Professor Anthony Esolen has found himself embroiled in controversy at his own Providence College. About a month ago, a group of students discovered that he is not a fan of university diversity politics. Since then, students and colleagues have circulated a petition clearly implying Esolen is guilty of “hateful speech and action,” and asking to “implement student demands” to “end structural racism on campus.”
The president, Father Brian Shanley, circulated a letter that affirmed the school’s commitment to academic freedom, while also containing what can only be read as a public, institutional rebuke of Esolen and his work.
Esolen has not been fired, and university officials presently indicate that he is unlikely to be. But no matter what the mealy mouthed institutional apologists might say, Providence College has clearly turned into a hostile environment for Esolen and his friends. That’s very sad to see. As I can attest from personal experience, Esolen is exactly the sort of person the academy desperately needs, if it truly cares about diversity.
Diversity Goes Beyond Race
I knew Esolen by reputation long before we met. His work stood as one of the few “friendly voices” that helped me hang tough through the early years of graduate school. I have lovely memories of snowy evenings in my tiny apartment in Ithaca, New York, where I would sit with fingers curled around a warm mug, savoring Esolen’s latest column.
I share many of Esolen’s concerns about “diversity politics,” but I also have some sympathy with its goals. As my liberal friends explain to me, it’s important for young people from multifarious backgrounds to see people like them making it in the world. It helps instill the hope that they too can “make it.” I understand this argument, because I was once that beleaguered person when I parachuted into an Ivy League doctoral program just five days after returning from the Peace Corps. I know how it feels to be the local freak.
In the solitude of my apartment in Andijan, Uzbekistan, I had read a lot of philosophy books, and concocted a plan to convert to Catholicism and become a philosophy professor. I sent out applications and ended up choosing Cornell for my graduate studies. But the fall semester coincided almost exactly with the end of my Peace Corps service, so I hardly had time to buy hole-free sneakers before stumbling into my first seminar, still clutching my rosary and “The Idea of a University.” Cornell’s idea of the university was rather different from John Henry Newman’s.
Toto, We’re Not in Uzbekistan Anymore
It’s common knowledge that the professoriate is overwhelmingly liberal and secular. I knew that walking in, of course. Still, my undergraduate experiences had been very positive. My college professors leaned left, but most were benignly tolerant of my conservative and traditionalist leanings. They seemed to enjoy my contrarianism. As I now understand, college professors tend to look favorably on any student who shows genuine enthusiasm for their subject.
Graduate school is a completely different proposition. Here you must spend several years building relationships with academics who have undertaken the job of professionalizing you. Their own reputations could be affected by your eventual contribution to the discipline, so they have incentives to make sure you’re respectable. If my college professors pegged me as a crackpot fundamentalist, that likely just added an amusing twist to the 14 weeks in which they were professionally obliged to see me. In graduate school, it’s a much bigger problem.
I do have a few memories of absurd or hostile things my professors said about the Christian intellectual tradition. One professor admitted that he saw belief in God as deeply irrational, while another told us that just war theory was “the one major contribution” Christians had made to philosophy that remained relevant (even today!). After the 2004 election, one professor went on a bitter rant about how several things I believed had never been supported by remotely respectable arguments at any time in history.
Those moments were relative outliers. Most of the time, people didn’t go out of their way to argue that Christians are crazy. But the challenges went way beyond just ignoring the occasional barb. Somehow I had to impress these people, without mortgaging my soul. There I was, a 24-year-old Catholic catechumen, broke and alone in a brand new city, feverishly calculating ways to persuade a lot of highly intelligent, middle-aged, (mostly) atheist men that they should support my bid for admission into the ranks of the intellectual elite. Some days I was fairly sure I had bitten off more than I could chew.
A Reactionary Voice in the Wilderness
A sympathetic friend sent me a link to one of Esolen’s columns. It was delightful, and quickly made me into a regular reader. Esolen’s work is witty and fun to read, but the benefit for me went well beyond that. He was a professor, and he saw the world a bit like me. Reading those columns, I felt flickers of hope that maybe someone like me still had a chance to become a scholar. It was the “this could be you” moment that my liberal friends claim to value.
I know many liberals will be inclined to misunderstand this story. They’ll picture me in my lonely apartment, chuckling with glee as Esolen skewers all the parties I despise, castigating our mutual enemies with ruthless invective. He’s a Catholic Sean Hannity, and I’m one of the lonely lemmings who thrills to his abuses. I cannot emphasize enough the wrongness of this picture.
What I saw in Esolen was, first and foremost, a Christian. He didn’t race to apologize for himself, or bend over backwards to modernize his anachronistic faith in obeisance to modern mores. He actually seemed to like being a Catholic; for him, the Western tradition was a source of immense energy and boundless joy. His columns were like verbal tapestries, painting rich scenes in big, bold colors. He made the Cornell faculty seem piddling and insignificant next to the immense host of saints and doctors that I would soon be joining. Also, he was a professor who was working today in the academy.
At times, yes, Esolen rages against the world. That’s when he employs a biting satirical wit that the unsympathetic have been known to misunderstand. These hyperbolic forays should not be viewed, however, as explosions of rage. They are rhetorical bombast, meant to rouse the reader from desultory slumber. He wants us to feel a sense of urgency about recovering our traditions and culture.
This, perhaps, is the simplest way to summarize the point. Esolen’s columns never left me feeling bitter and demoralized. I read them for inspiration. I read to be reminded that there is always hope in a world that is ultimately guided by God’s providence. I read for a glimpse into the mind of someone who clearly believed that the beautiful and true were still worth pursuing, even in uncertain times.
Nearly a decade after that initial discovery, my mailman delivered a happy surprise: a review copy of Esolen’s latest book. I had never written to him, but now he had encountered my work, and taken the initiative to reach out. It was a lovely full-circle moment as I reflected back on that anxious 25-year-old who decided to join the world’s largest institutional religion, and yet somehow felt horribly alone. I was grown up now, confidently Catholic and a doctor of philosophy, now developing my own ideas and projects. Would I ever have made it, though, without figures like Esolen to reassure me that such things were possible?
The End of Tradition?
I’m well aware that, to many, this story will only serve as further evidence that men like Esolen need to be rooted out as quickly as possible. Not only is he writing reactionary things, he’s guiding others along the same path! Who can say how far the damage goes?
Such critics should consider carefully whether marginalizing Christians is really to their benefit. To me it seems bitterly ironic that Esolen should be targeted by his own scholarly community at precisely the moment when, in the political world, liberals are wringing their hands over the rise of the alternative right, a group of white supremacists who wish to claim Western Civilization specifically for people of Aryan descent. These events may seem unconnected, but on a cultural level they are in fact deeply connected.
How can liberals fail to understand that the most effective and humane answer to such pernicious errors is found precisely in the work of men like Esolen, who have literally dedicated their lives to opening the treasures of Western Civilization to all? A rich and humane tradition is the most effective prophylactic against bigotry, tribalism, or the politics of resentment. When that foundation erodes, people become wayward, and make easy targets for power-hungry demagogues.
If the academy truly values diversity, scholars like Esolen should be retained in a place of honor precisely for articulating an under-represented viewpoint. That effort will be especially appreciated by beleaguered junior scholars like my former self, who don’t find many sympathetic figures in the academy today.
For those who actively wish to suppress this viewpoint, heed this warning. Your grip on modern culture is far from complete, and you may not have fully appreciated the good that religious traditionalists do in warding off some of humanity’s darker demons. Where decent men like Esolen are banished, more sinister figures are liable to thrive. Persecute them at your own risk.