In an otherwise thoughtful essay, Evan Thomas complains that “at elite schools like Princeton, academe has been so constricted and warped by political correctness and specialization that students are ... typically left wrestling with jargon and abstractions like ‘agency’ or dully pondering the evils wrought by ‘patriarchal hegemony’” (Perspective, March 19).
As a politically incorrect guy who has taught politics at Princeton (I was editor-in-chief of The Princeton Tory 1989-1990, and was a lecturer in the politics department 2002–2004), I find this an odd claim. It obviously cannot be motivated by a dislike for abstractions as such, for a few sentences earlier, Mr. Thomas had praised the investigation of “truth and beauty, right and wrong.” Nor can it be motivated by an aversion to jargon as such, for elsewhere Mr. Thomas writes easily of “plebes,” “cadets,” “B-17s,” “IEDs,” and “PTSD.” The problem, such as it is, must derive from the problematic nature of “agency” and “patriarchal hegemony.” But what is the problem supposed to be?
“Patriarchal hegemony” denotes the power wielded, typically in violation of justice, by father figures. I would have thought that the concept was indispensable to understanding the predicament of women in the Islamic world, and by implication, to understanding the Islamic world itself. The restoration of patriarchal hegemony is at the center of the contemporary Islamist agenda; students would profit from knowing why that’s the case.
As for “agency,” it denotes the capacity to initiate and take responsibility for goal-directed action. For a concrete example of agency relevant to the topic of “warriors and poets,” consider the letter of Will Bardenwerper ’98 in the same issue of PAW as Mr. Thomas’ essay. It begins: “As a Princeton graduate who voluntarily left his financial job in Manhattan to serve as an infantry officer in the Army for the past four and a half years ... .” The key word here is “voluntarily,” and it nicely highlights what “agency” looks like in practice — neither abstract nor a matter of jargon.
I would suggest that Princeton students continue to wrestle with “abstractions like agency” and ponder “the evils wrought by patriarchal hegemony.” It’s surprising how much light those two concepts shed on events taking place on the front lines of the current war, and how much one misses if one ignores them.
Browsing Letters 2007-2008