Last weekend I attended the national meeting in Dallas of the Philadelphia Society. I went at the invitation of Bill Campbell, who is the Society’s secretary as well as president of the Louisiana chapter of the NAS, and on a scholarship graciously provided by the Earhart Foundation.
The theme was “The Perils of Progressivism,” and the speakers included Jonah Goldberg, Charles Kesler, and one of my professors from The King’s College, Ronald Pestritto, who now teaches at Hillsdale.
I met University of Texas professor and head of NAS’s Texas affiliate Rob Koons, as well as folks from the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Most of the young people I met had been home-schooled and gone to Christian colleges.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at such a conference, nor did I know very much about the Philadelphia Society (Philly Soc for short) before going. I had inspected its website and read the mission statement:
To sponsor the interchange of ideas through discussion and writing, in the interest of deepening the intellectual foundation of a free and ordered society, and of broadening the understanding of its basic principles and traditions. In pursuit of this end we shall examine a wide range of issues: economic, political, cultural, religious, and philosophic. We shall seek understanding, not conformity.
This all sounded like a broader version of what NAS seeks in higher education: a non-partisan effort to promote reason and traditional principles. The conference itself did embody such reason and traditionalism and made use of the kind of intellectual rigor that NAS promotes in colleges and universities.
It also had much more of a distinctly conservative and libertarian flavor than I had anticipated. Speakers invoked the spirit of Russell Kirk and braced for boos (but received none) at the mention of Rousseau. John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) listed his top six reasons for repealing Obamacare, and J. David Alvis of Wofford College laid bare President Obama’s preference for a “living Constitution.”
If there were any liberals or “progressives” in the audience, they must have kept silent. A little healthy debate would have been welcome, I thought. The Philly Soc member seated next to me at Saturday’s lunch, Joseph Johnston, described the Society’s goal as providing a forum for conversation on the most important issues in our society. Sometimes debate can enhance that conversation, and sometimes it can hinder it. Philly Soc apparently had decided not to waste time by giving a platform to any defenders of progressivism.
As one who follows higher education news much more closely than political news, I listened for what the speakers would have to say about colleges and universities. What I heard came in scattered excerpts. Jonah Goldberg, drawing on the movie Avatar,called UW-Madison “liberalism’s home tree,” and said that college students ironically associate conservative values with fascism. Bill Murchison introduced Rob Koons ironically as being in the business of “academic pornography” – Professor Koons is working to get Texas public universities to post online the syllabi of all courses offered. University of Dallas professor Tiffany Jones-Miller talked briefly about the censorious effects of speech codes at U Cal Davis.
The most interesting talk for me was by Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Institute, an organization that works to make America’s laws consistent with Constitutional freedoms and values. He told a story about a child at a public school who brought candy cane-shaped pens and a printed message, “The Legend of the Candy Cane,” to his class’s Winter party (the word “Christmas” was banned). His teacher did not permit him to enter the classroom with the gifts for his classmates because they contained religious references. The pre-approved images for the class were sleds, snowflakes, and “snowpeople” (“snowmen” was not politically correct enough). The Liberty Institute sued the school and won the long-running case.
Shackelford’s use of stories to illustrate government overreach enabled him to engage the audience in a more powerful way than most of the other speakers. He was also one of the few who spoke extemporaneously. Out of the 23 speakers I heard over the course of the weekend (I did not attend the optional dinner on Saturday evening), 18 read their speeches. Reading their talks hindered their ability to connect with the audience. I had difficulty following some of the speeches, probably because much of the subject matter was new to me.
Perhaps if I had just finished comprehensive philosophy and political science courses, I could have engaged more fully. But there seemed to be an underlying assumption that everyone in the room had recently completed such courses. I’m sure I learned a good deal if only by osmosis, but perhaps I could have learned more had the conference been geared more toward a general audience. It might have been nice if there was a session designed as a class specifically for young professionals and graduate students.
The greatest benefit I derived was simply getting to be around people who took seriously the American heritage of freedom and reason. The theme I heard repeated was “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” This phrase struck me as a life-theme I want to stand on and fight for. At first it sounds rather airy, but on reflection, each word is a radical claim. Claiming that there is such a thing as truth, as goodness, as beauty, strikes those who have been marinated in the fashionable relativism of the modern curriculum as, well, radical. Spending some time in the company of those who believe in these now unpopular ideas gave me a boost of courage to defend the true, the good, and the beautiful. I intend to do so through my work at the NAS – and in the meantime, I’ll try to remember not to read my speeches.
 The legend says that candy canes are shaped to represent a shepherd’s staff, or a J for Jesus, and that the red stripes represent Jesus’ blood shed on the cross.