The author of ‘An Open Letter to President Eisgruber’ explains why she wants to end ‘tedious’ Pre-Reads
‘The small-group discussions are often unstimulating’
Nearly 200 Princeton students have signed an open letter to President Eisgruber demanding an end to boring Pre-Read texts.
Freshman Carrie Pritt, who authored the open letter, wrote:
“Each year, President Eisgruber chooses a book for all incoming students to read and discuss. The small-group discussions are often unstimulating, but not because students are intellectually incurious; their thirst for knowledge and debate is what led them to Princeton, and they are never more eager or passionate than at the beginning of their journeys. These discussions are dull because many students find the texts tedious and arid.”
Here in an exclusive interview with The Tab, she explained how the petition is going.
How have students reacted to the proposal to diversify the Pre-read?
Overall, the reception has been super positive – over 170 students have already signed. But a small number of students have opposed presenting a broader selection of political views in the Pre-read. They claim that the books suggested as model Pre-reads do “violence to marginalized groups,” threatening their “right to exist.”
But to anyone in the least familiar with the authors in question, these claims are transparently false. The critics are mistaken to quickly dismiss Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heather Mac Donald, Lee Jussim, and Thomas Sowell as bigots who wish to “debate if racism is good.” These are scholars who support marginalized people and have dedicated much of their careers to that end; or at least that is what they claim, and their undergrad critics have offered no reason for us to doubt their sincerity.
These scholars are not bigots. Their sins consist of arguing that policies cherished by some people on the left may be ill-conceived and likely to backfire. If they are wrong, this must be shown with data and reasoned argument; if they are right, then the status quo does great harm to the very people whom the critics wish to defend.
If even a few Princeton University students are satisfied in simply dismissing scholarship without first bothering to read it, if they feel comfortable publicly labeling scholars as racists without offering any evidence whatsoever in support of their accusations, and if we don’t demand that they provide this evidence before giving in to their requests, then maybe that’s evidence that we’ve got to force ourselves to engage more deeply with views we reject.
What do you suggest for students who are critical of the proposal?
To anyone inclined to dismiss these authors without serious consideration: go buy their books. Perhaps you will discover that you can refute each and every argument in Ali, Mac Donald, Jussim, and Sowell; if so, you will be more justified in your opinions. But if you’re unable to reply with reasoned arguments and evidence of your own, then you might change some of your opinions.
Don’t these objections mean that diverse Pre-reads would be divisive?
It may seem that the discussion on the 2020 Facebook page is all the evidence administrators need to conclude that Princeton students can’t productively discuss difficult ethical or political questions. But we should remember that these reactions come from a small handful of students – a tiny fraction of the nearly 1,000 students who have read the letter and over 150 who have signed it. The moral outrage of a small number of students, no matter how passionate, doesn’t show that a challenging Pre-read wouldn’t be really valuable, even for those students. On the other hand, by signing the letter, a large and diverse group of students have already expressed their desire to critically engage with the best scholarly arguments for views which differ from their own. Their support is even more impressive given some critics’ suggestion that students who sign the letter should be “cut off.” Happily, Princeton students haven’t been intimidated and the list of signatories continues to grow.
Read ‘An Open Letter To President Eisgruber’
Like most universities, Princeton is committed to the “robust expression of diverse perspectives.” But there is little value in the expression of diverse perspectives, if they are not also rigorously entertained. We should actively encourage students to consider views they are disposed to reject, lest our many avowals of the value of free discourse amount to empty platitudes. The Princeton Pre-read is an ideal opportunity for us to do so.
Each year, President Eisgruber chooses a book for all incoming students to read and discuss. The small-group discussions are often unstimulating, but not because students are intellectually incurious; their thirst for knowledge and debate is what led them to Princeton, and they are never more eager or passionate than at the beginning of their journeys. These discussions are dull because many students find the texts tedious and arid. By assigning a reading that challenges students to consider views strikingly unlike their own, Princeton could induct students into a culture in which they are expected to engage openly and rigorously with the best arguments for views they reject. We would thereby promote one of our most important ideals — the free debate of diverse perspectives — and transform students’ introduction to scholarly and residential life. In place of awkward silences punctuated by one or two dominant students, the Pre-read might provoke students to challenge one another rigorously on questions of immense significance.
In practice, this will mean embracing one of two options. Ideally, Princeton should assign two texts each year, one to represent either side of a relevant issue. But this may not be practical. The other option is to sometimes — perhaps, once every three years — assign an engaging, scholarly book that argues for a non-liberal position. Happily, there is no shortage of such books. For example, Thomas Sowell’s work on culture and race is as controversial as it is thoroughly argued, and any one of his books would challenge Princeton students to think lucidly about difficult arguments and to reflect on the values that undergird them. To take another example, social psychologist Lee Jussim’s “Social Perception, Social Reality,” which argues for the rationality and accuracy of stereotypes, would contrast fruitfully with the former Pre-read, “Whistling Vivaldi,” which argued for the harmfulness of stereotypes.
For some students, the challenge such texts present may be enough reason to avoid the Pre-read, but they will not be many. There are few things more intellectually invigorating than seemingly cogent arguments for heterodox views about issues of great ethical significance. It is precisely because students won’t all agree on these arguments that they are certain to provoke passionate, generative debate. It may be objected that a controversial Pre-read would be divisive, but the exact opposite is more likely. Princeton students can discuss contentious topics respectfully, and Pre-read discussions are moderated by senior students trained to encourage productive conversation. There is little reason to fear hostility.
The robust debate of diverse perspectives, and not their mere expression, is the lifeblood of our university. Students will not leave unopened texts like Heather MacDonald’s “The War on Cops,” or Ayann Hirsi Ali’s “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.” And few who read their first pages will be able to resist reading the rest. Inevitably, students will wish to debate these ideas. Their conversations will be heated, but there is little danger that Princeton students will not apprehend their value. Moreover, these conversations will not end on the night of the official Pre-read discussions; rather, they will fill Princeton’s dining halls and dorm rooms for months. And we may hope that the spirit of fearless, open-minded debate will inform all of our students’ years at Princeton as they confront the most difficult questions of philosophy, politics and life.