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.