Student Spotlight: Sahar Tartak

Fixating on our differences ignores American progress

“I worry that we’re teaching a generation of leaders what to think, rather than how to think. This stifles creativity and puts us into (inaccurate) boxes.”

“When dissidents are shunned as ‘racist,’ we lose the precious viewpoint diversity that this country is founded upon and weaken our ability to form a more perfect union through rigorous debate.”

Sahar Tartak

School: Yale University

Major: Ethics, Politics, and Economics

You have been pushing back against some of the divisive teachings included in Critical Race Theory (CRT) curriculum and other Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs since you were in high school. What are your concerns?

Many high schools and colleges have embraced race essentialism in their teachings, which according to the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism involves “fixating on our differences and presenting a skewed, negative version of history that focuses on flaws and failings and mostly ignores the success and progress our nation has made.”

On that note, I worry that we’re teaching a generation of leaders what to think, rather than how to think. This stifles creativity and puts us into (inaccurate) boxes. Is it really fair to, say, call someone a “racist oppressor” in this country if they grew up poor or if their family escaped racist persecution to be here? And, even if it is fair, do we want to teach students that they cannot debate what’s presented to them and are evil for doing so? Dialogue forces us to come up with more rigorous answers by challenging what we say. When we give up dialogue and just accept what we’re told, we can end up with loose, inaccurate ideas that stifle necessary progress.

In a Wall Street Journal op ed, you used the word “agitprop” to describe the aggressive push for these race-based teachings in our education system. What are the historical implications of that word and why do you think it applies?

When one of my friends saw the race-essentialist slideshow presentation being taught to students in a high school English class, he told me that it reminded him of his mother’s education under a communist regime in China. The presentation ended in an ideological pledge that students were pressured to take. That is to say that ideological pledges are unacceptable and antithetical to our pluralistic country. When dissidents are shunned, for instance, as “racist,” we lose the precious viewpoint diversity that this country is founded upon and weaken our ability to form a more perfect union through rigorous debate. Instead, we become a place where opposing viewpoints are punished.

How has your family’s history and values shaped your view of America and its culture of free speech?

My mother escaped Revolutionary Iran, and my grandfather escaped the Nazis. They were both at great risk for being Jewish. Here, they were accepted with open arms. Sure, they faced hardship as immigrants, but they were ultimately allowed to practice their religion and express themselves freely. That right is invaluable; it is exactly what they were stripped of under the Nazis and the Ayatollah. I believe in protecting free expression staunchly in both our laws and in our culture.

Do you think free speech is being taught and reinforced in college? Was it even mentioned at your Freshman Orientation at Yale?

Actually, it was! We received an orientation presentation at Yale that outlined the opportunity to bring in controversial speakers to school and discouraged shouting down speakers. The resources for the process of bringing in a speaker (and holding a non-disruptive counter-protest) were presented to us. The university’s president, Peter Salovey, also delivered a speech to the freshman class and our parents on the importance of speech and dialogue in our campus culture. That is to say that the school is making an important effort, though we have room for improvement.

In a Fox News interview, you talked about the “silent support” that exists among students who want a real education and not indoctrination. How would you encourage them to speak up in college and eventually in the public arena? Any advice?

My advice would be to know your facts/philosophies surrounding the importance of inquiry and dialogue as well as whatever you’ll be debating. Additionally, know your rights─ look to groups like Speech First and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression─ and cultivate educational allies (check out the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, where I serve as a fellow). Organizations like these can and will help you. So will other people who share in your viewpoint and commitment to free speech!

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