Myles McKnight ‘23
Editor’s Note: Though the author of the following commentary is a part-time employee of Princetonians for Free Speech, the perspective below is his alone and does not reflect the views of PFS.
Many Princetonians have been paying attention to a recent controversy concerning Near Eastern Studies Professor Satyel Larson’s Fall 2023 course entitled The Healing Humanities — Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South. The controversy centers on Professor Larson’s inclusion of the book “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” on her syllabus. Authored by Jasbir Puar, the book is controversial for its claim that the Israeli government intends the mass debilitation of Palestinians.
Princetonians for Free Speech has posted on its website links to various responses from among the Princeton community concerning the academic freedom rights of Professor Larson. I trust readers to explore those materials as they see fit. They come in the midst of heightened scrutiny on Professor Larson and on our University: various media outlets have criticized the course and even an Israeli government minister has written to President Eisgruber asking that the book be removed from Larson’s syllabus.
Here I offer my commentary on three important responses to the controversy: one issued by the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), an undergraduate student group; one by the Center for Jewish Life (CJL); and one by the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), an undergraduate group with which followers of PFS will no doubt be familiar.
As I look back on my time as a Princeton undergraduate, I struggle to recall an instance when I agreed with the Alliance of Jewish Progressives. They are not known to support the culture of robust debate that academic freedom bolsters. Just last semester, many AJP members vocally protested the Center for Jewish Life’s sponsorship of a talk given by Ronen Shoval regarding the recent Israeli judicial reform. And in 2017, the same group bullied the CJL into canceling a talk to be given by Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s then-Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the basis of their disdain for her politics.
But hell has frozen over. The AJP’s letter—signed by over 300 Princeton community members—is, on its face at least, an unqualified defense of Professor Larson’s right to include Puar’s book on her syllabus. The thrust of the AJP’s letter is this: “[T]o suggest that Princeton students and faculty should not study controversial texts represents an attack on the very mandate of the University, which is to create an environment in which we wrestle with and question ideas, including—it should go without saying—some of the most pressing issues of our time.”
What explains the AJPs sudden turn from a history of shutting down discourse to ostensible support for Larson’s academic freedom? Has the AJP seen the light and changed its mind about the value of vigorous debate, or are they using academic freedom as a fig leaf to platform progressivism (and only progressivism)? Do they care about power or principle? Only time will tell.
The AJP’s pro-academic freedom statement stands in contrast to the approach taken by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ‘91, director of the CJL. Rabbi Steinlauf wrote to Department of Near Eastern Studies chair Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi and to Professor Larson asking that they “reconsider the impact of this text and to explore alternative ways to teach the course without including an author whose rhetoric and writing have deeply hurt many in the Jewish community, and could do real harm to Jewish students on our campus.”
This is an approach we should condemn. Though Rabbi Steinlauf rightly affirmed Larson’s right to construct her syllabus with autonomy, one is left wondering what the point of dragging the department chair into the mess was. Asking departmental administrators to involve themselves in the revision of syllabi based on nothing more than a disdain for the content of books or articles is a miserably unwise strategy, for obvious reasons.
More shocking, however, is Steinlauf’s concern with the “impact” and the potential “real harm” done by including certain texts in syllabi. This sort of concern should be like nails on the chalkboard to supporters of academic freedom. If the books in question are offensive, provocative, or incendiary, their arguments should be dismissed only after evaluation of their merits in an academically rigorous way. Princeton students should not be coddled or treated like delicate, fragile toddlers. Some arguments—like Puar’s in my view—are bad, offensive arguments. But Princeton’s Jewish community should not be shielded from criticism of the State of Israel (even if misleading) on the basis that it hurts feelings.
The leaders of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition have issued their own statement on the controversy. But a close reading of the statement leaves readers with uncomfortable questions about the academic freedom philosophy the group now defends. Though the POCC affirms Larson’s right to include the book in her syllabus, the group’s statement is rife with qualifications that obscure an important distinction. This distinction is between, on the one hand, reasonable constraints on administrative power vis-a-vis professorial discretion, and on the other, the moral/ethical/pedagogical obligations professors take on when doing their part to form critically-thinking students.
Consider the very first paragraph of the POCC’s statement, the final sentence of which reads: “[T]he POCC contends that while present critiques of the course are within the bounds of open discourse, all Princeton professors are entitled to full academic freedom if they abide by the University’s...commitment to viewpoint diversity.” To be sure, professors have an ethical and pedagogical obligation to respect viewpoint diversity in designing their syllabi. And they certainly have an obligation not to violate the free speech rights of their students as outlined in Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities. But the academic freedom of individual professors is not conditioned on meeting this ethical responsibility, at least in the way the POCC suggests.
The obvious implication of the POCC’s suggestion is that it would be permissible for the university (or department) to intervene in Professor Larson’s teaching if she failed to meet her responsibility to present a sufficiently diverse curation of materials. While in principle it could be acceptable for the university to enforce “viewpoint diversity” in this way, in practice the prospect is very scary. The potential for abuse is high. Who decides what amount of “viewpoint diversity” is sufficient? Are we to have any confidence that the university administration, let alone departmental administrations, would not sophistically use “viewpoint diversity” as a pretext for silencing heterodoxy? It is safer, in my view, to give professors, most of whom do still take the truth-seeking mission seriously, freedom to design syllabi as they see fit and to allow public and open criticism of pedagogical decisions to unfold without university bureaucracies weighing in.
To be sure, the POCC is right to assert that criticism of pedagogical decisions like Larson’s is within the bounds of open discourse. I would commend this assertion more strongly had the authors distinguished between (1) what is considered “within” the bounds of open discourse (almost everything falls within these bounds), and (2) what criticisms are within the bounds of pro-academic freedom discourse. Critics should take care that they do not participate in a clamor of the sort that pressures professors to refrain from presenting ideas simply out of fear of reproach.
Finally, let me add my own thoughts about the “must-present-both-sides-of-the argument” approach taken by the POCC.
Of course, professors like Larson have a pedagogical responsibility to refrain from indoctrinating their students. Their responsibility is to spur critical, unaffected, and intellectually meticulous engagement with whatever question(s) presented in their courses. It is important to note that the precise specification of the question(s), not the subject matter in a vague sense, will inform the proper curation of materials to be discussed in class.
For example: the question “should same-sex marriage be legalized?” demands consideration of various points of view and frameworks of analysis. A Professor would fail to meet her pedagogical duties if she presented only materials in favor of same-sex marriage. But not all questions about same-sex marriage invite consideration of arguments for and against the practice. The question “how have social progressives relied on social science-based arguments to defend same-sex marriage?” invites consideration of argumentative techniques, and not necessarily of the conservative viewpoint on same-sex marriage except to the extent it elucidates the ways in which social science has been used to defend same-sex marriage. However—and this is a fanatical “however”—a professor exploring the latter question with her students would fail in her pedagogical duties by smuggling into the discussion normative judgments about same-sex marriage, leaving no room for the serious consideration of competing perspectives that is proper to evaluating them. Very often, such smuggling occurs.
We simply do not yet know the nature of the inquiry Professor Larson will be undertaking with her students in their reading of Puar’s book, so no assessment of her pedagogical success or failure can be made. Still, the lively discussion about the course and Professor Larson’s academic freedom rights raises difficult questions, and the various responses highlighted here should spur our community to think more deeply about the requirements, practical and principled, of the truth-seeking mission.
Myles McKnight ’23, former president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, is a part-time Program Associate for PFS.