By Anh Do
On Wednesday, November 8th, the SCI (Student Committee on Instruction) hosted an interesting discussion panel, featuring tutors Mr. Franks, Mr. Walpin, Ms. Dougherty, and Mr. Baumann, the Presidential Fellow for Academic Support. The question was To what extent should the members of our community be politically active? Putting our Great Books down for a moment, the community came together to discuss a topic that is especially relevant in today’s sociopolitical world. It was a wonderful opportunity to contemplate the purpose and value of a St. John’s education in both its apolitical and political spheres. Over the course of the discussion, we asked ourselves if we ever simply walked away from the real world by immersing ourselves in Great Books, and what is the nature of our learning at St. John’s in its application to one’s life in the polis.
Each of the speakers kicked off the discussion by offering their own responses to the opening question. Mr. Franks talked about the importance of staying faithful to fulfilling the hopes of St. John’s College’s founders, in whose minds perhaps the college will continue to produce good human beings that benefit and improve whatever polis they find themselves in. Mr. Walpin, on the other hand, told us a story about one of his friends who was completely indifferent to politics, and shared with us his reflections on the privilege of having political rights and one’s responsibility to exercise those rights. Ms. Dougherty expressed something that strikes me as very thought-provoking. She acknowledged that what we are doing at St. John’s is essentially a retreat from the political world, but a very necessary one. In today’s climate of partisan and polarized politics, it is crucial that one educates oneself in order to exercise one’s judgement and to be moderate by having a more comprehensive view of issues. Then Mr. Baumann shared how he became politically active, and how learning about the most influential thoughts and ideas that shape our world today helps inform us to take political action.
The SCI then collected questions from the students, who could either direct their questions to a specific speaker, or ask questions to which any speaker can respond. Two questions stood out to me. The first one was concerning the extent to which we should involve other people in our community in taking political action. A student asked whether we should aim to educate everyone in the community, about the most fundamental things such as mid-term elections and why one should vote, in order to form a more politically active and engaged collective, or whether it’s OK only to associate with one’s friends who have the same level of interest in politics. Our speakers gave quite insightful responses, because they did not only share with students their opinion on the subject matter, but also offered some open-ended questions and invited us to think more about these on our own. A noteworthy remark by Mr. Franks was that a political action perhaps does not have to be something grand. One can be political by doing the tiniest thing, such as voicing one’s uneasiness about some unjust action with one’s neighbor, or by participating in a local political group that advocates for women’s rights. One is personally responsible for the extent to which one is political, and for the ways in which one participates in politics.
The second question that I thought was really interesting was: how feasible is it to have a “national debate” concerning issues such as gun control or abortion? Mr. Walpin suggested that when something unjust or outrageous breaks out, beyond the scope of normalcy, political responses such as canvassing and holding public discussions are essentially what constitutes “national debate.” Then Ms. Dougherty suggested that we could, and should participate in local debates, because that which makes up the “national debate” is a collection of small, local group conversations that are then accumulated to the national level. Mr. Baumann brought up the importance of evoking emotions in calling the public’s attention to certain issues, and the power of images in reminding us of humanity and fighting against the unjust. Mr. Franks then asked us to think about the question of what constitutes a political question, before we can even have a political debate. Slavery, for instance, was not a political question for a long time. How do we know what is the right question to ask? Should we just wait until something breaks out beyond the ordinary and acceptable to debate about the right course of action?
These are all important questions that each of us in the St. John’s community should ask ourselves as we read and discuss ideas in the Great Books. We have a tremendous privilege of being able to retreat from the polarized world of political thoughts and opinions, in order to educate ourselves and exercise our judgement. But such retreat is not to be permanent. Rather, one should constantly fluctuate between submerging oneself in Great Books and participating in one’s own polis, for it is every citizen’s responsibility and right to be politically engaged to the best of one’s capacity.