp on neo-marxism is tenuous at best, I feel confident that this sentiment is very much not in that category. It is a liberalist view of education: Students should use what they learn here to work towards creating a new, informed-by-reason-and-not-by-tradition, vision of Ivory Tower. Padilla Peralta’s argument encourages us to think entirely for ourselves, and build a brand new institution with a brand new purpose.
Unfortunately for conservatives who like to complain, their values can fit within the liberal theory. If each generation of students chooses their values, we could choose values of free speech, of historical preservation, and of a values-focused curriculum. Yet even still, this will not be enough for the conservative movement, which can only win when the University itself, not just the student body, prioritizes these principles.
If conservatives wanted to wage a war of persuasion within the liberal conception of the university, they would face a difficult battle. But a debate can be unequal and still be fair. Instead of heralding the doom of conservatism on campus or succumbing to the depression of losing the home-turf advantage in the debate over the fate of Princeton education, conservatives need to stay and engage with the discourse they have.
I am not blind to the problems within the University: I think we could do a much better job of listening to diverse viewpoints and welcoming and creating intelligent discourse, both improvements that conservatives tend to associate with their mission. Though I’m not sure Princeton did such a laudable job at either of those pursuits 50 years ago, I recognize how they could help restore Princeton to an ideal of the past — a place where one can develop the “common sense philosophy” for which John Witherspoon strived, to help “guide a life of virtue.”
So what can conservatives do to make sure their mission lives on? For one, they can continue to center their disputes with the University as academic disagreements rather than cries of unfairness and maltreatment. The debates over key University policies are too central to our development to ignore, and conservatives have a responsibility to openly discuss this question with the “other side.” Otherwise, Princeton risks becoming a safe haven for only one type of thought, while it should be a beacon of opportunity for people of disparate opinions to have the opportunity to engage in verbal combat with each other.
Abigail Rabieh is a prospective history concentrator and sophomore from Cambridge, MA. She is the Head Opinion Editor at the ‘Prince’ and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.