My message to students in my course on Civil Liberties at Princeton

Published Date: February 9, 2021 | Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties

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By Robert George

Dear Enrollees in Politics 316: Civil Liberties —

Welcome to our course. The precepting team and I look forward to exploring with you the broad range of principles, issues, and arguments that are its substance.

Precepts [discussion sections] are a bit longer than is typical in Princeton courses: 1 hour and 20 minutes. This will enable us to dig deeply into the complex and difficult issues we will be addressing. Precept participation is important. Please be an active participant in the discussions. The virtual format presents challenges, to be sure, but don’t let it deter you from contributing to the conversations.

Please don’t be reluctant to speak your mind! Even if you hold an unpopular view, please be willing to share and defend it. Also, please be willing to be “devil’s advocate” on behalf of views that you do not hold, or aren’t sure whether you should hold. By robustly defending a controversial position to see whether, in the end, it can be successfully defended, or how far it can be defended, you will be doing all of us in the course a service.

On freedom of speech in our discussions, please see the statement on the syllabus referencing Princeton University’s free speech policies set forth in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities. Princeton students and faculty enjoy the broadest possible free speech protections in all courses and other university activities, but surely free speech should be especially sacrosanct in a course on civil liberties! At the same time, we value civility–but that does not mean or require that anyone hold or decline to hold any particular view, or that one submit to anyone else’s ideas about the language in which issues are to be framed, or the terms in which they are to be discussed, or the assumptions on which the dicussion will proceed. What it does mean and require is that we all do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse–a currency consisting of evidence, reasons, and arguments.

Some of the issues we will be discussing are not only controversial, but also sensitive and, to some people, personal. We nevertheless need to discuss them frankly. As Dean Jill Dolan says, we need to be “resilient and brave” in discussing matters that engage our emotions. One thing I can guarantee is this:  Whatever your political, moral, religious, and other opinions happen to be, you will encounter in our readings and discussions challenges to them. You may even be offended or scandalized by what some authors or some participants in the course believe and say. Please bear in mind that, as Cornel West has stated, “the very point of a liberal arts education is to disturb and unsettle us.” I have deliberately chosen readings representing radically opposed positions on the issues we explore. There is not an official position in the course about who is right and who is wrong about anything. All positions and points of view, no matter how radical or even unjust or immoral they may seem to people who oppose them, are on the table for discussion, scrutiny, and assessment on equal terms. There is no orthodoxy in the course; there are no dogmas. There is no censorship or policing of thought. I hope there will be no self-censorship.

My philosophy of teaching is straightforward and rather simple: My job is not to tell students what to think, or induce or encourage them to think as I do; it is, rather, to help students to think more deeply, more critically, and for themselves. What I ask of students is open-mindedness, tolerance of those whose opinions differ from yours, a willingness not only to challenge others but to be challenged in turn, and a genuine and deep desire to learn–and to learn by seriously engaging authors and fellow students whose ideas differ, even radically differ, from your own.

There is never a bad time to study and think hard about civil liberties; but this is an especially good time–indeed, an exciting time. We are in the midst of massive national disagreements about issues having to do with freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, due process of law, the equal protection of the laws, and more. In my opinion, though it need not be yours, some of these disagreements do not admit of obvious or straightforward answers, no matter how certain partisans on the competing sides are of the righteousness of their causes. In any case, I hope that our deliberations together will enable us all to be better, more constructive participants in the debates, no matter where we come down in them.

Best wishes,

Professor George

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