A few weeks ago Messiah College hosted Frances Fox Piven on our campus. While I had nothing to do with her appearance, and can’t even tell you definitely who invited her, I’ve 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 the uproar, I wanted to post two additional responses from the Messiah community that counter misconceptions I have heard. Later today I’ll post a response to accusations that the liberal establishment at Messiah (which begs the question of whether there is such a thing here) forced the cancellation of a conservative speaker. This post is to highlight a letter to the editor posted on Lancaster Online (affiliated with several Lancaster, PA newpapers, so I am not sure which print editions it may have appeared in). Here is the letter from Messiah College trustee Kim Smith (find the original here):
TO THE EDITORS:
As a trustee of Messiah College, I wanted to publicly affirm the respectful manner in which Messiah students, educators and community guests demonstrated a core principle of a free society — the civil and active exchange of ideas — during the college’s American Democracy Lecture with Frances Fox Piven on Oct. 11.
Despite the intense controversy surrounding Piven, the audience engaged in spirited, thoughtful conversation with both Piven and each other — even in the midst of clear and passionate disagreement. Refuting the premise that college students are empty, easily influenced vessels, the Messiah students who attended asked well-informed, critical questions of Piven regarding her views.
This modeling of effective public engagement and civil discourse is central to preparing students to fulfill Messiah’s mission “to educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character and Christian faith in preparation for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.”
Students and parents who do their homework on Messiah College will find that it is an authentically Christian campus community that is effectively educating and equipping future leaders who will bring respect and discernment to all corners of our increasingly polarized society.
Personally, I think this characterizes well what I would hope for. Students can think and engage ideas without being indoctrinated. They can ask speakers hard questions and disagree strongly with someone without becoming hateful. The irony here is that the outcry about Fox Piven speaking at Messiah has given her way more press than the talk itself would normally have received. Thanks to the many voices speaking vehemently against her appearance, she gained more press and notoriety than someone who has been out of the spotlight for so long should probably have received. Had there been no uproar, students would have engaged her, challenged her views, and walked away with a potentially valuable educational experience. As it is, students likely still got that part, but much time and energy has been wasted defending the very idea of listening to someone who has said some rather radical things.
Thanks to Ms. Smith for standing up for the ability of our students to think. I really think that Messiah does something much, much better here by offering these chances to engage the other than we would should we choose to shelter our students away from the reality that such views exist. Maybe some students will be persuaded by her views, or those of others like her. If they are so easily persuaded, I would say that these students were never doing anything other than pretending to be conservative in the first place, so she has not won converts, she would simply have revealed the true views of our students. In that case, wouldn’t having her here have done the students, and all of us, the service of having the truth come out?
Long story short, if anyone (including parents) really think our students are that naive and gullible, I feel insulted. I give our students much more credit than that, and certainly hope that my kids are able to think well enough for themselves that I don’t feel threatened by them engaging new ideas with a critical mind.