Edited By John Grennan
Speaker's Visit Sparks Seminar Discussion on College's Role
Over the course of its 146-year history, Saint Mary's has encouraged students to draw from Catholic and liberal arts traditions when analyzing the world they inhabit. The College introduces each generation of new students to insights from ancient Greek philosophers, Catholic Church leaders and contemporary thinkers who challenge prevailing economic and social conditions. Through the Seminar Program, students enter into conversation with Aristotle and Karl Marx, Martin Luther and Machiavelli.
Reconciling Seminar's intellectual traditions sometimes produces conflict, as when University of Illinois-Chicago education professor and former Weather Underground radical
Bill Ayers spoke on campus on Jan. 28. Some Saint Mary's community members commended the College for allowing Ayers to discuss his efforts to make inner-city public schools more responsive to the poorest Americans. Others rebuked the College because of Ayers' previous leadership of an organization that protested the Vietnam War by bombings. The Ayers event sparked a new round of discussions about how Saint Mary's fulfills its educational mission. On Feb. 24, Saint Mary's hosted a Seminar with eight alumni who had contacted the College with questions or opinions about the Ayers visit. Professor Ted '62 facilitated the 90-minute session, which included Chuck Delgado '03, Father Patrick LaBelle '61, Mark Murray '67,
Janine Ogando '89, Ernest Pierucci '72, Sean Riordan '90, Linde Haskins '06 and Jim Wood '70. As with all Seminar discussions at Saint Mary's, the group began by examining a text. In this case, the text was the Saint Mary's mission statement (www.stmarys-ca.edu/mission-statement). Following are excerpts from the conversation.
Pierucci: What is important about the mission statement is that it identifies a particular epistemology and a particular anthropology. It is not simply a group of words thrown together, it is meant to follow a tradition ... The purpose of the College is to affirm and foster the Christian understanding of the human person which
animates the educational mission of the Catholic Church.
Wood: [Saint Mary's] continues to grow and evolve over the course of time in a way that is open to all thoughts and ideas. That to me is what distinguishes Saint Mary's as a Catholic institution, and in a way Ayers provided us an opportunity to discuss this.
Haskins: Having [Ayers] here presenting such a radical view on opposing violence and opposing the Vietnam War, I think that provides a valuable lesson for students on what to do or not to do. And I was so proud to see the protestors on campus, whether some were acceptable and some were not. He had the right to speak and we had the right to protest.
Ogando: As a person of a different generation, I had heard the name Bill Ayers but I did not know what the big controversy was and had to do some research. I became aware that some people argue that he is not connected with any of the murders, while others say he was. Some talk about the ends justifying the means and state that because of him, 500,000 lives were saved. ... To know who we are and what we believe, we should learn everything that we can so we can either accept or reject it, in the meantime becoming better and more knowledgeable. As constant learners, we have to look at everything to consider it. Otherwise we are just take the truth for what somebody tells us it is.
Father LaBelle: We may not like [someone like] Mr. Ayers, but we need to look at his ideas. The Lasallian tradition has a real passion for educating the poor. [Ayers] is an expert in dealing with poor children and the inner-city, and he was coming to speak to them about that issue, not about war-related issues.
Pierucci: Ayers wasn't presented seriously enough. ... Did we just take a guy who was a lightning rod ... because people such as Sarah Palin didn't like [him] and therefore he is a person who can get some controversy going? And then we spent students' money on him and all he did was tell you what you could find by punching him in on YouTube?.... Was he asked to say anything different at Saint Mary's College than he says any place else? ... The reason I don't think Bill Ayers should have be here first and foremost is because I don't think he is academically good enough for this institution.
Delgado: I thought of two particular authors that I had to read as part of the Integral Program - Karl Marx and Nietzsche. They are lightning rods. They directly oppose Catholic ideology. If the notion is that we have impressionable college students ... what else do we look at in terms of not only speakers, but texts that we give in the core (curriculum)?
Riordan: I think the students go here because of the education that they receive. ... It seems to me that it should never be the university's or the college's intention to get speakers that are merely lightning rods. Having a person at a college is categorically different than the text that we read. I can look at a text from a more objective standpoint because of its historical position. But to bring someone who is alive and who has not atoned for any such actions is a different situation.
Pierucci: If you can find the young Nietzsche and young Marx and bring them here and sit them in a room with philosophy professor Stephen Cortright and talk with them, I will pay whatever price of admission there is. In every great error there is great truth, and it is worth it to listen to find that truth.
Murray: There is this kind of dichotomy about Ayers as an academic or Ayers as a representative of a time in history. There is a lot of myth around Bill Ayers. In the [Saint Mary's] mission statement, there is a notion that there is truth, and part of our task as humans is to discover that. Where does Ayers fit into that context? This is an opportunity for us to look at someone who had a set of ideas, who had a perceived truth and pursued that, and that pursuit led him to certain set of actions. How did he think? How did he get there? That is how we can learn.
Pierucci: Ayers was paid to come here and say the same things he said at the last five or six places. If we are serious about first of all what Bill Ayers has to say, ... we would have had a respondent up there who is schooled in the tradition who could have made him put his anthropological premises on the table.
Father LaBelle: The liberal arts here open up the world of reason for us, show us what's out there, help us to get everything as critically and as well as we possibly can. The faith part of our education helps us develop a way of receiving that information. It requires of us a life of virtue, especially the virtue of prudence.
Wood: The key word in describing the Catholic tradition is liberty - liberty to explore between thoughts, ideas, morality and freedom, law and wisdom. Whenever we start talking about qualifications for admission to express ideas, we lose the liberty of that tradition.
Haskins: As a Christian myself, I always look at this topic of forgiveness, and ask does forgiveness include giving someone a podium to speak out? Does that include promoting them? Does that include allowing them to have some sort of a public forum without having a balance to that, or does that include forgiving them as a person and allowing that to be the relationship between them and God?
Tsukahara: It is part of our tradition to hear [different] voices. There might be a need to have balance in voices. In the books we read, we talked about one set of voices on the extreme, but we also have voices such as Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. ... There is also a strong theme in the Church documents in the modern time of fostering dialogue. If you are going to spend your time talking to yourself, then you don't learn anything new.
Ogando: We have to strive for the integration of all knowledge, to quest for truth. That is what the Catholic part of the mission wants us to do and needs us to get to. We have to evaluate everything in full so that we can consider it ourselves. Otherwise we are just accepting someone else's truth. The students are old enough to be able to evaluate the truth, a controversial figure and difficult issues. Part of education is our giving them various experiences to consider and to allow them figure out what the truth is.
Wood: We are the beneficiaries of a Saint Mary's College education. We can think critically about this and bring our life experiences to it. We can walk away disagreeing [with someone] about everything he said, but respect that what he said was thoughtful.