Free speech, gender identity, trigger words, critical thinking―all these terms are familiar to American university students today and are especially present in secular universities. On April 6 to April 7, several lectures and panels explored the cause of such terms and the current nature of higher American education.
Titled “The State of American Higher Education, 2018,” the two-day conference took place in the St. Joseph Center on Franciscan University’s campus.
Multiple professors, students and visitors attended nearly all of the lectures, including Catholic graduate students and professors from universities as far as Australia.
Professor Concetta Pilsner of Franciscan University shared the necessity of “balance” between “the proper foundational boundaries of a university’s mission” and academics in universities.
“There’s a focus that guards us against aimlessness,” giving a “common unity” at universities that have defined foundational values, Pilsner said.
Pilsner said, “It’s important that we understand the culture that the Franciscans have created for us here,” and that “we not only learn what we need to know academically but come to know the spirit of the Franciscans.”
Saturday afternoon included a panel on “The Politicization of the American University and the Crisis of Free Speech and Reasoned Academic Discourse.” On the panel were George W. Dent, law professor at Case Western Reserve University; Paul J. Griffiths, warren professor of Catholic theology at Duke University Divinity School; and Caleb Dalton of Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom.
Dent said that free speech is being manipulated on university campuses by “social justice professionals,” or “SJPs.” He described the arousal of stringent free speech regulations on secular campuses as a “social justice industry.” Dent said the industry is managed by SJPs who use minorities and violence to foster aggression and “micro-aggressions” by promoting false fears in students of verbal harassment in classrooms, textbooks and everyday conversations.
“When the only tool you have is a hammer,” said Dent, “every problem looks like a nail.”
Griffiths spoke on the “lack of trust” in American universities today, heightened by technology and manipulation of speech. The result is the “stuntification” of logic and intellectual argument, said Griffiths. There is no such thing as a “private conversation” on American campuses today, Griffiths said, due to the “constraint” on free speech so prevalent in public universities.
Dalton, a member of the Legal Counsel for the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, shared his experiences in cases of defending students’ rights according to the first amendment. The ADF Center works to enlighten the public about their Constitutional rights.
“We can only protect the first amendment if we understand it,” Dalton said.
Closing the conference was Russell J. Snell of The Witherspoon Institute. He proposed that a holistic liberal arts education consists of a formative culture of the arts, texts, food and conversation. He said it is “not enough to have a chaplain” but one needs a “way of life” to look to for academic and personal formation as a great thinker.
Snell shared the necessity of a “story of reverence” to have as a basis for reading the Great Books or other such liberal arts core curriculum. However, “ideas and worldviews just aren’t enough,” said Snell. Tradition, or religion, is essential for constructing a foundation that pursues truth.
“Critical thinking is the task of learning how to avoiding error,” Snell said. “Liberal arts is the task of how to believe rightly, that is, knowing how and what to trust.” He encouraged the formation of students from the beginning―in parishes, communities and circles of friends.
Daniel McNichol, sophomore and Franciscan University student government senator, shared his take on the lectures. He said, “It is important that students should not immediately shut down whenever they hear an opposing viewpoint.”
Rather, McNichol said he learned to “evaluate (the opposing viewpoint) on its merits.” McNichol, president of Franciscan University’s debate club, said even opposing points can be “more valid than our own.”
Other speakers included Benjamin Wiker, professor of political science and human life studies at Franciscan University on “The Collapse of the Liberal Arts and Its Consequences for the American University;” Gerard V. Bradley, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, on “The State of American Catholic Higher Education, 2018;” and William Deresiewicz, former English professor at both Yale and Columbia University who spoke on “The Crisis of the Elite American Universities and Its Cause.”
The conference ended Saturday evening and was sponsored by The Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life of Franciscan University of Steubenville.