I appreciate this article for several reasons, not the least of which is that it captures well part of what I experienced at Princeton as a graduate student from 2000-07. I had the good fortune of arriving on campus the same year that the James Madison Program debuted, and while I came primarily to study with Robert George, I also sat at the proverbial feet of a host of thinkers, formally and informally, liberal, conservative, and difficult-to-classify. The Madison Program brought in a different set of fellows each year, and still does, without hewing to a narrow ideologically conservative line. And yet that infusion of fresh blood onto campus each year led to scores of intellectual feasts as there were JMP events, co-sponsored events with the University Center for Human Values, partnerships with the politics department, and opportunities of all sorts for a deeper sort of genuine pluralism that is vanishingly rare on elite campuses. “We practice what they preach,” was a mantra of the JMP, and if one peruses the archives one will certainly find plenty of conservative speakers of various stripes, but also a significant number of progressives and outright leftists.
Of course there were disappointing moments. For me perhaps the most significant marker of one understanding of “conservative” is the rather stark difference between a 1941 telegram featured in Frist reprinting President Dodds’ message to President Roosevelt immediately following Pearl Harbor “pledging unqualifiedly” Princeton’s support to the war effort on the one hand and a (then) Woodrow Wilson School sponsored panel following 9/11 at which the theme seemed to be that what happened was our fault. And of course I encountered views I found strange, even at times offensive, both in and out of the classroom.
But that’s part of why I came to Princeton: to work with the brightest minds in the world thinking and reasoning and arguing (not quarreling!) about the things that matter most. That I could do so with like-minded figures like George, Deneen, and Whittington, who didn’t think I was irrational for my religious and moral convictions, was a blessing. That I could be challenged robustly while respectfully by professors like Stephen Macedo and George Kateb was a privilege. That’s what was so exciting about studying when I was there. I could be seated next to Peter Singer listening to him challenge a pro-choice Georgetown ethicist’s reservations about abortion-as-art one evening, witnessing a debate between Jeffrey Stout and John Finnis another afternoon, and sit with a very diverse group of graduate students shooting questions rapid-fire at Justice Scalia not long after Bush v. Gore. I fervently hope Princeton has not lost the confidence it once had to play host to these robust conversations. They are desperately needed by liberals and conservatives, those of religious conviction and those of none, and all creeds and colors.