May 22, 2017

Campus Solidarity

by Dr. Anthony Esolen

Dear Students:

Unlike many professors here and elsewhere, I am not interested in your political action one way or another, but I am deeply interested in you as human beings. I have expressly written that every single human being is of inestimable value, a unique and unrepeatable image of the almighty and eternal God. Here are my exact words, inspired by my Catholic faith:

Back when Providence     College was a school for local boys who had not the money nor the connections or the right grandparents to attend Brown University, immigrants from Italy, Portugal, French Canada, and Ireland would have been rubbing elbows and occasionally throwing fists, and there was your diversity, ready to hand. If the College were to return to that founding vision, we would now be taking plenty of students of both sexes from the poorer neighborhoods in the state, and again we would have the ethnic diversity as a matter of course, only now the mix would include Haitians, Mexicans, African Americans, and people from the Middle East. But that would compromise our standing as a more than regional school, and a weather eye for their salaries and their prestige would suffice for most of the faculty to rebel against such a policy. Cherchez l’argent.

I have nothing against making sure that when young people come to college, they encounter a real community that fosters their personal and intellectual growth, rather than cold shoulders and shut doors. A youth from Nigeria or Morocco should be welcomed with genuine friendship and openness to what he has experienced of the world beyond our American horizons. It would be wrong to make him feel as if he were an outsider, tolerated graciously at best, and under sufferance at worst—as if he were a Jew at Harvard in 1900, or an orthodox Roman Catholic in 2016.  I’m grateful for students to whom I can ask, “How do you say ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ in Tagalog?” and “What’s it like to live in Lagos?” Meanwhile, I have three millennia of poetry, art, philosophy, theology, and history to teach, and if you are willing to learn, I’m gladly at your service.

The final two sentences of the first paragraph are meant to be bitterly ironic.  I would be happy to serve all of the poor in our own neighborhood; I am a localist at heart.  Not many professors are.

Meanwhile, here is a copy of a letter I sent to the executive Vice President, Father Sicard, before the semester began.  I repeat it here because, though I’m not good at organizing things, some of you students might be, and I guess that if they don’t begin with you, they won’t begin at all.  I think that recent events on campus bear out my instinctive sense that faith, hope, and charity bring people together; mirth and innocent foolishness bring people together; singing and dancing and playing games bring people together; politics does not.  Here it is.  I would dearly love to see some of what I’ve mentioned become a reality for you.  If any student wishes to speak with me about these matters or anything else, I will be delighted to meet you, any time I’m at school:

Dear Father Sicard,

Apropos of feeling welcome:

I believe that many students leaving home for the first time and arriving at college are very lonely; and this is not a political but a human problem.  When I arrived at Princeton at age 18, I had never known a rich person in my life, never met someone who had gone to a boarding school, never known what “crew” was, never eaten at a Chinese or a Mexican restaurant, did not know what a country club was all about, never met an atheist or even an agnostic, and so on.  I was also shy, and if it hadn’t been for good luck—I was assigned a room with two fine roommates, in an “entryway” with 24 other freshmen, most of whom were nice people —I don’t know what I would have done.

I have many hard things to say about Princeton, but there were some things there that Providence College lacks that helped enormously in bringing students together.  None of them were led by the administration.  They were natural, by-the-way things.  Every weekend there were four or five movies showing.  All of the “eating clubs” had pool tables and ping pong tables.  There was plenty of open green space for pick-up games of this or that.  The Gothic archways provided great acoustics for the eight or nine A cappella singing groups, who would just show up under one of them, about once a week, and regale passersby with songs.  There were places on campus for performances by bands organized by students.  One thing that there should have been— dances.  At Benedictine College in Kansas, a place I’ve visited recently, there is a swing dance EVERY WEEK, and other dances also—square dancing, waltzes, and so on.  At Christendom College there are intramural sports all the time—and you don’t have to book things months in advance.

People become friends not as the result of a friends-program, but by the way, when they come together in something that they enjoy, or when they are united by what means a great deal to them, such as their faith.  Faith wasn’t prominent at Princeton, but it could certainly be more prominent at Providence College: I mean “prominent” in its etymological sense—leaning forward, visible, standing out.

In general, I believe students when they tell me that there is very little for them to do on our campus.  Nor do I think it is at all fair to sneer at them, as some of my colleagues do, and say that they should go out and explore the city.  A lot of people don’t like cities, and in any case to say “go out to Weybosset Street” does not address the issue.  You do not want the students to have to plan and work hard and muster transportation so as to attend something among crowds of strangers downtown.  You want them not to have to plan at all, but just to be on campus, on a campus active enough so that they would find it hard to AVOID the various wholesome and human things going on.

I think that these things are “political” in the old and true sense of the word: they have to do with people living in a free and self-governing community.  Beyond that, though, I don’t see that it helps to address loneliness by means of politics, which has a way of making enemies out of people who might have been friends.  I’m not saying that is what your committee is now doing.  I am just wary of what might be.  I’d suggest very strongly that professors have less to do with these matters, and that the chaplains and the friars have more.  Professors are not particularly good at spreading amity.  A softball team would do better; a skeet-shooting club; a Risk tournament; a boxing club; anything but professors.  I will say that if any professors could do a good job, Bill Hogan and Laurie Grupp can.  But I think that ten game rooms would be better.  When people are really welcome, they forget themselves; they do not feel as if they were on a stage or under a spotlight or at a podium.

God bless your work, and best wishes for a peaceful remainder of the summer.

Tony Esolen

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