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Center for Ethics and Culture to host conference

Tess Civantos | Friday, November 13, 2009

The Center for Ethics and Culture’s 10th annual fall conference is not just a chance to learn, network and make friends. According to past participants, the conference may even change your life.

“The conference is my favorite academic event of the year,” Kathryn Wales, programs coordinator for the Center, said. “It’s so charged with excitement. People come out of those little rooms in McKenna Hall almost glowing.”

The conference, titled “The Summons of Freedom: Virtue, Sacrifice and the Common Good,” is named for Pope Benedict XVI’s words at the White House during his most recent visit to the United States.

He said: “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility,” an idea which inspired this year’s conference.

“Freedom is not just a call; we have to act on it,” Wales said. “It takes virtue to answer that call and it takes sacrifice to carry it out. All of us, all of the disciplines are working towards the common good.”

The conference theme is broad, allowing for papers from a range of disciplines.

“This may be our broadest conference so far,” Wales said. “It’s the 10th anniversary so we wanted to do something fundamental. We’ve done conferences about the arts, the family — this year it’s about what it takes to produce good art and good families.”

Family is an important part of the Center, since the warm, friendly environment makes this conference stand out. Students and professors share meals and coffee breaks designed to promote discussion.

“What makes this conference special is the family atmosphere,” Sarah Byers, an assistant philosophy professor at Boston College and this year’s Myser Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, said. “From established and even famous intellectuals down to undergrads, everyone is sharing meals and conversation. Everyone is inspired by the same ideas and is eager to share them.”

Why is this conference especially welcoming?

Partly, it is because of the values which conference participants share, she said.

“People who identify themselves as belonging to this ‘culture’ are spread out across North America,” Byers said. “When they come together at this conference, it’s like a family reunion.”

That shared culture is “the culture of life,” which means that “every human person has value and dignity,” Byers said.

One advantage of the conference’s family environment is the chance for students to network with well-known professors and speakers.

“It’s a great place for connections,” Wales said. “You meet professors and students from around the country. People find out about scholarships and fellowship opportunities over dinner, in conversation. You meet like-minded people and the opportunities that come from the conference are remarkable.”

The true purpose of the conference, though, is changing the world through changing individual hearts and minds, she said.

“I hope that people will be challenged by the papers they hear,” Wales said, “that they will be inspired to act, that their personal lives will be changed.”

Several well-known thinkers will speak at the conference, including Alice von Hildebrand, Michael Novak, Lucy Beckett and Notre Dame’s own Alasdair MacIntyre.

Von Hildebrand’s appearance is special and rare, as the frail 87-year-old travels little.

“I was campaigning hard for Alice to come,” Wales said. “I read her ‘Privilege of Being a Woman’ in college and it changed everything. Alice joked to me, ‘I’ll be at the conference if I’m alive.'”

The community that emerges from the conference continues to grow as past participants return again and again.

“Faculty keep coming back and bringing their students, who then come back on their own,” Keys said.

Wales offered advice to students attending the conference for the first time: plan ahead.

“The hardest thing about our conference is that you have to choose between nine, 10 or even 11 concurrent sessions,” she said. “Unless you plan ahead, you won’t be able to decide because they’re all so good.”

Byers and Keys offered simple advice to students: “Come to the conference!”

“You could challenge your mind, make some new friends and it could even change your life,” Keys said.