Friday, November 20, 2015

The Princeton protests: a war on Naming

Another protest event at an American university is in the news. This time, it's at Princeton University, an Ivy League school whose history extends back to 1746, making it one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States (there's a dimwitted argument still going on between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, with regard to which is older). And because of that, its students, faculty, and administrators have seen it all; the school has been there through good times and bad. It's alumni include Presidents, a First Lady, Supreme Court Justices, famous actors and writers, scientists responsible for ground-breaking research, and titans of industry and commerce.

Like all colleges, Princeton has seen its share of student-led protests. The latest one occurred just two days ago when a group of students filled Nassau Hall and the offices of the university president, refusing to leave until their demands were met. Yesterday, the student group and the university president—Christopher Eisgruber—reached an agreement in this regard and the protest came to a quick end. The list of demands:
WE DEMAND the university administration publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture. We also demand that steps be made to rename Wilson residential college, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and any other building named after him. Furthermore, we would like the mural of Wilson to be removed from Wilcox Dining Hall. 
WE DEMAND cultural competency training for all staff and faculty. It was voted down on the grounds of trespassing freedom of speech last spring semester. We demand a public conversation, which will be student led and administration supported, on the true role of freedom of speech and freedom of intellectual thought in a way that does not reinforce anti-Blackness and xenophobia. We demand classes on the history of marginalized peoples (for example, courses in the Department for African American Studies) be added to the list of distribution requirements. Learning about marginalized groups, their cultures, and structures of privilege is just as important as any science or quantitative reasoning course. We propose that this requirement be incorporated into the Social Analysis requirement. 
WE DEMAND a cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to Black students, and that space can be within the Carl A. Fields Center but should be clearly marked. The naming of this space should be at the student's’ discretion in order to avoid naming it after a white benefactor or person with bigoted beliefs, as evidenced by the naming of Stanhope Hall.
The student group behind the demands is the Black Justice League (which sound like a reference to Earth-23 of DC Comics' multiverse), which apparently formed in response to the events in Ferguson last year. From the group's "About" section of Facebook:
A coalition of students from Princeton University, standing in solidarity with Ferguson and dismantling racism on our campus.
But the above list of demands seems a far cry from the events in Ferguson, to put it mildly. After all, we're talking about an Ivy League school here, one with fairly high academic requirements for admission and with exceedingly high tuition costs, as well. One would think a group of intelligent, concerned activists could manage something a little more significant than renaming buildings and stripping away murals as grounds for a university takeover.

Maybe that's a little unfair, though. Forgetting the first demand, which is at its root simply aesthetics, what about the other two? The second contains this humdinger of a line:
Learning about marginalized groups, their cultures, and structures of privilege is just as important as any science or quantitative reasoning course.
That's the kind of claim that I think far too many people will simple nod their heads in agreement with, because they want to seem enlightened and aware, or at least not catch heat for questioning it. But at best, it's a subjective claim, because what's important to some is not necessarily what's important to others. At worst, it's just not true. The point of getting a higher education is, of course, to increase one's knowledge base and to better prepare one for the future. Knowing more about marginalized groups can be a good thing, but it's hardly a primary thing, as compared to knowing basic scientific principles and knowing how to use basic mathematics to solve problems.

Regardless, here is the Social Analysis requirement at Princeton. There is more than enough room under this umbrella to accommodate students interested in studying marginalized groups. Mandating the requirement necessarily limits the options of students not interested in such courses. What's the point? The achieve a moment for self-congratulatory back-slapping because such a change was successfully forced down the throat of the school? Brilliant. And people wonder why students in the United Sates are lagging behind students in other advanced nations when it comes to skill sets and professional readiness.

The third demand is, in my opinion, the worst of the the three. It's essentially a demand for segregation, insofar as the student protesters expect the school to have a separate "cultural space" for Black students. It's a ridiculous demand, but one that will likely be filled by the administration, because it's easy to accomplish. And of course, to make sure that it can't be accused of playing favorites among "marginalized groups," Princeton is going to need "cultural spaces" for Asian students, Hispanic students, Native American students, and Pacific Islander students, not to mention ones for female students, homosexual students, transgender students, and of course dumbass students.

And note the importance attached to the naming of the space: it cannot be named after a white person or a person with bigoted beliefs (nevermind that pretty much everyone has bigoted beliefs in one way or another). Because apparently, naming is critical, naming is somehow definitional. In that regard, I am reminded of a tale about a Chinese emperor and the Confucian doctrine of the Rectification of Names. I've detailed it previously:
There's a great fable about a Chinese Emperor who was having problems with a particular river that kept flooding. The river was named "The Wild One." In order to combat the flooding problem, the Emperor had a most novel idea: he would rename the river "The Quiet One."

In the traditions of Chinese philosophy, this technique is a perversion of the Confucian doctrine, the Rectification of Names. Essentially, Confucius argued that it was of vital importance that names were "correct," that they carried the truth of what something was, when they were descriptive in any way (proper names obviously do not fit this bill). Thus, of a mountain were to be named "Long Mountain," it really should be long. And if an office were to be called "the office of bridge building," the office-holder really should be concerned with building bridges. Simply stuff, right?

The name-changing Chinese Emperor sought to "rectify" the thing, itself, by changing its name (instead of the other way around), a name that was properly descriptive.

Did it work? Of course not. The river's flooding was as bad as ever. Of course, we might speculate that travelers--looking at a map with a river called "the Quiet One" on it--felt more at ease during their journey...right up until the point that they drowned in a flash flood.
What's going on here is little different, from the demands to strip Wilson's name from the school, to the demand for changing requirements, to the demand for race-specific "cultural space." The students are ignorantly focused on changing labels as a means to change cultural. I would humbly suggest that they all need to keep at their studies, because so far their intellectual prowess isn't particularly impressive, no matter how noble their goals might be (or might not be).

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