This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on November 29th 2016 

Over the course of the last few years, Americans have watched with interest and dismay as a growing number of their higher education institutions have descended into censorship and intolerance. From “safe spaces” to “trigger warnings” to “micro-aggressions,” our universities appear to be striving to become the least tolerant of our institutions.

In many cases, such as the highly publicized meltdown last fall at the University of Missouri, it has been radical students who have been championing these intolerant agendas, which, in turn, have met with spineless responses from school leaders.

Not so at Princeton University. There, the majority of the editorial board of the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, just penned a staff op ed whose title conveys its conclusion: “Rejecting a Politicized Curriculum.” In the piece, the board slams the school’s recommendation to require students to take at least one course that focuses on “the intersections of culture, identity, and power.”

The Princetonian board argues that the proposed new curriculum “cannot be structured in an academically rigorous way that avoids the danger of ideological partisanship.” Unlike Princeton’s distribution requirements, which focus on important “substantive fields of inquiry and methodological approaches”—without defining “course content”—the proposed “identity and power” courses are “necessarily . . . based on content.” The proposal therefore constitutes an “inappropriate attempt by the University to compel students to study certain material.”

 

Although the board also rejects a proposed “international content” requirement on similar grounds, it appears primarily concerned with the identity and power proposal. Rightly so. The university’s proposed requirement announces its intention to “engage the manifestations of difference and their relationship to structural inequalities.” What, we might ask, could this jargon possibly mean?

In answering this question, the board also explains the proposal’s “inherent politicization.” Requiring a course in the “intersections of culture, identity, and power” requires first making a “political judgment as to what constitutes structural inequality and which differences are worth studying.” Moreover, the proposed requirement assumes without argument that “differences in identity [race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation] undergird structural inequalities.” But this assumption is not academic or intellectual, but “ideological.” Therefore, the university’s proposed requirement amounts to its officially “mandating highly politicized content as a requirement for an undergraduate education.”

Over the course of the last few years, Americans have watched with interest and dismay as a growing number of their higher education institutions have descended into censorship and intolerance. From “safe spaces” to “trigger warnings” to “micro-aggressions,” our universities appear to be striving to become the least tolerant of our institutions.

In many cases, such as the highly publicized meltdown last fall at the University of Missouri, it has been radical students who have been championing these intolerant agendas, which, in turn, have met with spineless responses from school leaders.

Not so at Princeton University. There, the majority of the editorial board of the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, just penned a staff op ed whose title conveys its conclusion: “Rejecting a Politicized Curriculum.” In the piece, the board slams the school’s recommendation to require students to take at least one course that focuses on “the intersections of culture, identity, and power.”

The Princetonian board argues that the proposed new curriculum “cannot be structured in an academically rigorous way that avoids the danger of ideological partisanship.” Unlike Princeton’s distribution requirements, which focus on important “substantive fields of inquiry and methodological approaches”—without defining “course content”—the proposed “identity and power” courses are “necessarily . . . based on content.” The proposal therefore constitutes an “inappropriate attempt by the University to compel students to study certain material.”

Although the board also rejects a proposed “international content” requirement on similar grounds, it appears primarily concerned with the identity and power proposal. Rightly so. The university’s proposed requirement announces its intention to “engage the manifestations of difference and their relationship to structural inequalities.” What, we might ask, could this jargon possibly mean?

In answering this question, the board also explains the proposal’s “inherent politicization.” Requiring a course in the “intersections of culture, identity, and power” requires first making a “political judgment as to what constitutes structural inequality and which differences are worth studying.” Moreover, the proposed requirement assumes without argument that “differences in identity [race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation] undergird structural inequalities.” But this assumption is not academic or intellectual, but “ideological.” Therefore, the university’s proposed requirement amounts to its officially “mandating highly politicized content as a requirement for an undergraduate education.”

Stated more simply, Princeton proposes to require all students to study a course that is animated by the assumption that race, class, and gender undergird “structural inequality.” Structural inequality refers to a social condition where one group of persons enjoys unequal status in relation to other groups and where societal customs, roles, and manners promote such inequality.

In seeking to require of all its students a race/class/gender-focused course, Princeton flouts its general policy of allowing students the maximum level of discretion in deciding which courses they take to fulfill their general education requirements. Worse, in designating a race/class/gender course to be required of all students, the Princeton administration would be bestowing on this ideology the school’s imprimatur.

Therefore, the board rightly locates this agenda as ideological, not academic. A race/class/gender-centric curriculum is based in part on Marx’s thought, though it also expands Marx’s parameters beyond anything he’d likely recognize. As such, it constitutes political ideology, which begins with a premise whose truth it simply takes as given. This is the opposite of liberal education, which examines the unexamined assumptions that anchor the various ideologies, be they of the left or the right; it does not hawk them in the manner of a partisan politician.

For this reason, the board draws blood when it declares that the proposed requirement to study “differences and structural inequality would replace intellectual training with political ideology as the purpose of a Princeton education.” The course proposal “mistakes a liberal arts education with a politically liberal education,” thus abandoning “serious academic inquiry,” which requires “a scholar’s commitment and ability to conduct research that is not guided by ideological presuppositions.”

The board provides an example of the infantilizing effects such a requirement could not help but have on Princeton students. The students, “aware that the University has mandated the courses to teach them about structural inequalities,” will also know that “they will be expected to find these structural inequalities in the content to which they are exposed, regardless of differing conclusions they may reach independently.” The result? Intellectual “homogeneity,” which is “antithetical to the goals of an academic institution.”

The board of The Princetonian concludes its dissection of the proposed curriculum with a look at the college from its founding to the present day. In the 1700s, Princeton “was a Presbyterian institution. Students learned right and wrong based on the tenets of Presbyterianism.” Over time, “this religious education was replaced with increasing secularism and openness as the University modernized.” But now, with the identity and power proposal, Princeton seeks to “establish the theology of modern progressivism as the University’s new standard of moral truth — its new sectarian affiliation.” Here the board finds “a bitter irony” in the fact that the proposed “step would be taken in the name of ‘progress.’”

Rarely does one find today a student statement that rings with such thoughtfulness. This can be viewed as both good news and bad news.

On the one hand, the student board members have done something noteworthy and commendable. They have understood, embraced, and defended the right to think, debate, and disagree, without which higher education is but an empty shell.

On the other hand, consider this: American higher education appears to have degenerated to the point where some 20-year-olds on campus have more clarity about the purpose of higher education than do their elders among the faculty and administration.

We have reached the paradoxical point where we now must hope that wisdom coming from the mouths of babes will serve to educate the educators.