Campus Dialogue: Open and Civil Discourse

Civil-Discourse-Casualty

It is hard to believe that a new cohort of admitted students will soon be visiting campus for Princeton Preview and hopefully joining us next fall. I imagine their Freshman Orientation will be, as mine was, a blur of activities highlighting important aspects of Princeton’s culture and values. As the post-Orientation survey suggested, the Opening Meeting succeeded in “fostering a collective identity as a class,” and the Reflections on Diversity assembly underscored “the institutional value attached to diversity.” Presentations by Public Safety and SHARE reminded us of our mutual responsibilities in maintaining campus safety, and Step Sing introduced us to long-standing traditions of school spirit and pride. Given the busy and packed schedule of Orientation, it was hard to imagine that anything was missing. But over time, it has become clear that Orientation had in fact neglected to properly treat one of the most important values of an academic institution: the importance of open and honest discourse between dissenting parties.

A key reason that I wanted to attend Princeton was that its student body is known to be more open-minded in its attitude toward differing viewpoints than are the student bodies at many of our peer institutions. For example, in fall 2013, Ryan T. Anderson ’04 of the Heritage Foundation delivered a lecture, sponsored by the Anscombe Society and the Whig-Cliosophic Society, in support of the traditional meaning of marriage. Students who disagreed with Anderson respectfully challenged his arguments during a question-and-answer period but by no means prevented him from speaking and defending his position. This stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of the Brown University students who shouted down New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly because of their opposition to his “Stop and Frisk” policy, thus preventing him from giving a lecture. Compared to these aggressive efforts to stifle open discourse by our peers at other institutions, Princeton students, I knew, were more accepting of freedom of thought and open discussion. Furthermore, I hoped that this tolerance of a wide spectrum of views would also extend to daily interactions with fellow students. Indeed, it was for this reason that I was excited to debate my classmates, have my own positions challenged, and develop my worldview through reason and argument.

Over the past few months, however, I have been disappointed to discover that some of my classmates are not as accepting of diversity of opinion as I had thought. During the question-and-answer periods of guest lectures by William Deresiewicz, a critic of Ivy League education, and Dr. Willie Parker, operator of Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic, students grumbled and complained when their classmates voiced unpopular, minority viewpoints, even muttering that they should “stop talking and sit down.” Some students thus appear to reject both the legitimacy of opposing ideas and the value of exposure to them.

I continued to realize that certain Princeton students were intolerant of diversity of opinion the morning after I helped distribute a previous issue of this magazine, when I saw dozens of copies tossed in a recycling bin, presumably gathered from outside the doors of students who had yet to pick up their copy. I was astounded by this act. It is one thing (and perfectly acceptable) to decide not to read a magazine, but to prevent others from making the same choice by stealing their copies is something else entirely and constitutes, at the very least, a gross marginalization of others. What these and similar experiences have shown me is that as much as Orientation taught us how to navigate campus, it failed to impart to students a full appreciation of the value of exploring different viewpoints and the importance of unimpeded discourse to the intellectual life and core mission of universities.

The value one hopes the University places on free thought is well worth a speech or discussion during Orientation in order to emphasize its importance during the next four years and beyond. Specific ways the University could incorporate this into Orientation include assigning a Pre-Read book that discusses these themes, holding an all-class meeting devoted to hearing diverse student and faculty perspectives on the subject of freedom of thought, or hosting advisee group discussions that emphasize the importance of free expression of ideas. Such an addition to the Orientation schedule would set a campus-wide expectation that different ideas will always be welcome here and therefore help create a campus culture more open to discourse.

There is a great importance in creating a community where a broad diversity of thought can flourish. In the most basic sense, this is a matter of honoring the spirit of our constitutionally recognized freedom of speech. More broadly, this is a matter that extends past the spoken word to include ideas themselves. A university’s core purpose is to encourage free thought and to expose students to differing ideas and applications of knowledge. Indeed, the facilitation of student discussions reflecting a diverse spectrum of views is one of the primary reasons college involves residential and social components. If there were no value in learning from the unique perspectives of our classmates, no matter how minority or fringe they may seem, then we could, at least theoretically, forgo a traditional university education and instead learn everything that we presently do in lecture through online classes. But we chose to attend Princeton, and, reputation aside, we did so because we sought out this intellectual community composed of peers from whom we could learn outside of the classroom. The failure to actively promote a culture open to debate outside of our like-minded communities is in essence to deny us a core aspect of our Princeton education.

This is not just a matter of principle. Tolerance of dissenting ideas is a value that has genuine and broader implications for academia and the world outside of it. After all, one of the principal aims of scholarship is to promote debate among those who can both substantiate their beliefs with evidence and use reason to challenge views they oppose. This is not for the sake of the argument itself, but rather for its eminently important end, namely discerning truth and wisdom, which are of the highest value to us both as scholars and as citizens of a democratic and dynamic society. No person, no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable, has all the answers to the important questions. In allowing open debate and discussion, we not only have the opportunity to defend our views and sharpen our ability to reason, but also to give those who disagree with us the chance to persuade us that we are wrong and they are right, or even just to gain insight into another’s perspective. Without shared discussion of thoughts and ideas, there is no intellectual progress; everyone simply remains intransigent in their current views.

It has always struck me as very strange when students try to shut down debate and prevent students from expressing unpopular or minority beliefs. If one never listens to opposing ideas, then one will be unable to respond to those views with critical arguments that could change their proponents’ minds. In contrast, promoting truly open intellectual debate allows us to create an academic community broader than just groups of like-minded individuals. Discourse is what helps all of us get the most out of Princeton together as an intellectual community.

The benefits of honest debate open to minority and majority opinions alike are clear when we consider the state of politics in Washington today, often decried as toxic and dysfunctional. When we wonder why our leaders cannot seem to debate civilly with one another in order to reach a compromise and pass legislation, we should look at our own behaviors and realize that campus intolerance of different viewpoints does much to contribute to the prevailing closed mode of discourse in American politics. It is quite common to hear American political discussions described as taking place in an “echo chamber” in which each party only appeals to its base and does not readily reach out to the other side with the aim of seeking workable solutions. When we acknowledge diverse viewpoints and encourage their expression, all of society benefits. The university, with its emphasis on the free exchange of ideas, seems the ideal place to start changing the tone of debate in this country. I know from personal experience that this can be done; campus organizations such as the Whig-Cliosophic Society provide many opportunities for students to debate each other respectfully. Now it is time to bring the possibilities for free discussion across campus to include everyone.

Perhaps in reading this article, you are not convinced about the necessity of emphasizing free speech on Princeton’s campus, maybe because you think this is already a given or that the examples I provided of students rejecting opportunities for discussion are unusual outliers or that as a freshman, I lack the credibility to discuss campus culture. Even still, the notion of intellectual freedom is an essential one to the University. Such a core value to academic life should be discussed more prominently during Orientation. We may think that students will learn the alma mater or locomotive cheer simply be attending enough sports games, but still, we are taught them because these reflect distinctive Princeton traditions. We may think it obvious that students will understand their responsibilities regarding sexual assault and respecting campus diversity, but regardless, they are spotlighted because of how central they are to life at Princeton. Free speech and intellectual discourse are similarly essential to Princeton, and I would urge the University to underscore prominently their importance in next year’s Orientation.

Allison Berger is a freshman from Madison, NJ, tentatively majoring in the Economics Department. She can be reached at alberger@princeton.edu.

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