Intellectual Firebrands Revive Historic Debate Society
Story posted May 19, 2008
They have been referred to as the New Old Dead Poet's Society, or words to that effect. But Bowdoin's newly revived literary-debating organization, the Peucinian Society, is hardly an arcane, secret fraternity.
When they are not rattling the windows of the Peucinian Room in Sills Hall with heated evening discussion, the group of 30 or so student club members (women definitely included) are preparing formal "disputations," or orations, hosting public speakers on hot-button topics of the day, working to recruit new members, or enjoying such literary pleasures as their annual Homerathon—an eight-hour recitation of The Odyssey.
The original society, one of the oldest in the nation, counted among its members Henry Wadworth Longfellow (1825), Franklin Pierce (1824), and Joshua Chamberlain (1852).
The newest version traces its lineage to three current sophomores—Ross Jacobs' 10, Julian Chryssavgis '10, and Christine Carletta '10 —government department majors who met in a 2006 first-year seminar, Modernity and Its Discontents, an interdisciplinary course that cut a wide intellectual swath through 500 years of science, religion, morality and politics.
The course ignited fierce ideological battles among the trio.
"[We] had hours and hours of debate, a ferocious dialectic between politics and philosophy," recalls Jacobs. "We would go into the library and they wouldn't stop. Finally, Julian and I had a heated e-mail exchange about the value of ambition. He sent me a 10-page letter and I sent him a 10-page letter back."
The pair eventually emailed both of their letters to former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, in Chryssavgis's home state of Massachusetts. The ex-Governor wrote back with an opinion somewhere in the middle, and suggested that the duo could do a lot of great work together.
It didn't take much more prodding than that.
They hit the library in earnest, researching the history of debating at the College. They quickly discovered that Bowdoin was home to one of the nation's oldest literary-debate societies, the Peucinians, founded in 1805. To date, there have been 1,456 Peucinian members (give or take a few from the current membership).
The group had an intense rivalry with another prominent Bowdoin literary club, the Athenaean Society, to which Nathaniel Hawthorne belonged. Together, the societies amassed thousands of books before the Hubbard Library was established. The two societies merged in 1880 but eventually dissolved as fraternities became popular on campus.
"The kind people in Special Collections rolled out volumes and carts of old information, catalogs and papers about the original Peucinian Society," says Jacobs. "We were in a literal trance as we dug through these old treasures and watched the society come to life before our eyes. We found written statements from Longfellow and Chamberlain about their days with the society and we laughed as we noticed the differences between their style and ours."
A Modern Take on Tradition
The students decided it was time to reclaim the Peucinian Society and took diligent notes to piece together a picture of the customs, activities and spirit of the historic society. They read through special correspondence between members of the Peucinians and other historic literary societies, including Yale's Skull and Bones Society and the Cambridge Apostles. They contacted other colleges to compare notes.
After weeks of discussion, they came up with what Jacobs terms "a modern vision of a Peucinian Society that would be compatible with Bowdoin's culture today but would not compromise the decorum, intensity, and profundity of the original organization."
By the fall of 2007 when the first official meeting was held, the society had 10 members. By mid-term spring 2008, its membership was 30 and growing.
— Prof. Paul Franco
Bi-monthly disputations, or debates, are held on Thursday nights and are presided over by Jacobs, the society's co-president (Julian Chryssavgis is on leave for the academic year). Members are required to attend all sessions and to dress appropriately (suit and tie or the feminine equivalent).
Debates are preceded by the recitation of a poem, selected by the group's poet laureate, English major Samuel Smith '10. Then two members square off at the dais, presenting contrasting arguments on the evening's topic.
Debate topics are broadly derived from a set of stated intellectual priorities that span Western political and moral philosophy from ancient Greece to the present. They begin with fundamental questions about the nature of virtue or of love, the relationship between faith and politics, the definition of a common good—and quickly become a place where students can "talk about the most contentious issues in our country right now," says Jacobs. "Issues of faith, of sexuality, of race."
Each disputation topic is presented as a "resolution," an inflammatory statement of fact, such as: "Man must be forced to be free," or "Violence is always evil," or "Federalism has outlived its usefulness to America."
Following delivery of their formal arguments, the issue is opened up for group debate.
What is perhaps most astonishing is not that the students are debating such issues, but that they are doing so after a full day of classes in the red-hot center of the semester. For no academic credit.
"I think there is an enormous amount of potential in this organization," says Professor of Government Paul Franco, one of the club's 10 overseeing faculty members. "These students come into my classes all fired up. It provides this amazing outside-the-classroom forum for students to discuss the very important issues without depending on professors to aim them in the right direction. I find it fantastic that they have that self-responsibility toward an intellectual goal."
"People don't have to force themselves to come to meetings," explains Christine Carletta, the society's provost. "It's something they look forward to. It's really nice to have a place to really sit down and talk with the brightest minds at Bowdoin without worrying about what professors think ... and without time restraints."
Normally, the decibel level in the room gets pretty high—in spite of Jacobs' firm grasp of Robert's Rules of Order, which he exercises routinely from his place at the head of the table. However, there was one moment last semester when a particularly heated discussion suddenly came to a complete standstill. Group members just stared at each other.
"We all came to this instantaneous realization that this was just the very best conversation any of us had ever had on campus," says Carletta. "We were completely awed by it."
Keeping Faith With Reason
On an early spring night mid-semester, Peucinian members stream downstairs into the warm, woody confines of the Peucinian Room dressed in coats and ties, dresses and heels. Before they get started, founding member Hassan Muhammad '10 riffs soothing jazz strains on a portable keyboard, while members chat and nosh on cold cuts around a massive seminar table.
First up is history major Tim O'Brien '10, who is arguing in favor of the evening's resolution: "Cultural secularism is bad for America."
"I wrote it this afternoon," says O'Brien of his heated, seven-page written defense of America's Judeo-Christian cultural underpinnings.
"I am emphasizing that our country is founded on the idea that a secular government is best because it allows for all religions," says O'Brien, leaning into the podium to deliver his talk. "The problem is that we have gotten away from this today, taking secularism to mean no religions. We want religion to be whittled away until it is nothing more than a personal preference, so that it will have no effect on politics or our public; this is a mistake."
O'Brien urges his fellow classmates to consider the poverty of a secular society without the moral underpinnings of faith. "I do not deny that completely secular people can be moral ... What I do deny is that people, with only reason and no faith, have any reason to be moral," he challenged. "Faith extends to an area Reason alone can not reach."
His opponent, Sam Smith, delivers a less scripted, though equally passionate rebuttal.
"Human beings are defined by a desire to create, to see themselves and the world around them, to craft grand visions," says Smith. "What religion does, what Christianity does, is to take that away from us," he argues.
"If you are to remove Christianity, there must be something to replace it. The absence would be nihilism. There are many things that could fill the void left by a God: poetry, art, a faith in community, classical philosophy, all things that could call upon the strengths and the will of a nation without depending upon a divine word."
Afterwards, O'Brien, a devout Catholic, gauges that Sam's more psychologically oriented argument has prevailed among the group. "The people I expected to side with me did. But Sam definitely had the majority with him," said O'Brien. "He wasn't arguing that secularity is good, but that religion is bad. I totally disagree with him, but I think he did an eloquent job of making his argument."
— Ross Jacobs
Rather than feeling defeated by the direction of the debate, O'Brien seemed strengthened by the process of articulating his own beliefs and grateful to speak frankly about his faith in an academic setting—an environment that is normally the embodiment of secularism.
"My Catholicism makes me passionate about searching for truth, which is why I'm here in the first place," reflects O'Brien "We can get into an argument here and no one makes personal attacks, no one takes it personally. We can put our hearts on our sleeve, then afterwards shake hands and laugh about it. Being in a group like this makes you more comfortable being around people who believe differently than yourself."
"The ability to articulate ideas in a graduated, sensible way is something that will very much support these students later on," observes Franco. "But the leadership and oral skills pale in comparison to the sheer intellectual excitement of the thing.
"To look back on such an experience, well, this is the sort of thing that we all wish our college experience had more of," says Franco. "Deep friendships are forged on the basis of having such intellectual conversation. You don't get much more liberal artsy than that."
Giving the Questions Heat
For Jacobs in particular, the intellectual goals of the Peucinain Society appear to be along the order of a crusade.
It is not uncommon to find him striding across campus asking relative strangers such questions as: "Do you agree with this statement? 'The 1960s were a total disaster.'"
Perhaps more astonishing than the question itself is Jacobs's response: He actually listens.
"I really do feel a need to bring people together around serious discourse," explains Jacobs. "It's an important priority for students to build a bridge between our academic and our social lives."
He says he selected Bowdoin largely on the basis of the Offer of the College. "When I got here, I really wanted to have generous enthusiasms, I envisioned people having intellectual discussions everywhere.
"What I learned my first semester is that the Offer of the College is not the gift, it's the OFFER. The potential is here, but ... it's up to us to give the enduring questions heat."
Thanks in part to the intellectual fomentation of one group of students, discussion of those questions at Bowdoin endures well into the 21st century.
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