Tony Esolen Contra Mundum
Many readers will have heard of Anthony Esolen, the robustly orthodox Catholic literature professor at Providence College, the Dominican-run college in Rhode Island. Prof. Esolen is the author of a number of books, including an exquisite translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is one of the three translations I recommend to anyone who asks me which is the best to read. He also writes frequently for orthodox Christian magazines like Touchstone and Crisis.
A couple of essays he published in Crisis this autumn sparked a huge row on his campus. The first criticizes the politics of “diversity” as they play out within a Catholic academic setting. The second poses the question to faithful Catholics (and other Christians): What will you do when the persecution comes?
Naturally, some students and faculty on Esolen’s campus were so outraged by his suggestion that “diversity” as they understand it is misguided and destructive that they have commenced a campaign to punish him, perhaps even to fire him. Now, Esolen is having to answer the very question he recently posed to his readers in the second essay. Tony Esolen agreed to answer a few questions from me via e-mail. Our conversation is reproduced below.
Rod Dreher: What is happening to you at Providence College? Explain the controversy.
Tony Esolen: It’s a long story — that is, there is a two-year-long back-story that does not involve me, but that does involve five Catholic colleagues who have been treated disgracefully by their secular colleagues or have suffered under the inquests of the “Bias Response Protocol.” I wrote the two articles in Crisis Magazine, one of them in April and the other a few weeks ago, as alerts.
Someone at school then got hold of them and, before I knew it, I was in the middle of outrage, coming mainly from a group of students who I believe have been misled by radical professors who have adopted politics as their god, whether these professors are aware of it or not. The students accused me of racism, despite my explicit statements in the articles that I welcome people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and despite my appeal, at the end of one of the articles, that they and their secular professors should join us in that communion where there is neither Greek nor Jew, etc. They were angered by my suggestion, in one article, that there was something narcissistic in the common insistence that people should study THEMSELVES rather than people who lived long ago and in cultures far removed from ours by any ordinary criterion, and that there was something totalitarian in the impulse of the secular left, to attempt to subject our curriculum to the demands of a current political aim.
I spoke to one of the students, a friendly fellow whom I like very much, and explained to him that my quarrel was not with the students but rather with anti-Catholic professors and their attempts to hurt or to stifle my colleagues. It was a long and warm conversation, at the end of which I asked him to relay to his group that I was happy, even eager, to meet with them any time to talk about what it is like to be a minority student at Providence College. I also asked him to relay to our chief Diversity Officer my offer of a year ago, to start up a film series centered on themes of injustice and prejudice; one of the movies I specifically mentioned to him and to the Officer was the devastating One Potato Two Potato, about an interracial marriage. Since then, though, I have received NO phone calls and NO e-mails from any students; and yet word has spread around campus, possibly originating from the administration itself, that I have “blown off” the students, when exactly the reverse is true, and if anybody has been “blown off,” it has been me.
A week ago last Thursday I was tipped off by a student — not a member of the group in question — that there was going to be a protest on campus. That’s unheard of, at Providence College. About 60 students marched around, while a female student led them around, shouting slogans through a bullhorn. I think it was “What do we want? Inclusion! When do we want it? Now!” The noise could be heard all through the three-story building where my office is. I had thought they were going to come down the hall and knock on my door, but then they seem to have turned around and gone to the president’s office, where they demanded a response from him, and of course some of the students demanded that I be fired. In fact, the president had already met with those students the day before, and had heard that particular demand, though of course he said that I enjoyed academic freedom. It is likely that he knew of the demonstration beforehand, because the Vice President for Student Affairs actually took part in it [SEE UPDATE.2 BELOW]. I should have guessed — because that morning somebody had written on the blackboard of my classroom, “Diversity is not a cult!”
The president then sent round to all the faculty, all the staff, all undergraduates, and all graduates the following letter:
Dear Members of the Providence College Community:
Yesterday I met with about 60 of our students who marched through campus and eventually came to Harkins Hall. Their primary source of complaint was the content of a pair of articles recently published by a member of our faculty, how it made them feel, and their frustration that there had been no response from the College or me. After dialoging with the students, I believe it is imperative for me to respond to their concerns.
Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education. It allows professors the freedom to teach, write, and lecture without any restraint except the truth as they see it. It also gives them the freedom to express their opinions as citizens so long as it is clear that they do not represent the views of the institution with which they are affiliated. This freedom obviously extends to espousing views critical of their own college or university.
So when one of our professors writes an article accusing Providence College of having “Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult,” he is protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech. But it must be understood that he speaks only for himself. He certainly does not speak for me, my administration, and for many others at Providence College who understand and value diversity in a very different sense from him.
Universities are places where ideas are supposed to be brought into conflict and questioned, so let us robustly debate the meaning of “diversity.” But we must also remember that words have an impact on those who hear or read them. When a professor questions the value of diversity, the impact on many students, faculty, and staff of color is to feel that their presence is not valued and that they are not welcome at Providence College. I have heard from many students about the pain that this causes. When student activists are described as “narcissists,” they understandably feel demeaned and dismissed. We need to be able to disagree with each other’s ideas without attaching labels to them or imputing motives that we cannot know.
At the same time that we value freedom in the pursuit of truth, let us value even more our fundamental imperative on a Catholic campus: to be charitable to one another. We may deeply disagree on any number of topics, but we should do so in such a way that respects those with whom we disagree.
Our Catholic mission at Providence College calls us to embrace people from diverse backgrounds and cultures as a mirror of the universal Church and to seek the unity of that Body in the universal love of Christ. Pope Francis has likened this communion to the weaving of a blanket, “woven with patience and perseverance, one which gradually draws together stitches to make a more extensive and rich cover.” He reminds us as well that what we seek is not “unanimity, but true unity in the richness of diversity.” Finally, Francis reminds us that “plurality of thought and individuality reflect the manifold wisdom of God when we draw nearer to truth with intellectual honesty and rigor, when we draw near to goodness, when we draw near to beauty, in such a way that everyone can be a gift for the benefit of others.” Amen.
Fr. Brian Shanley
My friends of course were outraged, and I was stunned — basically, I had been singled out and exposed before the whole faculty, very few of whom were probably even aware that there was such a thing as Crisis Magazine; and of course they and the students are not my audience when I write for Crisis or whatever. Then, as if that were not bad enough, the President met with faculty on Wednesday afternoon, and all they did for a solid hour was to revile the evil Professor Esolen, with a few old-fashioned liberals defending my right to express my opinions, and several of my stalwart friends from philosophy and theology defending me personally and criticizing the president for his decision and for his handling of related matters. When the president said that he believed that he had to act “for pastoral reasons,” they replied that it was a strange form of pastoral care that pits every member of a community against one.
And it is still not over. The faculty have circulated a “petition,” or a resolution, or something neither flesh nor fowl, to the effect that though we all have academic freedom, it has to be exercised responsibly, and reviling “some part of the PC faculty” that is “unabashed” in publishing articles that are racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinistic. The petition has been signed by various faculty members and students. And STILL I hear that they are not satisfied, but are trying to figure out if they can use my articles to nail me for “bias” and hate, basically asserting that I am not capable of teaching certain categories of students — gay, female, and so forth.
I have been advised by a lawyer friend that that assertion itself is eo ipso defamatory.
The Good Guys in all this are meeting tonight to draft a stern response. All I want to do is to teach ALL STUDENTS the glories of three thousand years of poetry, art, theology, and philosophy; and NOT to have the campus riven by the politicians….
In your recent essay on persecution, you tell your Catholic readers that “the war is here,” and you identify four kinds of Catholics with regard to the persecution. How does the situation you’re in at Providence College illustrate your argument?
I have seen the soldiers come forth. I can give you the names of some of them; they can add a great deal, too; they have been either the victims or witnesses of recent forays into persecution. Chief among them is Prof. James Keating, who I believe will be eager to correspond with you.
I won’t say anything about Quislings at this time. But the college is peppered with Persecutors. One secular professor tipped his hand at the faculty meeting with the President. When the President asked what could be done to increase the diversity at Providence College — whatever that means; nobody has defined “diversity” — one of the art history professors replied, “Get rid of the response to the mission statement,” the requirement that prospective professors write in response to a statement of our Catholic identity. The crowd cheered.
The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program — the focus of curricular hostility — also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal. They are now also gunning for the DWC program, though they are so encapsulated in their secular monoculture, they have no idea what a tsunami of outrage they will bring on from the alumni if that program were ever to be eliminated.
In the other essay that stirred up your critics on campus, you laid into the way “diversity” is handled on your ostensibly Catholic college campus. In particular, you wrote: “But there is no evidence on our Diversity page that we wish to be what God has called us to be, a committedly and forthrightly Catholic school with life-changing truths to bring to the world. It is as if, deep down, we did not really believe it.” How have events there since you published that essay just over a month ago affected your views?
As I’ve said to people, authors don’t choose the titles for articles for Crisis Magazine; the editor does that, for the sake of “traffic” on the page. His title was a bit provocative. But everything that has happened since then has shown me, alas, that the editor saw more than I did, or more than I have been willing to admit. The irony would seem to be obvious: “How DARE you suggest that there is a totalitarian impulse in our behavior? You should be FIRED!” And then of course there is the brazen cheering of the faculty when it is proposed that we should not be Catholic after all.
The strange irony of it all is that I’m the one who believes that a wide diversity of cultures and of institutions is a good thing, and they really do not. I do not WANT all colleges and universities to be basically the same; they do.
You have tenure, right? They can’t get rid of you — or can they?
I am told by a friend that I can be fired despite my tenure, though that is very unlikely.
I’ve read your forthcoming book, Out Of The Ashes: Rebuilding America Culture — and it’s terrific. You are particularly hard-hitting about the corruption of college life in America. You say it is “an absolute necessity” for faithful Christians to build new colleges, because it is “not enough to reform the old.” What do you mean? Along those lines, what are the lessons of your present trial at Providence College?
Reforming the old schools will take an entire generation at least, if it is even possible; and in most cases the reform will be spotty. Many schools are beyond reform: they are filled with professors who have disdain for the Church, and their courses in the liberal arts are thoroughly secular, and not particularly impressive intellectually, at that — how can they be, when the greatest concern of human life is systematically ignored or belittled? Providence College can tip either way. I don’t know. My lawyer friend used to teach at PC and told me that that fight is lost. I believe it is not lost … but if I had money, I would give it straightaway to the real deals: Our Lady Seat of Wisdom (Ontario), Thomas More (NH), Wyoming Catholic, Dallas, Benedictine, etc.
What advice would you give to young Christian academics? To Christian parents preparing to send their kids to college?
It’s long past the time for administrators at Christian colleges to abandon the hiring policies that got us in this fix to begin with. We KNOW that there are plenty of excellent young Christian scholars who have to struggle to find a job. Well, let’s get them and get them right away. WE should be establishing a network for that purpose — so that if a Benedictine College needs a professor of literature, they can get on the phone to Ralph Wood at Baylor or me at Providence or Glenn Arbery at Wyoming Catholic, and say, “Do you have anybody?”
Christian parents — please do not suppose that your child will retain his or her faith after four years of battering at a secular college. Oh, many do — and many colleges have Christian groups that are terrific. But understand that it is going to be a dark time; and that everything on campus will be inimical to the faith, from the blockheaded assumptions of their professors, to the hook-ups, to the ignorance of their fellow students and their unconscious but massive bigotry. Be advised.
What would Dante say about the Christian in the contemporary university?
Fight. Be a cheerful warrior if you can be cheerful; all the better. But be a warrior.
Finally, I don’t know if you’ve read anything about my Benedict Option idea, but I found that Out Of The Ashes resonates strongly with the things I’ve been thinking and writing about. My book The Benedict Option will be out in mid-March. Your book comes out in January. Archbishop Charles Chaput has a great book, Strangers In A Strange Land, coming out in February, which says more or less the same things that you and I are saying, though in his own distinct voice. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these books are emerging independently of each other, at the same time. What’s going on in our culture now? If a Christian wishes to read the signs of the times, what message should he see?
I agree with you entirely, Rod. It is time to rebuild. There can be no more pretense of a culture around us that is Christian or that is even content with Christianity being in its midst. We must be for the world by being against the world: Athanasius contra mundum. The world is leveling every cultural institution in its path — we must save them or rebuild them from the dust, for the world’s own sake, and for God’s.
UPDATE: A reader sends the text of the anti-Esolen petition being circulated on Providence College’s campus, originating with the school’s Black Studies Program faculty:
Please Sign the Petition: Breaking the Silence
Breaking the Silence, Faculty Statement
As PC Faculty, we pledge to break the silence around systemic racism and discrimination on Providence College’s campus. While we vigorously support free expression, recent publications on the part of PC faculty have involved racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinist statements. The use of this type of language by people with power over students runs counter to the Catholic mission of Providence College, which aims “to reflect the rich diversity” of our world, and “extend a loving embrace to all.” As a diverse coalition of students have consistently highlighted, such statements are part of a broader pattern of racism, sexism and other forms of hate that are all too common not only on campus, but in the broader public culture. As professors who care deeply about the wellbeing, safety, and growth of our students, we are committed to combating racism and overcoming the hostile learning environment for too many of our students, while creating spaces where all of our students can engage in meaningful ways.
The professor-student relationship is marked by a significant imbalance in power and authority. Conferred by the institutions of which we are a part, professors possess the power and authority over students to determine the content of the syllabi, assign tasks, create supportive or destructive learning environments, and evaluate student performance, and we are able to do so largely free from direct oversight. Such a large degree of academic freedom — especially the power to grade — coupled with the right to free speech comes with professional standards and responsibilities. Some professors have openly, publicly, and unabashedly articulated a disdain for racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and religious inclusion. In contrast, we the undersigned, are committed to ensuring that marginalized groups are not further marginalized in the classroom, especially when many of our students already experience multiple forms of exclusion at Providence College. Furthermore, we commit to addressing anti-immigrant and anti-black racism on campus, creating a more diverse and inclusive community, and implementing student demands (http://www.thedemands.org/).
In a political context marked by renewed attempts to divide us along racial, ethnic, and gender lines, as well as renewed protests to promote equality and justice for all, we as PC faculty think it is vital to respond to these recent examples of hateful speech and actions. Along with PC students and students across the country, we stand on the side of equality and justice, and an inclusive campus for all.
Take a look at the specific “demands” the black faculty, students, and their allies are making of Providence College’s leadership. It is shockingly illiberal, and amounts to a thoroughgoing politicization and racialization of every aspect of campus life. This stuff is Orwellian. Any college or university that yields to these tyrants ceases to be a place where true liberal learning is possible, and instead becomes an ideological indoctrination factory.
UPDATE.2: Anthony Esolen e-mails this morning:
The Vice President of Student Affairs says that she did not have any prior knowledge of the demonstration. She says that she was present in her capacity as chief of security.