Sunday, July 6, 2008
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
After The Observer at Boston College received a letter to the editor from the directors of The Vagina Monologues, I realized that I was going to need to respond for the sake of dialogue.
First, the directors are correct in critiquing my article when I wrote that they agreed to “help put on” The Jeweler’s Shop. At the event, if I remember correctly, Ms. Riley and some members of the cast sitting in the front row whose names I do not know said that “we should have” (or similar words) it at BC. I took “we” to mean that some of the cast members were going to help with the event. After receiving the e-mail, I conferred with others I know who were in the audience, and they said that they took “we” to mean “we the BC community” and that my interpretation was wrong. I admit my error.
After my article was submitted for the last issue, I had a thought about on a more diversified panel. The directors say that they invited over ten professors to speak on the panel. I have heard people say that such a statement is unbelievable, as surely someone would sit on the panel. Not only does this uncharitably assume that the directors are liars, I do know that one professor was invited but had a prior commitment that evening and submitted other names as suggestions.
I wonder if professors have fears of speaking against the play if they are not tenured. To speak in favor of the play is to speak in favor of maintaining the status quo. To speak against is to claim that the university is doing something wrong. This is position professors may not want to be in. If, God-forbid, the play is still being performed on campus in five years, maybe a professor on staff now who receives tenure between now and then will come forward. In the meantime, maybe two students who are opposed to the play could sit on the panel.
The meat of the directors’ letter to the editor was on what it means to be a Catholic institution. The mistake that the directors make is confuse catholic with Catholic. The definition used for the word catholic came directly from the dictionary; however,
The directors’ objections of my article were three-fold: 1) that I underestimate the ability of our peers to find errors in a text and thus insult them2) that I only hire Catholics who have not excommunicated themselves by obstinately holding heretical beliefs 3) that the above suggestion would “de facto ban The Vagina Monologues and other non-Catholic texts: ‘academic freedom’ in such a situation would be a logical fallacy.”
I do not think I underestimate the ability of our peers at all. What are we paying here for if not to be taught? Are am I really paying $40,000+ a year for a piece of paper which says that BC has inspected me and certifies that I can think on my own? Or am I paying for BC’s faculty to impart knowledge to me? Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify: professors are certainly teaching us not what to think but how to think, and students are capable of thinking on their own. That does mean, however, that students will not always get things right.
We live in a world that has many ridiculous ideas, and ideas have consequences. I remember my horror when during a class last semester I listened to a student defend pedophilia. Obviously, always loving a good debate, I challenged him, only to be told that I must be repressed because I believe that some things are wrong and that “even if we want to do them, we shouldn’t.” I was defending the typical Aristotelian concept of virtue: do the good, form habits, build virtue. Where was the professor in showing him his error? I can never explain Aristotle as well as she could, and while she was right in letting me make my best attempt, when my explanation was insufficient, she should have spoken. Can we imagine what the consequences in the future of not correcting his erroneous belief then might be? (And would the cast of The Vagina Monologues celebrate his rape of a young man by attending a play about male-sexual liberation called Cock Tales?)
All joking aside, this is a serious point. Should students be left alone to discuss such a controversial play? If the relativism that the panel promoted is reality, then there is no benefit to having wiser professors help guide a discussion. To think that we can explain the problems (and merits) of the play sufficiently without their guidance stems, possibly, from intellectual pride.
As for the second point, I did not suggest that we only hire Catholics but that we hire more faithful Catholics. Non-Catholics should always be welcomed to attend and teach at Boston College and to offer their ideas as part of the dialogue we are having here, but the Catholic position must be articulated clearly enough so that all students encounter it on campus. This is what makes a Catholic education different from a secular one.
Finally, this would not make academic freedom a fallacy. The Catholic tradition is one of dialogue, as the directors rightly noted, and this dialogue would continue in the classroom. How many works by great Catholic thinkers are titled “Against Someone or Something”? What may happen is that professors would not necessarily endorse ideas contained in such works. Do the faithful Catholic professors are on campus today ban the works of Nietzsche and Freud in class? They are read because, in typical Jesuit, humanist fashion, it is believed that grace builds upon nature. Even in works that contain errors (including The Vagina Monologues), some truth or something useful may be found. Similarly, there already non-Catholic professors on campus who contribute to our discussion?
I understand why my previous article may have been interpreted wrongly as to say that only Catholics should be hired and that they might ban works they disagree with in class. Now that I have clarified, is this really such an absurd idea? I think not. To think otherwise stems from one of two possible roots as I see it: a strong disagreement in the beliefs of the Catholic Church and a desire to ensure Her teachings are not defended because one holds to something else, or the relativism of which I spoke of in my last article. As one Jesuit wrote to me after reading my article, “As you said, there is Truth and then there is the relativism that some are desperate to promote as ‘a truth.’”