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The Boys are Back: Boys State Returns to Saint John’s*

Welcome to Saint John’s University and Abbey.  Though actually I should say, “Welcome back.”  Saint John’s has hosted Boys State numerous times in the past, and we are delighted to be hosting the program again this summer for the first of what we hope will be many years.

There are at least three reasons why Saint John’s is a great location for Boys State.

First, as I noted, we have a long history with Boys State.  Lots of our students and alumni are also former Boys State participants.  I know there is at least one Johnnie alum in the audience as a counselor this week and the Boys State governor from 2012, Zac McFarland, just graduated from Saint John’s last month and is off to law school in the fall.

Second, Saint John’s has a significant tradition of public service, especially in politics, among our alumni.  There are currently several Johnnies serving in the state legislature and many others have done so in the past.  Mark Kennedy ‘79, the current president at the University of North Dakota, was a United States Representative.  Eugene McCarthy ’35 and David Durenberger ’55 were both United States Senators, and McCarthy was a presidential candidate in 1968.  More recently Denis McDonough ’92 was the White House Chief of Staff for President Obama.

Additionally, we have many Johnnies in public service in other countries. For example, January Makamba ’02 was a Member of Parliament in Tanzania for two terms, a Presidential Candidate in the 2016 general elections and currently serves as Minister of Union Affairs and Environment, while Innocent Bash ’02 is a Member of Parliament in Tanzania, and Abdul Kulane ’13 serves as Deputy Chief of Staff for the President of Somalia.

This is a campus that has nurtured a passion for public service among our students for many generations, and I hope it might do the same for you during your week here.

Finally, there is an important part of our history and ethos that is particularly relevant for your participation in Boys State at this time in our political history.  Saint John’s was founded by Benedictine monks in 1857, the year before Minnesota became a state.  (Our sister school, the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, where the women students live, was founded by women from the Benedictine order.)  The Benedictines are a Catholic monastic order of men or women who live in community in a monastery.  We still have a thriving men’s monastery at Saint John’s, and you will see monks around campus during your stay here.  The Benedictine tradition was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, over 1500 years ago.  Much of the Benedictine tradition is based on a little book which has come to be called The Rule of St. Benedict.  It was written by Benedict to help his fellow monks live out their monastic vocations well and to strengthen their monastic communities.

Now you might legitimately be asking, “What in the world could a 17-year-old 21st Century Gen Z-er learn from a 6th Century Catholic monk?”  Well, first, any tradition that has survived and thrived in the world for over 1500 years is certainly worthy of some respect.  Second, Benedict was very wise about human beings and how they might best live together in community.  His wisdom might help our communities today.

The very first word in The Rule is, “Listen.”  Benedict urges his brothers to, “Listen with the ear of their heart.”  By this counsel he means to listen generously, to listen to each other as you would like to be listened to, and to consider how you are likely to be heard by your confreres or your intended audience.

This advice is especially timely for us, living as we are in a particularly contentious political time where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other, especially those with whom we might disagree; where polite and civil disagreement about politics or policy seems challenging at best and impossible at worst.  This can be especially disconcerting for many young people who are just coming of age politically and might be wondering if this tense, angry, and extreme political tone is simply how politics must be practiced.  (As an aside from someone older, it does not have to be this way and has not always been so.)

As you consider what role you might play in civic life in the future and how to best approach this week of learning and engagement with your peers from across the state, I would simply urge you to take Benedict’s advice to heart, this week and beyond.  Listen.  Practice that art and skill.  Listen hard and listen well.  Understand what others are saying to you and why.  You will be a better person for it, a better friend, a better professional and a better leader in your communities.

I should note with hope and optimism that those in this auditorium surely cannot be as pessimistic about politics, policy and civic life as the most extreme political observers currently are, or you would not have decided to devote a week of your summer to Boys State.  Thank you for making that decision and giving us older folks a reason for hope in the future leadership and civic life in our state and nation.

Finally, I would be remiss in my presidential duties if, as I wish you well for your Boys State week, I did not encourage you to envision yourself as a student at Saint John’s University a year from now.  We would love to have each and every one of you become a Johnnie.  If the 300+ of you all decided by the end of your week that you will all come back to be part of the Class of 2022, it would make the job of our admissions staff much easier next year!

Seriously, please put Saint John’s on your list of possible colleges and come back and visit us during the school year when classes are in session and students are on campus.

Best wishes for a great week.

*This welcome was given to the Boys State delegates who were on the SJU campus from June 11th-17th.
Boys State and Girls State are summer leadership and citizenship programs sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary for high school juniors. Boys and Girls are usually nominated by their high school during their junior year. Boys and Girls State programs both began in 1937 and are held in each of the U.S. states, usually on a college campus, within that state.  (From Wikipedia.)

By |June 26th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

Education, Free Speech and Benedictine Values

The Constitution of the United States, U.S. Archives

Education in general and higher education in particular are based on the belief in academic freedom.  Students, faculty and researchers must be free to ask questions and pursue inquiries where their curiosities and imaginations take them.  They must be able to question the received wisdom and current understandings within their disciplines and to create new disciplines.  Without this freedom, the sun would still revolve around the Earth, Darwin would be unknown, philosophy might well be purely Aristotelian and whole disciplines, like Gender Studies, would not exist.

New knowledge and understandings do not come without pain.  Sacred cows are gored, strongly-held beliefs are challenged and whole world views are upended.  If colleges and universities do their jobs well, every student will experience some of this intellectual vertigo.  They will feel unsettled as their beliefs are stretched, tested, challenged and sometimes found wanting.  Education should be uncomfortable or it does not deserve the name.

But at the same time academic freedom is causing discomfort, it is moving forward the boundaries of human knowledge within disciplines and for societies, and it is preparing students for a lifetime of learning in an ever-changing world.

The game is worth the candle.

Freedom of speech is the other side of the academic freedom coin.  The ability to express ideas, thoughts and opinions obviously extends to settings well beyond the academy and our Founding Fathers felt the exercise of free speech to be important enough to put it into the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ability to bring new or unpopular ideas into the national conversation without fear of government intervention (or worse) has had a salutary effect on political and policy discourse throughout our history.  Free speech played an important role in ending slavery, bringing about the revolution in women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights, among other policy changes that have moved us toward a more just society.

Classroom chairsYet free speech brings even more challenges in its exercise than academic freedom.  The protocols of the academy, including but not limited to the scientific method, provide some generally accepted guidelines for the exercise of academic freedom.

The exercise of free speech is much less circumscribed.  The Supreme Court has, appropriately, been very hesitant to limit the exercise of free speech.  As soon as one starts drawing lines, the philosophy and purpose of free speech start to erode.  Who gets to draw the lines?  Those in power?  How does that affect the functioning of the marketplace of ideas?  How do the politically or socially marginalized get to influence society’s political and social choices?

But with few legal limitations on speech, those expressing their views can be extreme, personal and even hateful.  (There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.)  One simply has to look at political discourse today to see these extremes in print and electronic media.  Social media has exacerbated these issues as anyone with an internet connection can join the public conversation, often with the cover of anonymity.

Yet again, many (not all, surely) would argue the benefits of constitutionally protected free speech outweigh the costs.  As Voltaire may or may not have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So, what are we at educational institutions to make of all this as we pursue our missions? Interestingly, the responses are potentially different at public and private institutions.  What the First Amendment provides is protection from government imposed restrictions on speech: Congress shall make no law…  So the University of Minnesota, as a public institution is bound by the First Amendment.  As the ACLU website notes:

Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.

The legal constraints that pertain to free speech for private institutions like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict are less binding, as we are not publicly funded.  We have the ability to restrict the speech of members of our private community, but the ACLU is very clear on its recommendation for private institutions:

The ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser stated, in a speech at the City College of New York: “There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.”

This advice can be hard for some to accept.  It requires one to listen to not only speech we disagree with but speech that might be hateful and hurtful.  It can require Holocaust survivors to listen to speech from neo-Nazis, as occurred in a famous 1979 case in Skokie, Illinois, but as the ACLU argues:

Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.

As private institutions, Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have options that can balance free speech with civility in ways that other private and public institutions may not.  We have our 1500-year-old Benedictine Catholic tradition to turn to for guidance.  We can both strongly support academic freedom and its public counterpart, freedom of speech, by encouraging our community to exercise speech rights in ways that are consistent with our Benedictine values.

Even if the First Amendment allows for extremes in the exercise of this constitutionally protected right, our Benedictine values remind us that respect for individuals, moderation and our commitments to the community call us to the harder work of civil and respectful free speech.

I’d suggest that there are three commitments we might make to each other in this Benedictine educational community as we strive to balance the important goals of encouraging the open and vigorous exchange of ideas at the same time we seek to build a respectful, civil community:

  1. Personal reflection: Ideally, we would all commit to thinking through our own opinions and beliefs thoroughly and carefully.  We wouldn’t espouse unexamined ideas, or simply repeat what we hear from others or speak when we are not capable of being coherent.  We should know what we believe and be able to articulate why we believe it.  This goal is consistent with living an examined life, which Socrates so eloquently encouraged.
  2. Respect your audience: To be persuasive in making any argument, we need to understand our audience.  Do they want to hear what we have to say?  How will they hear what we are saying?  Might they misinterpret our meaning?  How will their perspective or life experiences affect what they hear us saying?  How can we clearly make our points in the politest and most civil fashion?
  3. “Listen with the ear of your heart” (Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict): For true engagement with others, we must be just as willing to listen as we are to speak.  We must commit to working hard to understand where other are coming from and to understand why they have a different perspective than we do.  Finally, we must listen with generosity and be willing to accept that good and thoughtful people might reasonably disagree on matters of importance.

We are communities made up of imperfect individuals, sinners not angels.  But we can be committed to each other and to our communities and can strive to make them better places to live and learn—even as we know and want that learning to be uncomfortable at times.

While I am not certain that Bennies and Johnnies can change the way the rest of the world engages in discourse, I do believe our Benedictine values can guide us toward deep and meaningful interactions where we respectfully learn from each other and are better prepared to interact in the world.  If we can achieve this on our campuses, Bennies and Johnnies might serve as models of civil discourse that the world seems to so desperately need.

By |February 17th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

Snowflakes and Johnnies

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

In recent months the media has been filled with stories about campus controversies around intellectual engagement and free speech.  From Yale to Missouri to Michigan to Wesleyan to Williams students and faculty have been challenged by the free exchange of ideas and the inevitable tensions that arise when opinions differ.  Some students have insisted that they be protected from views they find offensive and these demands have led for calls to limit free speech on campuses.  (See here and here)  These new sensibilities on campus have led to questions about the mettle of millennials, with some observers calling  these protestors snowflakes as a reflection of their apparently delicate constitutions.

These controversies obviously encourage those in higher education to reflect on our mission in educating students and also reminded me of a related conversation I had several years ago about the character of Johnnies.

I was at a dinner party and was introduced to a lawyer from abroad who was currently working in the Twin Cities.  As we talked, I told him I had gone to school at Saint John’s.  I assumed that I would need to explain a bit more about Saint John’s since he was not from the area and had been living here only a short time, but that was not the case.  He was very excited to learn I was a Johnnie and excitedly told me about two Johnnie brothers he had met when he was volunteering abroad after graduating university.  He was volunteering for a Catholic organization in Central America, and there were young people from all over the world.  But, without a doubt, the volunteer that had the biggest impact on him was a Saint John’s University graduate.  He spoke with a sense of awe, even years later, about the intellectual fearlessness he observed in this young man.  “He would ask the priests and the rest of us all kinds of questions about theology and social justice.  He was not afraid to ask anything, but he was always polite and thoughtful.  He did not approach these engagements with aggression or anger or righteous but with genuine curiosity and always with a good sense of humor.  What was also striking was that his brother (also a Johnnie) came to visit a couple times and he was exactly the same way.  They both seemed deeply interested in what others thought and had a strong desire to learn from them.”

This lawyer had been educated at one of the finest schools in his home country, a large university that has a world-class reputation, yet he was both charmed by and admiring of the way these two Johnnies approached the world.  He has apparently not met too many people like these brothers.

As I listened to the story, I thought back to my own time at Saint John’s and recalled the hours sitting in a faculty resident’s room listening to my hall mates talk.  A lot was fluff and occasionally the conversations sophomoric, but there was also plenty of room for serious issues and quiet encouragement to try out ideas.  The monks who are generous enough to live with undergraduates know how balance the immaturity of youth with young people’s genuine desire to explore meaning.  Faculty residents also make it clear they are there to mentor and guide without proselytizing or pushing their own views. I had a pretty good sense of how and where those two Johnnie brothers had developed their intellectual sensibilities and finely honed emotional intelligence.

A few years later, I happened to get to meet these two brothers.  They were exactly as described by their lawyer friend, but at the same time, they were also pretty typical Johnnies.

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

These campus controversies and the way students and faculty respond to them have a significant impact on the ethos on campuses, but it is relatively rare that such issues make it all the way to the White House.  In this case, however, President Obama felt the need to comment on these issues, given the centrality of free speech and the exchange of idea in our political life.  He said:

The purpose of college is not just to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information,
to help you make your way through the world; to help you be more creative.  The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented
and collide — where people are having arguments and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time people learn from each other because
they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.

Given these views and setting politics aside, I suspect the President would find Johnnies to be good intellectual company, as he apparently does in his chief of staff.

And I am delighted that in their own thoughtful way, these two Johnnie brothers, like so many other alumni, are modeling the kind of character and intellectual fearlessness that we continue to foster through our Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts experience.

By |March 9th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments