The Witherspoon Forum provides a space for high school students who are serious about their studies to discuss foundational questions of human existence and contemporary cultural issues in dialogue with their peers and Witherspoon’s seminar leaders.
Each academic year, the Forum features six three-part virtual seminars that explore a common theme through interdisciplinary approaches, including political theory, philosophy, history, literature, and the arts. No subject matter expertise is expected, and no grades are assigned. Instead, the Forum seeks to foster rigorous conversation, meaningful reflection on fundamental questions, and intellectual friendship.
Open to students in grades ten, eleven, and twelve, applicants are invited to specify which seminars they plan to attend. If accepted, students commit to attending these seminars. Those who attend four or more seminars throughout the year will be recognized as Witherspoon Scholars. They will also receive priority consideration for the Witherspoon Institute’s week-long, in-person summer seminar, Moral Life and Classical Tradition.
The Forum’s inaugural theme is “Revolutions.” The word calls to mind distant historical periods such as Colonial America or the French First Republic. Yet many commentators believe we live in a time of revolution today. With political polarization, economic insecurity, troubled institutions, and persistent social unrest, it seems that revolutionary ingredients are everywhere we look. If so, what exactly is this revolution, and how can we navigate it? What are the scientific, religious, political, social, and artistic dimensions of this revolution? Do we respond to revolution with revolution, or something else?
Revolutions in Art and Aesthetics – Dr. Margarita Mooney Clayton
January 23rd and 30th, February 6th — 7:00pm EST over Zoom
Why does beauty matter to human happiness and the common good during a time of crisis? The goal of this seminar is to explore continuities and ruptures in three periods of time in which philosophers, theologians, and creators of art (literary, visual, musical) debated the place of beauty in human life. The first session will focus on ancient Greek philosophy and early Christian theology. Is beauty a human achievement or something that lifts us away from the human towards a purely contemplative state? Second, we will examine the medieval thought of Thomas Aquinas in his creative retrieval of Aristotle. How can art, understood as Aristotle did as a practical virtue strengthen moral virtue as Christians understand it? Third, we will examine how modern Romantic notions of art have emphasized the subjectivity of human creativity. Does freeing the creative impulse from the transcendent and from practical virtue thereby free human instincts to reach their true fulfillment? Through our readings, lectures, and discussion, we will explore to what extent we can say there is an objective notion of beauty through which some ideas can be reconciled, and others critiqued.
The Sexual Revolution: Roots, Repercussions, and the Road to Restoration – Dr. Janet Madigan
February 13th, 20th, and 27th — 7:00pm EST over Zoom
We typically think of the sexual revolution as the social upheaval that occurred in the 1960s, ushering in an era of freedom from the moral and biological constraints that had previously attached sex to marriage. Has the sexual revolution delivered on its promise of greater individual freedom? Has it created greater social equality in liberating women from the biological ties that bind? In Parts I and II of this course we will examine the philosophical and sociological roots of the sexual revolution. Drawing on Carl Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution and Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve after the Pill, we will consider how artificial contraception and abortion have fueled the “expressive individualism” that ultimately severs the intrinsic connection between the person and the community. Given all the changes the sexual revolution has wrought in our cultural norms, is the restoration of sexual integrity an impossibility? In Part III we will turn to the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, John Paul II and Benedict XVI to ponder how to restore an authentic vision of human sexuality to society.
Living in Revolutionary Times – Dr. Micah Watson
April 9th, 16th, and 23rd — 7:00pm EST over Zoom
How would we know if we were living through truly revolutionary times? The cultural ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet as much that was once held fundamental to human flourishing is questioned or even held in contempt. At the same time ancient wisdom tells us there is “nothing new under the sun.” In this series we’ll wrestle with this issue by engaging three highly contested questions pertaining to education, politics, and philosophy. What does it mean to be a student? What does it mean to be an American? And what does it mean to be human?
Revolutions in Science and Faith – Dr. Jamie Boulding, Associate Director
October 3rd, 10th, and 17th — 7:00pm EST over Zoom
In this three-part seminar, we will explore three scientific revolutions that raise fundamental questions about God, humanity, and the cosmos: the Galileo Affair, which challenges our place in the universe; Darwin’s theory of evolution, which challenges our place in the natural world; and the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence, which will raise both economic and existential challenges. In each case, we’ll reflect on what it means to be human, and who gets to decide.
Revolutions and Totalitarianism – Dr. Brandon van Dyck
October 31st, November 7th and 14th — 7:00pm EST over Zoom
A revolution is a rare event in which an ideological vanguard successfully spearheads the rapid transformation of a country’s state and social order (e.g., France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1933-34, Cuba in 1959, Iran in 1979). Under what conditions do revolutions occur, and why are they so rare? Why do they often result in totalitarianism and long-lasting dictatorship? Are the advanced Western countries, including the US, in the midst of revolutions?
Rewinding Revolutions – John David Corwin, Manager of Academic Programs
November 28th, December 5th and 12th — 7:00pm EST over Zoom
There is today powerful nostalgia for the return of monarchical and pre-industrial ways of life. Public intellectuals advocate for more authoritarian rule while others champion returning to the land by homesteading and taking up traditional trades like woodworking. The American Revolution with other similar movements and the Industrial Revolution overturned these ways of life and established new ways that fostered the freedom and flourishing of more individuals than ever before. What, then, is motivating this seeming rejection of these key movements? Does this nostalgia indicate a failure of these revolutions? Should we attempt a return to these pre-revolutionary times?