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Class of ’27: choose scholarship, not dogmatism

Morrison Hall 2018.jpg
Marcia Brown / The Daily Princetonian

Welcome to Princeton! This fall, if you so choose, you will walk through FitzRandolph Gate and join an intellectually vibrant community united by a desire to pursue knowledge, test ideas, and be challenged. As you prepare to join our academic community and engage in meaningful, open-minded inquiry, those of us committed to the liberal arts character and spirited truth-seeking mission of our university will be cheering you on. 

Now, one of your future peers recently authored a demand that you make social justice activism a primary value during your time at Princeton. Eleanor Clemans-Cope ’26 implores you to “cause trouble,” engage in activities that “disrupt” campus life, and dismantle the pillars of “systemic injustice” through which our university upholds forces of violence and oppression. She equates contemporary campus activist movements — which have included demands for total fossil fuel divestment and more gender-neutral bathrooms — with opposition to the evils of South African apartheid and Jim Crow laws. 

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We agree that you should be people of conviction — we ourselves are — and that you should be prepared to act on your convictions. We also believe in the value of civic engagement. We write today, however, to remind you of our community’s primary service to humanity: contributing to human flourishing and advancement through scholarship, truth-seeking, and the dissemination of knowledge. While activism can be an important part of your college experience, your commitment to any cause must never come at the expense of your fidelity to the truth-seeking process. After all, “social justice activism” can only be righteous if the causes championed and policies advanced are founded in moral and empirical truths about the human good. Faithfulness to truth and obedience to the habits of mind necessary for its discovery are the only things separating ideologues from people with a genuine yearning for human progress and development. 

Ideologues — who forget about authentic truth-seeking — believe they already have access to the full truth regarding important and fundamental questions of justice. Regarding themselves as practically infallible, they see no reason to engage rigorous challenges to their core commitments. In short, they exhibit the worst form of intellectual arrogance and ideological dogmatism. 

The intellectual forefather of such ideologues is a man named Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s famous theory of “repressive tolerance” can be summarized as follows: the elimination of “intolerant” ideas is a prerequisite for the creation of a maximally tolerant, inclusive, and just society. For the Marcusian, respecting the free speech rights of people with whom you disagree about fundamental questions of justice just isn’t very important. Why should error be permitted in the public forum? The ideologues conclude that “words are violence,” “silence is complicity,” and ideological “safe spaces” are a necessity. They are right, you are wrong, and there is no space for respectful disagreement.

But if you think that important questions are often the hardest ones — and are therefore questions that we fallible human beings can get wrong — you will remember that, as a student, you are a truth-seeker above all else. With an open mind and a willingness to learn, you will carry yourself as coming here to pursue knowledge and have your worldview vigorously and frequently challenged. While you may be confident that your positions are the correct ones, you will retain a fundamental willingness to test — and possibly even to revise — your deepest, most cherished, even identity-forming beliefs. 

Accordingly, those of you who commit yourselves to truth above all else (as we believe you should) will also view the protection of free speech, the importance of intellectually serious and dispassionate scholarship, and the desire to learn rather than impose as essential components not only of the University’s truth-seeking mission but of your own intellectual development. 

So, welcome to the moving train. Join us in fighting to keep the train moving in the right direction: truth. We look forward to seeing you around — in lectures learning from world-renowned faculty, in seminars engaging in lively discussions with your peers, and at campus events listening to speakers whose views may be diametrically opposed to your own. But remember: despite what some might try to tell you, the primary reason you are here is to be a student. A truth-seeker, not an ideologue. 

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Matthew Wilson is a junior in the Department of Politics. He can be reached at mxwilson@princeton.edu. Myles McKnight is a senior in the Department of Politics. He can be reached at mylesm@princeton.edu.

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