At this Monday’s Collection in the Quaker Meeting House, Swarthmore students have an obligation to listen to one another.
After last spring’s divisive protests, Robert George ’77 reached out to the Swarthmore President’s Office to offer an idea. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton—and one of the most prolific conservatives in academia—has experience teaching a popular Princeton seminar with friend and colleague Cornel West, a professor of African American Studies and the Honorary Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. George and West proposed to visit campus and share their insights from years of teaching together, despite their profound ideological differences. Their co-moderated discussion, titled “The Bond of Truth-Seeking,” is designed to inspire students to work through their disagreements, while still engaging tough questions about the liberal arts, justice, and morality.
Before the main collection scheduled for Monday afternoon, a smaller cohort of students will convene in workshops to practice the sort of discussion that George and West say has thrived at Princeton. Those who signed up just received their pre-workshop reading assignment: Plato’s Apology, the famous account of Socrates’ defense for daring to disagree. Truly, students and faculty who care about Socratic dialogue and free inquiry ought to give the George/West event a chance.
Many students have raised objections to George’s presence on campus, given his role in founding the National Organization for Marriage and his other socially conservative advocacy. George is an orthodox Catholic and, among many things, a philosopher of “new natural law.” In short, he’s interested in a revival of traditional Thomastic thinking that emphasizes “first principles” and, when applied to current issues, opposes gay marriage, abortion, and non-conjungal sex. While George’s outspoken social conservatism is unusual in academia—and certainly controversial—we do not believe it should be grounds for preventing his role in Monday’s Collection. Actively preventing George’s ability to speak would only further undermine our efforts to come together as a campus.
Further, because George’s legitimacy as a scholar has come under fire, we feel it necessary to emphasize that George’s constitutional thought and natural law theories have been taught in some of our own Swarthmore classes, and George has served as an external examiner for the Honors program. As an endowed chair at Princeton and visiting professor at Harvard Law School, George is incredibly active in the world of academia. If Swarthmore students cannot handle listening to him for one afternoon, we will be the ones who fall outside the bounds of academic respect, not George.
Uncivil disruption risks confirming the notion that Swarthmore is “too radical” to conduct true academic debate. Of course, students are free to question George—and West for that matter!—about controversial political positions during the morning’s workshops or the question-and- answer period. So long as protests do not actively interfere with the speakers’ and audience’s ability to freely listen and engage, we have no problem with students who wish to picket outside the meeting house, participate in a boycott, or offer up other examples of peaceful dissent. If social media is any clue, some students are toying the idea with a more forceful disruption. We urge them to reconsider.
The Independent calls upon our fellow students and the administration to uphold the principles of academic discourse in Monday’s Collection. Let’s follow Socrates’ example.