“Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement”

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Last week we wrote about Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber’s criticism of the religious questions posed to federal judge nominee Amy Coney Barrett by Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today we call your attention to Eisgruber’s speech at Princeton’s opening exercises entitled “Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement.”  It is a clear statement of the purpose of a university.

Here is a taste:

Some people have suggested that the University should issue an official statement about Charlottesville, or that I should use this occasion to pass judgment upon President Trump’s comments.  The events and the president’s response troubled me profoundly, and it is tempting to share my thoughts with you in detail.  It is, however, neither my role nor that of the University to prescribe how you should react to this controversy or others.  It is rather my role and the role of the University to encourage you to think deeply about what these events mean for this country and its core values, and to encourage you to find ways to participate constructively in the national dialogue they have generated.

You will find plenty of professors on this campus whose scholarship and erudition will provide you with insight about Charlottesville.  As journalists worldwide have sought to illuminate these events and their aftermath, they have turned to professors here, including Eddie Glaude and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in African American Studies, Lucia Allais in Architecture, David Bell and Kevin Kruse in History, Julian Zelizer in History and Public and International Affairs, Robert George and Keith Whittington in Politics, and Peter Singer in the University Center for Human Values.

I urge you to seek out these and other faculty members, hear what they have to say, and learn from them.  Keep in mind, however, that what they offer are not authoritative pronouncements but arguments backed up by reasons.  It is your responsibility to assess their views for yourself.

This University, like any great university, encourages, and indeed demands, independence of mind.  We expect you to develop the ability to articulate your views clearly and cogently, to contend with and learn from competing viewpoints, and to modify your opinions in light of new knowledge and understanding.  Your Princeton education will culminate in a senior thesis that must both present original research and also contend respectfully with counter-arguments to your position.

This emphasis on independent thinking is at the heart of liberal arts education.  It is a profoundly valuable form of education, and it can be exhilarating.  It can also at times be uncomfortable or upsetting because it requires careful and respectful engagement with views very different from your own.  I have already emphasized that we value pluralism at Princeton; we value it partly because of the vigorous disagreements that it generates.  You will meet people here who think differently than you do about politics, history, justice, race, religion, and a host of other sensitive topics.  To take full advantage of a Princeton education, you must learn and benefit from these disagreements, and to do that you must cultivate and practice the art of constructive disagreement.

Read the entire speech here.

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