Professor Anthony Esolen is a bright jewel in the crown of Catholic higher education in the United States, a scholar whose brilliant translation of, and commentary on, Dante’s Divine Comedy is appreciated far beyond the boundaries of Catholic literary and intellectual life. Tony Esolen is also a wonderful man, a scintillating spiritual writer, and a teacher who takes character formation as seriously as intellectual formation because he wants his students to be virtuous and happy, not just smart and employable. If I were drafting a university-level Dream Team of instructors for my grandchildren, Tony Esolen would be a very high first-round pick.
So why is Professor Esolen being persecuted at the school where he’s taught for twenty-five years, Providence College?
Because he spoke his mind plainly on questions of great consequence for the future of Catholic higher learning and got the PC Stormtroopers into an uproar. To make matters worse, the college’s administration has shown more sympathy to those determined to bully Esolen into silence than to one of Providence’s star professors.
The offenses? Two articles that Professor Esolen wrote, which proposed that “diversity” (which the professor welcomed) be located within a biblical vision of the ultimate unity of all humanity in God: a vision that would, he suggested, deepen Providence College’s Catholic identity and distinguish it from competitors. Absent that purifying vision, he warned, making a fetish of diversity risks creating a coercive campus ethos inimical to true learning.
Anyone paying attention to campus life in recent years knows that America’s colleges and universities are filled with pampered millennials who require “trigger warnings” if their tender sensibilities might be offended by this, that, or the other idea or text. Well, Tony Esolen provided no trigger warning, only robust and bracing argument. And certain students and faculty at Providence College reacted with fits of rage more befitting a day-care center than an institution of higher education. Which, of course, perfectly illustrated one point Esolen made in his articles.
This is sad beyond words. I’ve long been happy to point parents, students, and donors to Providence College as a school that takes the classic liberal arts tradition seriously, and does so with a distinctively Catholic flavor. It will be much harder to do that in the future unless the college administration reverses its present course, calls the faculty and students who have been brutalizing Professor Esolen to order, and reaffirms Providence College’s commitment to genuine academic freedom and to a Catholic vision of the human person that challenges the tribalism and identity politics eroding our culture and our politics.
As for that erosion, recent data from the World Values Survey tells us that only 30 percent of U.S. millennials (i.e., those born after 1980) think it “essential” to live in a democracy; 24 percent of those same millennials think democracy a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country; and only 19 percent judge it “illegitimate” for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job. Those numbers might seem appalling. But what should we expect when other survey data tells us that something like 50 percent of recent colleges graduates are historical illiterates who (as George Will recently pointed out) don’t know that George Washington led the Continental Army at Yorktown, or that Theodore Roosevelt had a role in building the Panama Canal, or that FDR designed the New Deal? When almost half of recent college graduates don’t know the length of terms served by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, is it really surprising that so many in their age cohort claim to value efficient autocracy over the often messy business of democratic self-governance?
Catholic higher education is uniquely positioned to do something about these twinned problems of historical amnesia and political-cultural corruption. The Church invented the university and its ethos of open inquiry, which was rooted in the conviction that human beings can, with effort, get at the truth of things. Anthony Esolen stands firmly in that great Catholic tradition of liberal learning. A college whose leadership is committed to that tradition, and to Catholic leadership in the reform of an increasingly incoherent and authoritarian American intellectual and educational culture, would celebrate Tony Esolen’s contributions. It certainly wouldn’t coddle his persecutors.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.