Where is Professor Anthony Esolen’s “safe space”? (Updated)

A university has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage when it surrenders its role as a facilitator of reasoned discourse to gain acceptance from an angry mob.

Anthony Esolen, professor of literature at Providence College, who is likely known to many CWR readers as his writing appears frequently on nearly every Catholic web site known to mankind, has written several columns critical of some of the decisions made by the administration of his institution. 

Engaging in lively argumentation and debate is one of the longest standing traditions of the academy, from its ancient roots in Plato’s Academy, hearkening back to the practice of Plato’s greatest teacher, Socrates of Athens, to the medieval origins of the modern university at places such as Paris and Oxford, where the manner of teaching was often in the manner of the “disputed question.”  In the twentieth century, professors frequently authored articles decrying the policies of their universities, whether it was involvement in Vietnam, support of the military-industrial complex, or disinvestment in South Africa because of its support of apartheid.  The ability to speak openly in this way has long been considered one of the proudest traditions of American universities. “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Thus when Prof. Esolen authored an article arguing, in his own inimitable style with his usual exuberant and evocative prose, that his institution had adopted a wrong-headed attitude toward “diversity,” one might have hoped that anyone who disagreed with his position would respond in a way worthy of the deepest traditions of any academic community: a thoughtful written response, laying out evidence, supplying facts, adducing arguments, contesting premises, disputing inferences, or perhaps merely appealing for a different set of perspectives.  

Instead, Esolen’s argument was greeted with the academic equivalent of a loud, disapproving grunt, expressed in its commonest contemporary form: the planned creation by a faculty member of a “totally spontaneous” mob to march across campus, disrupting classes with chants and a bullhorn, until they reached the president’s office where they ceremoniously presented “their demands.”  I say “ceremoniously” because representatives of this group had met with the president the night before to discuss their grievances, so he was quite clear on their wishes already.  The march to present “demands” was simply a bit of planned political theater to make noise during classes the next day.

You can, if you like, find those demands online. They’re posted on a web site called “The Demands” with similar lists from students on dozens of other campuses across the country put together by a group calling itself WeTheProtestors (people who use web browsers too much forget to put spaces between words). Making lists of demands seems to be all the rage on campuses these days.  On my way to finding the specific demands made by Providence College students, I was duly enlightened by what the students at a half-dozen other institutions were demanding this semester.  (I fully expect soon to find an added section on: “What protesters are wearing on campus this year.”)  

After reading one or two of these attempts at angry, self-righteous, and indignant prose, one gets the dreary drift. I hate to suggest these students are guilty of plagiarism, but a quick perusal of a few of the lists suggests many groups saved themselves time and thought by merely going online to pick-and-choose from items on other people’s lists.  I am a little distressed by the sameness, the lack of imagination, and what I can only describe as a bland and plodding sort of cultural conformity.  (Doesn’t anyone want to save beagle puppies from research anymore?  And whatever happened to denunciations of the global capitalist conspiracy?  Kids these days!)  Given the conformity, I’m expecting to find a “template” somewhere with instructions for students on “how to make your list of demands.” Choose at least two from Column A, at least five from Column B, three from column C, and finish with the usual paired appeals to silence “the haters” and for more dialogue.   

How did Providence College respond to this turn from reasoned argumentation to extortion by the mob?  With appeals to “make your case in writing?  With plans to have a university-sponsored, properly-moderated debate to raise the level of discourse, exhibit to students how honest, reasoned civic discussion and debate can take place, and build respect and trust among members of the community?  Did the administration take advantage of this perfect teaching opportunity to show why universities, especially a Catholic university, are so invaluable in modern society? 

Well, not exactly

The Provost emailed the entire faculty the next day to request that professors extend “excused absences” to students who participated in the demonstration, and the president sent out a letter to the entire college saying that, although “[a]cademic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education,” “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.” 

“At the same time that we value freedom in the pursuit of truth,” he continued, “let us value even more our fundamental imperative on a Catholic campus: to be charitable to one another.”

And who was uncharitable?  The professor who argued his case in writing or the mob that marched across campus shouting slogans and making demands?

Finally, where was Anthony Esolen’s safe space? Where was the “safe space” for the professor at Yale who faced a screaming student in a mob of students?  Professors with similarly unpopular views at Providence College might well feel that the administration has now painted targets on their backs, saying to students in effect: “It’s open season to try similarly to browbeat any of them into submission too.”

A university has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage when it surrenders its role as a facilitator of reasoned discourse to gain acceptance from an angry mob who happen to be expressing the campus culture’s currently popular “cause du jour.” 

Editor’s note (Nov 21, 2016): This essay incorrectly states that student “demands” were posted on TheDemands.org in response to Dr. Esolen’s articles. However, the demands issued by “The Coalition Against Racism, Women Empowered, Society Organized Against Racism, Brotherhood, and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored” were posted on December 19, 2015. It was the administration’s response to those demands, in part, which prompted Dr. Esolen’s articles. After those articles were published this past spring and fall, some students at Providence called for Dr. Esolen to be fired. For more, see “Tony Esolen Contra Mundum” (Nov 1, 2016) by Rod Dreher of The American Conservative


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 25 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.