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The difficult questions

| Thursday, September 22, 2016

If unaware of the arrival of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on campus a few weeks ago, one might have seen the amount of student excitement and guessed that the campus was hosting a rather successful SUB concert in the early evening. Thousands piled into Purcell Pavilion, eagerly awaiting to hear from a great legal mind. What can we say? Notre Dame students love a good intellectual event.

And the event was overflowing with potential. A liberal Supreme Court justice with a reputation for cutting dissents and controversial interviews had agreed to come to a Catholic campus and answer questions. One could almost hear Kevin Hart declaring, “It’s about to go down.”

Of course, nobody really expected the University to allow a roast of Ginsburg. The moderated portion of the event was largely biographical and rather lighthearted. As a venerated figure and an important example to aspiring female professionals, it would take away from the event to unleash the wrath of critical students upon her. But from the way that students sat forward in their seats as a student approached the microphone to field the first question of the Q&A, it was clear there were expectations of a quality discussion. After all, Ginsburg is no stranger to such critical inquiries, having made a living handling them, and the profound effects that her decisions have had on our lives and the shaping of our country give plenty of material for critical inquiry.

I wondered what challenges the students of the University would throw Ginsburg’s way. There is no shortage of material: How does she defend living constitutionalism? How would she respond to criticisms that the Court has become too powerful? Can she defend her position in a controversial case like Kelo v. New London or Obergefell v. Hodges? Maybe, I thought, the University would even be bold enough to let a student ask a question about her stance on abortion.

Unfortunately, the moderated questions demurred, and the potential for the event to create any kind of discussion or intellectual experience was lost. With all due respect to those who submitted the questions, none of them presented any kind of challenge to the justice or facilitated real discussion. I left the event feeling like I attended a rally for the RBG fan club, rather than a lecture on a college campus.

It seems like a shame that when given the pleasure to host one of the most intelligent, most powerful and most interesting women in the United States, Notre Dame refrained from allowing students to ask any question that might prove controversial or challenge the justice. Not only did it leave myself and other students disappointed, it fell short of the mission of the University.

The mission statement of Notre Dame, which I believe she usually follows closely, claims that “the University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth” and that one of its objectives is to embrace “free inquiry and open discussion”. Why, then, was such a pursuit of truth and open discussion stifled at this event?

In contrast, last week, Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput delivered a lecture on campus. The event featured an open Q&A, and more than one student took the opportunity to challenge the archbishop’s statements or the church’s views. Students were allowed to criticize Catholic doctrine and engage in discussion with a highly influential church leader. The lecture and lively dialogue during the Q&A sparked more than a few animated debates among students in classes, among friends and even in The Observer. While the event did not seek to be provocative, it led students to think more deeply about important issues surrounding faith, politics and sexuality, and to share those thoughts with others.

Many lament the tendency of Notre Dame students to be non-confrontational and reluctant to challenge others or share their opinions. Some even claim that Notre Dame students are more concerned with making friends or setting up for careers than pursuing an honest education. The lecture by Chaput proved that students can be encouraged to speak more freely and that many are, in fact, interested in genuine learning. The Ginsburg event, despite its incredible potential and excited audience, failed to have the same effect.

Perhaps not all speakers are willing or able to engage in an open Q&A, but events at the University should, at the very least, ask the speakers to engage in a meaningful dialogue with students and faculty in some capacity. When students encounter people who have spent a good portion of their lives tackling the great questions of politics, philosophy or religion, critical inquiry should be promoted, not discouraged.

I regard it as a shame for fans and dissenters alike that we were told how “Notorious RBG” came to earn her nickname, yet robbed of the chance to see her clever legal mind in action. But Ginsburg will not be the last influential public figure to speak on this campus in the coming years. It is my hope that the University, and other groups on campus, begin to consider their lecture events not only as entertainment or marks of prestige, but also as a valuable part of the University’s persistent and honest search for truth.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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