Letter to the Editor: What is the Purpose of the Humanities Forum?
by Raymond Hain
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Associate Director of the Humanities Program
The controversy over Dr. Spencer Klavan’s visit offers us an opportunity to reflect on the vision of the Humanities Forum. Let me note first, however, that I speak solely for myself as founder and director of the Forum, and readers should not presume that my views are shared by all or any of the members of the Humanities Forum planning committee (indeed, the committee was divided last week on whether or not we should cancel Dr. Klavan’s visit).
I founded the Humanities Forum in the fall of 2015 with one purpose: to provide regular extracurricular opportunities for the entire campus community to consider important and diverse themes in the humanities. Integrated into the DWC periodization schedule as well as the Humanities Reading Seminars, we have held over 80 events, including a wide range of guest speakers from on and off campus, film screenings, musical performances, and panel discussions. Since its founding, the Forum has received support from over 25 departments, programs, and offices, and has established itself as a regular part of campus life.
The Forum has always found a way to include a wide range of views, both scholarly and political. We have hosted many guests one might associate with the “left” (such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose essay “There is no such thing as western civilisation” has since been integrated into the syllabi of some DWC teams) as well as the “right” (such as R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, who recently wrote a scathing critique of federal and state responses to the pandemic). We hosted Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” This fall we will host Thomas Chatterton Williams, whose more centrist views on race and race relations are important current contributions to public debate. And I hope we will welcome Glenn Loury to campus in the near future to reflect on similar issues from a more conservative perspective.
This vision was tested last week. Dr. Klavan, a classicist educated at Yale and Oxford, was invited to speak on Homer’s Iliad. He also maintains an active social media presence with comments critical of numerous movements on the left, including Black Lives Matter. In light of these comments, a number of students and faculty demanded that the Forum cancel Dr. Klavan’s visit. We miss the forest for the trees if we focus on whether and to what extent these comments are as bad as his detractors claim. The deeper and more pressing question for us as a community is whether we must prevent those who disagree with us on important matters from sharing in our intellectual life as an institution of higher learning.
So-called “cancel culture” asserts the proper response to those who disagree with us in profound ways is to prevent them from speaking. And so the movement last week to cancel our event was not one of critical engagement but an attempt to prevent it. I believe this is very dangerous to our community and to democracy more broadly. A friend of mine recently said that in the past, his ideological enemies sought him out for debate; now, they simply want him to disappear.
This past summer Thomas Chatterton Williams spearheaded an important and controversial open letter in Harper’s Magazine. “The free exchange of information and ideas,” he wrote, “the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” There are many dangerous implications of these new developments. Perhaps the most important is that they drive us apart from one another, into our own homogenous communities, communities that look across at each other with puzzlement, then dislike, and finally hatred. As an institution of higher learning, Providence College owes it to our students, and to the society of which we are a part, to model, teach, and encourage a different way of engaging those with whom we disagree.
These are uncertain times. I do not know if the vision I have tried to outline above can continue to animate the Forum here at PC. But as long as I am director it will be the vision that guides my editorial choices. And this means that there will be more opportunities to recommit ourselves either to the open exchange of ideas, or to associating only with those who already agree with us.