Robert P. George
Where do you stand on the issue of affirmative action? What about the relationship between personal privacy and national security? Students taking Professor Robert George’s "Constitutional Interpretation" class face these questions and a host of equally controversial ones. Whatever view they take, they need to be ready to defend it.
“Constitutional Interpretation” is legendary at Princeton. The course has been taught for more than a century, even before Woodrow Wilson taught it in 1890 (although before Wilson, the course had a different name). George’s course stimulates students to explore their deepest beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be an American.
“The course is designed in such a way that students, whether they are coming from left, right or center on these very controversial issues of constitutional interpretation, are challenged,” says George. “I make it a point to elicit from students the very best arguments for the competing perspectives, whether we're talking about the death penalty or abortion or presidential war powers.”
The point of the course, George says, is not to present his own views. Instead, he says, “I want to make sure all my students understand why it is that reasonable, well-informed people of good will can be found on both or all sides of the question.”
He conducts classes using the Socratic method, asking students probing questions about key social, political and ethical issues and requiring that every respondent provide a thorough supporting argument. It isn't hard, he says, to get students to take the discussion seriously.
“As a nation, we are facing difficult ethical issues, from warfare and national security to abortion, euthanasia and scientific research involving the destruction of human embryos.” he explains. “These issues are as profound as they are urgent. As citizens of a democratic republic, Americans should be well informed and fully engaged in the public deliberation of these matters.”
For George, however, tackling these issues does not mean swaying students toward his own opinions, although he’s not reticent about his stance. A leading conservative intellectual, he's a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and formerly served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and a Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States. In addition to teaching in the Department of Politics, he is the founder and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
George says that the arguments he hears from students across the political spectrum are rich and thoughtful. “Princeton undergraduates are so gifted; they're a pleasure to teach,” he says.