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Engaging the Other: Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

Frances Fox Piven at Speaks at Messiah College (Patriot-News Photo)

Recently, Messiah College invited Frances Fox Piven to talk about her views on democracy. Piven is a liberal thinker, to say the least. She has in the past endorsed civil disobedience, and even violence, as means to achieving political goals. She spoke at Messiah about her opposition to the Electoral College. There was an overflow room made available, since the lecture drew much interest from the Messiah community and beyond. There was a lot of reaction to the College choosing to host Piven. There was shock that a Christian college would host someone like Piven, especially one with a relatively conservative student body. The reaction got worse when posters advertising the event were taken down preceding an open house the day before the lecture.

Today, Dr. Peter Kerry Powers, Dean of the School of the Humanities at Messiah, offered an op-ed piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News explaining the educational purpose of the invitation and the reasoning behind the removal of the advertising. Here is the meat of his piece:

In the controversy surrounding the event, I’ve been troubled most by the limited understanding of the nature of Christian higher education and of the specific character of Messiah College.

Christian institutions vary tremendously, but in general we seek to educate students who will think more deeply and act more effectively in the world. At Messiah College, we pursue this goal not by sheltering students from difficult questions,

but by encouraging them to think about those questions as Christian people.

Invited speakers with different points of view help us achieve this goal, just as do assigned texts and classroom discussions on thinkers who are Christians and those who are not. We approach Christian higher education this way because even the best of our tradition should be subject to critical thinking and because we believe truth might be revealed in diverse places in the world God has made.

Given this, I am surprised by the consternation that accompanied an invitation to a liberal thinker, as if the purpose of a Christian institution is to indoctrinate or enforce specific political convictions. Yoking Christian ideals with specific political programs might be the hope of political parties and even of some Christians, but it is not the educational vision of Messiah College.

Messiah College’s hope is that we are graduating students who possess a Christian perspective on the world, their place in it and the vocation to which God calls them. In this holistic educational vision, we take responsibility to mentor our students toward intellectual and spiritual maturity. Creating contexts in which questions can be thoroughly engaged in spiritual and intellectual terms is one part of that mentoring.

To simply throw speakers in front of students because they might be provocative would obviously fall short of our charge as Christian educators. Given this understanding of our mission and this approach to educating students, we simply reject the accusation that limiting advertising for the lecture during an open house for prospective students was duplicitous.
The lecture had already roiled in the blogosphere, had been promoted on the college website for months, had been the occasion for comments and questions from prospective parents and was expected to exceed the capacity of the designated venue.

We thus had no reason to believe the event could be hidden. We did believe, however, that students and the public should have appropriate contexts for thinking through issues and arriving at informed decisions.

We did not, and still do not, believe that having representatives of our admissions staff conduct spontaneous conversations with perplexed prospective parents provided such a context.

Others might reasonably disagree with that decision; however, disagreement should rest on whether we expected enough from our admissions staff and not on questions of our motives with respect to prospective students.

We are proud of the education we offer to our students and the ways in which we have contributed to the cultural and intellectual life of central Pennsylvania and beyond. We certainly hope and intend to continue in that service so long as God will bless our doing so.

Well put. Our purpose as a school is not to indoctrinate students in what they already believe, or into some other new belief that we might prefer. Our goal is to help the student think critically and faithfully about all of the issues that they may encounter in their life. Engaging those who differ in opinion from us enables us to really know what we believe, and why. While I don’t think there is much that Piven and I would agree on, I’m glad that Messiah is giving our students the chance to engage with Piven, including the ability to ask her questions. I don’t hope students were swayed by her arguments. I do hope they considered her views, and were challenged to think about why they disagreed with her. I hope it challenged them to think of reasoned arguments against her views.

I do wonder why the admissions staff couldn’t have been giving a few simple ways to deal with parents who asked questions, but I can understand the motivation. That aside, bravo, Messiah, for being willing to challenge students to think.

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5 comments on “Engaging the Other: Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

  1. So, why then, if we’re “engaging the other”, was the conservative foil to Piven (Jason Mattera), invited by the College Republicans, why did that person have his invitation rescinded?

    Seems to me that Prof. Legrand (sp?) who revoked the conservative speaker is showing a bias that I think, in light of “engaging the other” is rather hypocritical… it’s okay to engage the other so long as the other is a liberal thinker, but not a conservative?

    • Here’s the article… now, I don’t agree with the tone of the article (it is awfully harsh) but I’m interested to find out what LeGrand’s response is to this information. If the invitation to Piven was to engage the other and Piven is controversial, why not invite another controversial person in?

      http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=46928

      • I’ll check that out, but last year we had the very conservative Dinesh D’Souza on campus, so it is not like we never have conservative speakers on campus. We are also having other speakers on campus this year, including the conservative Tony Dungy. Why the conservative response was uninvited this time, I am not sure. If I find out something about the reasoning, whether I agree with it or not, I’ll post an update on that.

        I will say that Dr. Marlin Eby, my neighbor and (former?) advisor to the College Republicans, attended the lecture and thought that she was on her good behavior and didn’t complain to me about the content of her talk. I know he disagreed vehemently with her about everything he mentioned to me about her talk, but he thought the question time provided a good chance for students to challenge her and hoped that the students could see the holes in some of her positions.

        Also, the article is pure opinion with little fact. The person assumes all professors are overworked and underpaid (apparently no research about Messiah Professors done). They also don’t acknowledge last year’s very conservative speaker with no liberal response that I know of. I know Dr. LaGrand, and he is a conservative. Characterizing him as a liberal trying to silence conservative voices is shoddy journalism without checking into what is really going on. I won’t waste any more time responding to that piece of garbage Human Events claims is a researched article. Bah.

        I haven’t seen any further discussion about this on campus, and we’re on break this weekend. More as I find anything else out.

  2. […] certainly heard a lot of reaction to her appearance, including in the comments section of my piece about Dr. Peter Kerry Powers defense of her appearance in the Harrisburg Patriot-News. In light of […]

  3. […] College Republicans to rescind an invitation to a scheduled speaker. (See the comments section on this post.) Dr. LaGrand is co-advisor for the Messiah College Republicans, and certainly has the conservative […]

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