January 21, 2018

An Interview With Dr. Esolen

Photo courtesy of youtube.com

Photo courtesy of youtube.com

by Katherine Puzycki ’17


On Thursday, November 10, Dr. Anthony Esolen of the English department graciously accepted an interview with The Cowl in response to two of his articles, which appeared in Crisis Magazine. “The Narcissism of Campus Diversity Activists” was published on Feb. 24 of this year, and “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult” was published on Sept. 26.

Dr. Esolen has been a professor of the humanities at Providence College for 26 years, and has written more than 15 books and hundreds of articles for various Catholic and other publications. In an opportunity to share Dr. Esolen’s side of the story, I invited him to share his thoughts on questions relating specifically to those articles, which have been deemed controversial.

While these types of interviews are not typical for The Cowl, I found it my duty as both the Editor-in-Chief of this paper and as a student-journalist to share another perspective on the ongoing dialogue about Dr. Esolen’s publications. That is, the duty to preserve freedom of speech and also the duty to present the public with pertinent information.

In place of our usual Editor’s Column, and in order to retain the full integrity of the interview, I have provided a full transcript of our dialogue. I hope that it serves useful in clarifying points of confusion and that it might lead to further open and honest discussions about diversity and academic freedom.

Katie Puzycki (KP): In preparation for today I have read several of your articles, but I would like to focus mostly on the two articles that have received much attention here, and those are: “The Narcissism of Campus Diversity Activists” and “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult.”

Anthony Esolen (AE): And remember that the titles are not mine, [the editor of Crisis Magazine] never uses my titles, in fact never uses anybody’s titles, he puts titles on for—what is it called now, “clickbait?”—I have no power over his decisions that way.

KP: Do you personally think that if the headlines were different the articles would have received the same attention?

AE: No, no I don’t think so. But I am so used to him putting stupid titles on my articles that I didn’t even notice. I only know what they are when they get published and I never know what day that’s going to be either, so it might not be until its already been up there for a day or two that I finally see that he’s put up the article.

KP: So, Crisis Magazine is an online magazine that’s geared toward a Catholic audience?

AE: Yeah, a conservative Catholic audience, and by conservative we mean not necessarily politically conservative, but theologically conservative, though there’s some overlap.

KP: I think you said that these articles addressed higher education as a whole, and not just Providence College. However, I can also understand why students here might feel as if it is directly related to them because it makes immediate reference to them in the first paragraph of “The Narcissism of Campus Diversity Activists.”

AE: Yes, but the article is not about them specifically at all. I mention [Providence College] because that prompted my thinking about this once again. It was sort of the proximate cause. It is about Providence College to the extent that this is a fight that we have been having at this school for, since before I came here. Basically this is about the Western Civ program—this one side that’s defending the value of that program as a sort of version, a watered-down version, unfortunately, of the classical liberal arts education. And the other side doesn’t value it at all, accuses it of all kinds of political sins, and I think the students are caught there in a battle that they wouldn’t really know is a battle that’s been going on for forty years. The students are just caught in the middle. So that’s what that piece is mainly about. It’s not aimed at students; it’s aimed at faculty.  The odd thing at Providence College—and it’s a mystery to me still how it’s developed this way—is that, more or less, the faculty members—whether they’re Catholic or not—who are comfortable with the Catholic character of the college, or even promote it, tend also to be comfortable with the fact that there’s this Western Civ program and the sort of education that is offered here. But those who are not tend to be not comfortable with both of those things too.

KP:  You write, “But that would compromise our standing as a more than regional school, and a weather eye for their salaries and their prestige would suffice for most of the faculty to rebel against such a policy. Cherchez l’argent.” So, whom does the “they” refer to specifically?

AE: I doubt that the students would have the experience to get the target of those two lines. That has to do with faculty members here at Providence College who think it really matters whether we are ranked 31st or 97th on some U.S. News and world report list and in order to get our rankings higher we have to be more than regional, we have to be national, we have to get students from everywhere. See, I don’t care about any of that. If we serve the poor in southeastern New England, we have our ethnic diversity and racial diversity right there, automatic. Because those people are right here. But, we’d have to lower tuition, that we simply don’t care about rankings. The faculty would not be pleased. So what you have going on is a conflict between the faculty’s desire always to have higher and higher salaries and to have the College be more known, a bigger name, and the obvious thing to do if you want racial and ethnic diversity for the College, and one that would plant us back in the tradition of Providence College, which is that we were a local, regional school for people who couldn’t afford to go to Brown, to give them a great education.

KP: In regards to finding diversity on campus, and also in programs such as the DWC program, would you say that the diversity agenda here is more out of political interest than it is out of true desire to have a more diverse college campus?

AE: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think that would be unfair. All I meant by those sentences was that we could have [racial and ethnic diversity] without any kind of real political program, and without really even trying. All we’d have to do is serve the less privileged here in southeastern New England, and we’d be right there automatically. Those two sentences suggest, I think, that is what I would be in favor of because that’s what Providence College used to do. Only then, the ethnic mix was different. All we’d have to do to have that, a different kind of diversity, because the ethnic mix is not the same as it was back then—it’s different now—is to go back to that mission.

KP: In another part of this essay you write about an imaginary scenario in which you’re bringing into the class a very different type of culture—Germanic culture. However, you say that this wouldn’t fulfill our diversity core. What I understand from your writing is that courses in diversity only extend as far as faculty and students want them to go.

AE: Well it’s not the students, it’s the faculty. So let’s say I offered that course in Anglo-Saxon, Old English. That is not going to pass muster. That will not count for your diversity requirement. So what I’m trying to do is figure out what their rationale is, if they’re really thinking about an educational encounter with a different culture from ours, or if they’re conceiving this in contemporary political terms. It seems to me that if what we’re talking about is the encounter of young minds with a completely different world, that course that I’m imagining—how could it not satisfy the requirement? But if it doesn’t mean that—that you don’t encounter a completely different way of life, a totally different culture from yours—then what is it that we’re talking about? And my guess is, among faculty, that we’re talking about things that have to do with contemporary politics. But there’s a problem there. Because now it seems to be that what they’re after with contemporary politics is not at all in accord with what a sort of neutral observer would think. It is good to study a way of life that’s different than yours. I suspect that most college faculty, when they hear the phrase “cultural diversity,” are thinking of something in contemporary politics. Maybe some of them think that if you study something like ancient Hindu holy texts, okay, that would count, but not if you study ancient Greek holy texts. That’s not going to count.

KP: So basically, why doesn’t ancient cultural study count as diversity, but modern politics and culture do when it is what we’re living in?

AE: We’re living it and we know quite a lot about it, it’s all around us. The other stuff we don’t know well at all because we’re not around it. And this is not aimed at the students; this is aimed at faculty, especially faculty who are not in the liberal arts. If what we’re after is diversity then, for instance, why should you be requiring this college to be like every other college?

KP: In another part of that article you write: “With plenty of exceptions, a Faculty Senate is usually made up of the more politically ambitious professors. Ours will be sympathetic to the students.”

AE: I’m still thinking of one of the demands there that have to do with either eliminating the Western Civ program, or changing it radically so that it’s really no longer what it has been. The Faculty Senate will be sympathetic to that. What is hard for people to get, because you’re here at Providence College and you take for granted that the kind of education you get here is a common thing, well, it’s not common, and most professors have not had anything like it. It’s not their fault though, that they have not had a strong liberal arts education, if any at all. A liberal arts education is just very rare these days. So, they don’t really know it’s value, and they have had plenty of opportunity to encounter it here—but most won’t do that, they’ll refuse to do that. I mean, I’ve been here since 1990, and the critics of Western Civ that come from the non-Western Civ departments, they never sit in on a class. Only one did, and he was converted, and he ended up teaching Civ—Dr. —, from the political science department. And he’s a great guy. But otherwise, no, they have not had this type of education in their own history, and they have not shown any interest in acquiring anything like it since they’ve been here.

KP:  I want to go back to this other article you wrote back in September, “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult” that students kind of took arms to—

AE: Well, yeah, that article hardly mentions students at all. That article is squarely about what it means to be a Catholic college and why people who are always using the word diversity, why they never apply that to the Catholic college as being a different kind of college from other colleges.

KP: You ask a series of questions on the second page here, and the first one of those is “What is diversity as opposed to divergence?” What I’ve understood from reading this article is that there seems to be a strong focus on that question, what is diversity, real diversity, versus divergence—that seems to be an important aspect of this article specifically. So an important question to ask you now is: What would you define diversity, in these contexts, as being?

AE: I don’t know. I think this is a question to return to over and over. One of the points of this article is that people haven’t defined what they mean by diversity. What does that mean? Let’s say that you have a school where you’ve got this wide ethnic and racial diversity, so people come from this place and that place, but they all think alike. Would that really be a place of diversity? Or suppose that you have a place where you have a majority of the people who are in a certain cultural pattern, but then there are others who rebel against that and go off in their own direction. They diverge from the majority, deliberately. Is that a good thing? It depends. Second, is that what we’re talking about here? So, you’ve got a kind of ordinary set of expectations for the majority of people and then some people veering off from that. And I’m not talking about the people of a certain race or ethnic background, that doesn’t matter to me. But to say there is a certain group of people who rebel against the majority—they diverge—is that a good thing, a bad thing, sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing? Is that what we’re talking about when we talk about diversity? Or do we mean something different? I don’t think it has been defined. It would be nice if you were pushing for something, and it would be nice if you defined what you mean by it.

KP: This seems to be more of a question, not about diversity in terms of race, but in terms of how a supposed Catholic college fits in to this topic of diversity. You talk about the difference between God, I think, and people, and the diversity that stands there alone. So to me at least, my interpretation—

AE: Those questions are challenges, not to students but to people who read Crisis Magazine, and also to faculty members. The tremendous irony of it all is that the Catholic Church, which is now 2,000 years old, is the most multi-cultural institution in the world right now, and it has always been that way. This is the missionary question, front and center, that’s always had to be asked: How do we present the Catholic faith to people who belong in this group over here that live very different lives from the way we live? That’s the key missionary question. How to bring the knowledge of Christ to people who were the Heron Indians living on the banks of the Great Lakes, or the Aztecs in Mexico, or the Anglo-Saxons, the pagan Germanic peoples. The answer to that question is never the same. Well, you’re obviously always going to teach them about the history of salvation, you’re going to baptize them. But how the Church encounters those various cultures—different from culture to culture, from time to time—I think, in general, has been very good. That is, the Church has not been a crusher of cultures. The cultures still live, and maybe they even live, I hope, more strongly, or better, or purely than before. But there’s this tremendous irony that that is what the Church is [an institution that values diverse cultures], that’s what the Church has been, but people who are not part of that have no idea.

KP: Right, and the moment that I perceive this irony the most is in the paragraph that starts with, “Why should a Catholic institution not then be itself, precisely to offer to that increasingly homogenous and nothing-adoring world a different word, the word of Christ and his Church?”

AE: Yeah, and the other thing, and that’s another part of my nightmare, is that the secular West—and that is tremendous power and wealth—will flatten every culture in the world, and reduce every culture to our way of life. And I think that plenty of faculty—secular faculty—across the United States would be perfectly happy with that. But that’s part of my nightmare. I mean these are people who are making food and medicine conditional upon, I’ll say, a poor country in Africa accepting Western sexual ethics. I had a student in here, and he’s a good friend of mine, and he was yelling at me for saying that would be a bad thing. And I said, “J—, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to say we’ll only give you this food and medicine if you adopt the ways of the United States in regards to sex? Why is that right?” Anyway, that’s what I mean by neo-colonialism; you’re going to treat these poor countries as your clients and you’re going to starve them or not bother to give them medicine unless they adopt your whole sexual agenda. And that, I think, is wrong.

KP: So what you’re saying—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—is: What is right about making people assimilate to the thoughts and ideals of a single individual on either a college campus or anywhere else in life? That seems to be completely against diversity, since that individual would be suppressing someone else’s right to have a different thought.

AE: Though that—see, whenever you get human beings together, and we know what people are like, they’re going to sometimes rub each other the wrong way. They’re going to get on each other’s nerves. In fact, they’re going to do bad things to each other, although, we hope not too bad. But that’s the case with everybody. And that can’t be cured. That’s going to happen. The question is not whether we can get all people to think the same, I don’t think we would even want that, I don’t think that’s a good thing. But how we can bring people together in friendship, so that they forget about their grudges, they drop their grudges, they overlook the faults of other people, and hope that other people overlook their own faults. That’s what we’ve got to be aiming for in my mind. But that’s not a political aim in terms of partisan politics or international politics or anything like that. It’s a political aim if you mean by political what maybe Aristotle once meant by it—getting people together in a group for the common good. But that has to do with friendship. And I don’t see these initiatives as being helpful in that aim. I want people to be friends together regardless of where they come from, or race, or ethnic background—that doesn’t matter to me. I just want them to be friends. I have no political aims for these kids. What they do politically is not my business. It’s not my interest. My interest is giving them what’s left of a really good, classical, liberal arts education. And my human interest is that they become friends. I have another interest, which is that they will draw closer to God, although I can’t have that as my primary interest, that has to be in the background too—they didn’t hire me to be their CCD instructor, they hired me to teach them English literature and so forth, but always that too is on my mind.

KP: A lot of feedback—negative feedback—I’ve heard from students is in regards to the part where you discuss the “Alphabet soup of sexual proclivities“—

AE: I thought that that was the thing that got under the skin and not anything else.

KP: At least, in understanding the audience that you are writing to in Crisis Magazine, this part is very factually based on what Catholic teaching is on these moral issues. It’s not necessarily anything that is meant to, let’s say, offend someone—

AE: I don’t ask my students who they were in bed with last night. That’s—as a teacher—that’s not my business either. But the question is how does a Catholic school reconcile what seems to be a celebration of certain activities that are opposed to Catholic teaching? How do those two things fit together? And I don’t know that they can fit together. It would be like a Catholic school holding celebrations of divorce. Well, you can’t do that as a Catholic school. In order to celebrate divorce, you have to cease to be Catholic while you’re doing that and there’s a conflict there. And I don’t think that conflict can be resolved. You either have to be Catholic or not.

KP: In regards to that, would you say that it’s still important or necessary to have respect for those who have differing sexual orientations, for example, regardless of whether you support their habits or not?

AE: Well persons, persons are owed respect and love—more than respect—love. That we owe to all persons. But, opinions are only owed as much respect as accords with their truth or their coherence, and activities are only owed respect according to their goodness, to their morality. So if you say: “If a kid is acting on homosexual desires, for instance, should that kid be accorded respect?” I’d say: “Respect? More than respect! That kid should be accorded love.” But, if you then say: “Well then you have to approve of what he’s doing.” Well, I can’t because I’m a Roman Catholic. But I also can’t approve of what these heterosexual kids are doing a weekend either. And I can’t approve of what some of their parents have done. And I can’t approve of what liars do, I mean, everybody’s got sins, everybody’s got temptations, so there’s nothing particularly special about this one. That’s why I ask the question: If we are going to approve of that sort of behavior, why don’t you approve of pornography and other sorts of behavior that the church opposes?

KP: And I think that’s an important clarification that you might not get upon first reading this article—that you don’t have to necessarily support someone’s actions to respect or love the person. If that happened you’d get people saying you’re every kind of “-phobe” the dictionary has to offer, for having certain opinions, certain moral opinions, certain religious moral beliefs.

AE: If I say I oppose abortion, does that mean I hate women? That doesn’t even make sense…

KP: But that is what’s happening.

AE: Yeah, I understand that. But that doesn’t make sense. That should have no place in an institution of higher learning where people are supposed to be able to have a broader vision of things than in the weeds and the dust of the political arena.

KP: So, in conclusion on this piece, are you asking for more respect of your opinion and voice as someone that supports Catholic thought, just as it’s given to a secular teacher?

AE: No, I don’t want any respect. I don’t care if people respect me. Okay? That’s neither here nor there. What I want is the freedom for my Catholic colleagues—see I have freedom—or I did—but I want freedom for Catholic colleagues to be themselves, and not to have to fear that they are going to be charged with this or that form of bias or whatever just because they uphold what the Church teaches. And I want the classical liberal arts education that we have here at Providence College to be enhanced, not to be watered-down, and not to be abandoned. I’d also like it, but I can’t make it happen, if we could focus less on politics, and more on human needs and also students, especially students who feel uncomfortable here, but all students too. We haven’t done that. That was the half of the piece [the Nov. 10 Letter to the Editor] that I sent to you. There are all sorts of things that we can do to bring young people together that we don’t bother to do. So, these articles are not about me at all. They were prompted by things that were done to some of my friends, and they’re prompted by a 30 to 40 year long attack on the Western Civ program and on the Catholic character of the College, which seems somehow to be intertwined, so that the people who attack one are usually attacking the other. Why that is, I think, is peculiar to Providence College’s history. It might not be that way in a different place, but it happens to be that way here.

I have a thing of tremendous beauty and power to give to students, and that is a classical liberal arts education, if they would just ask. And it is a scandal that some people would suggest to them that it is not worth getting. It’s a thing of great power, and it can open all kinds of doors for these kids and I’d be delighted to give this to anybody at all. Anybody.

One thought on “An Interview With Dr. Esolen

  • Richard Zablocki says:

    It takes a lot of courage for Prof. Esolen to stand firm for the beauty of the Catholic Tradition in this oppressive culture. Bravo!

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