Discussion: Academia and the Permanent Things

In this conversation...

  • Dr. Marty Manor Mullins is a research associate with the John Jay Institute and teaches history and political science at Flathead Valley Community College.
  • Dr. Caleb Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute.
  • Dr. Nali Hilderman is a professor of American History and Political Science at San Diego Christian College.
  • Dr. Aaron T. Walter is a trained political scientist within the field of International Relations located in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

What opportunities have you found to help to instill qualities of leadership in your students?

Marty Mullins: The college years are a time for students to hone their critical thinking skills, which enables them to lead well in any future career.  I shape my class assignments so that students learn to evaluate source materials.  What sources can be trusted as credible when skimming Facebook, YouTube or the cable TV networks?  What about Wikipedia?  More importantly, when reading monographs, can students identify a scholar’s thesis, supporting points and evaluate the quality of source materials used?  My students must then craft their own thesis-driven papers where they are faced with the challenge of using reliable source materials to defend their own positions, without plagiarizing!

Caleb Verbois: Because I teach political science and focus on the presidency, leadership comes up a fair bit in class.  Qualities of leadership are difficult to practice in a classroom, however. As an institution, we foster leadership in our students through a very large number of active student groups.  For example, I am the faculty advisor for our undergraduate Law and Public Policy journal, one of a handful of peer-reviewed undergraduate journals.  It is entirely run by student leaders.  I also have the occasional opportunity to teach specialty courses, such as a one-credit travel course I am teaching next spring – we will visit Gettysburg to consider political and military leadership through Lee, Meade, Lincoln, and Eisenhower, who loved Gettysburg and bought the only home he ever owned adjacent to the battlefield.  I fully intend to use some of the things Alan and Douglas taught me when I visited the battlefield with them as a fellow.

Aaron Walter: I have particularly enjoyed mentoring students in a personal setting through being either a thesis advisor or opponent. Also I feel I have been given opportunities to demonstrate servant leadership by example with my students.

Nali Hilderman: As I teach many General Education courses, I often encourage my students that their integrity in my courses are as much, if not more important, than remembering all the minute details of history, and I hold them accountable to this.  I also challenge them to think about how they, as believers, are responsible for the knowledge they have to go into the world for Christ and His Kingdom.  We do a great deal of biblical integration at SDC so my focus is constantly trying to challenge my students to be a light for Christ in whatever field they go into - not just in their professional skills, but also in their character.  For the past four years, I have also directed SDC's Dr. Henry Morris Leadership program, a special opportunity for students to develop leadership skills while on campus.  I have been able to invest in nearly 100 students specifically encouraging them to lead like Christ and pursue excellence.  At graduation I send them out with the same charge that Alan Crippen always did the Fellows: "Remember that you are the light of the world, therefore let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven."  (Matthew 5:13).

How can ideas of conservatism or fundamental truths be engaged in a largely secular and progressive academic atmosphere?

Aaron Walter: It’s vital to offer practical and realistic examples to theory. If you can make the conversation “real” then the arguments based on principles and virtues and values will be generally more accepted as part of the dialogue. There is a good quote by Peter Kreeft that can apply here: “In an age of relativism orthodoxy is the only possible rebellion left.” There is such a yearning for these fundamental truths that their appeal may just be possible because they are in fact so radical to the current society and the lifestyles of most students.

Caleb Verbois: This largely depends on where you teach.  I teach at Grove City College, a small Christian, liberal arts school.  That’s a radically different environment than teaching at say, Penn State or Oberlin.  But I suspect wherever you teach, there are students that genuinely seek to know and learn truth.  If Christianity is true, then Christian faculty should have the courage and conviction to speak about it, trusting that those with ears to hear will learn.  I also think it’s important to distinguish between really fundamental truths and the passing conservative or Republican ideas of the moment.  That is to say that academia is both secular and very progressive, but Christian, conservative academics should take care to distinguish between advancing fundamental truths of Christianity and merely defending the current version of Republicanism.

Marty Mullins: A conservative (particularly a believer) in academia today is not just the only Christian his or her colleagues may ever meet, he or she might well be the only articulate conservative that fellow graduate students and professors will ever meet.  Academics love to debate—in and out of the classroom.  Thinking conservatives have myriad opportunities to challenge what many secular progressives often assume to be the only perspective that exists.  My overall experience has been that once progressives get to know you as a person or friend, they’re genuinely interested in what you believe and why.  Such conversations often do not happen in the graduate seminar class where, unfortunately, the conservative viewpoint is not presented or entertained.  All it takes, however, is a thoughtful leader to challenge the status quo.

What can colleges do to encourage a better sense of community and a culture of learning?

Nali Hilderman: I believe, based on some of my own research, that students are looking for relevance in their educational experience.  With an overload of media and information, they have trouble sifting through what is true and what is not, and why any of it matters.  The classroom is a place where professors can profoundly impact students' ability to learn.  We challenge their notions of what is true, we help them as they wrestle through, and we encourage them to land in a better place.

Caleb Verbois: At my institution we have a variety of ways to do this, from student groups dedicated to the liberal arts, or the study of conservative ideas, to a dedicated set of humanities courses (the core) that each student is required to take.  At other schools it is possible that this can only be done on a very small scale, perhaps around one or two faculty and an ISI reading group, Chesterton society group, or Center for Christian Study.  It would largely depend on the circumstances.

Aaron Walter: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has a beautiful quote that is my answer to this very good question. “Be united, but not closed off. Be humble but not fearful. Be simple, but not naive. Be thoughtful, but not complicated. Enter into dialogue with everyone, but remain yourselves.” This is I feel what should be encouraged and modeled by professors and administration employees.

Marty Mullins: No one is learning if he or she is shutting out the other side’s best arguments.  To the contrary, being willing to hear opposing perspectives sharpens one’s own position.  If Liberal Arts colleges are to live up to their name and tradition, they must invite and respectfully engage all political and religious viewpoints.  This applies not only to college campuses but to all of us Americans who make decisions everyday about what news outlets we subscribe to.  Do we exclusively confirm our own biases?  If so, we’re less able to defend our positions from the best arguments the other side presents.  As recently cited by author and journalist Fareed Zakaria, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the freedom of thought which is protected in the Constitution is, “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”  In concord with that belief, we Witherspoon Fellows in Washington, D.C. were advised to read the Bible and The Washington Post on a regular basis.


About these Alumni

Dr. Marty Manor Mullins is a research associate with the John Jay Institute.  A former Witherspoon Fellow (Fall 2002), her published research and scholarship focus on East Central European history, politics and urbanity, as well as Soviet history.  After completing a year of dissertation research in Slovakia on an Andrew Mellon and Fulbright IIE fellowship, she returned to the University of Washington in Seattle where she earned a Ph.D. in History in 2013. Dr. Mullins’ interest in East Central Europe stems from the seven years she lived Slovakia’s second city of Kosice, where she taught English to Slovak university and high school students from 2000-2002 and again from 2005-2008.  While in Slovakia she was an active participant in the Ladislav Hanus Fellowship and the Collegium of Anton Neuwirth, professional fraternities of public service professionals and organizational partners with the John Jay Institute’s Global Leadership Network.  She currently lives with her husband in Whitefish, Montana where she teaches history and political science at Flathead Valley Community College.

Dr. Caleb Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute. He teaches American Politics and Political Theory and specializes in American constitutional thought.

Dr. Nali Hilderman has been a professor of American history and Political Science at San Diego Christian College since 2009 and Director of the college’s Dr. Henry Morris Leadership Program since 2013.  She attended the Focus on the Family Institute in Colorado Springs, CO, during her undergraduate years.  She received her Master's degree from Baylor University (2005) where her thesis was on the influence of Christianity in the life and work of women's education pioneer, Mary Lyon.  Her work in Washington, D.C., (2005-2009) centered on biblical worldview for Hill staffers and the influence of the Church in American society.  Her research interests are Women's History and American Religious History. She lives in San Diego and enjoys running and reading.

Dr. Aaron T. Walter is a trained political scientist within the field of International Relations located in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Within International Relations theory he focuses on Neoclassical Realism.  His principal teaching subjects are International Relations, Comparative European Politics, and Israeli Studies.