A great deal of ink has been spilled over the declining character of American higher education. From critical theory to extremism among college student bodies, many issues have reached temperatures that leave those inside the collegiate world deeply concerned for its future. Thinkers and commentators lament a rise in “illiberalism”—a phenomenon in the academic world of decreasing interest in civil discourse and moral virtue in favor of “cancellation,” enforced ideology, and the punishing of intellectual opponents.
In an attempt to address this crisis, some groups have sought to create new institutions, like the University of Austin (UAXT). Others, however, seem unwilling to let current institutions continue on a path they believe to be destructive, preferring to seek reformation within existing colleges. One such group is the Scala Foundation, an education initiative seeking to steer liberal arts education back toward “beauty and wisdom.” While this sentiment sounds noble, what does it look like practically to strive for such goals? Is there a concrete way to advocate for these concepts that actually works?
I asked Scala’s executive director, Dr. Margarita Mooney Suarez, to explain the foundation’s mission and share some examples of how advocating for beauty and wisdom has worked on a practical level. Dr. Mooney Suarez holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University as well as a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology from Princeton University.
She currently teaches in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and has written several books, including The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts. She founded the Scala Foundation in 2016.
IW: Give me some insight into your background. As the daughter of a Cuban refugee, did your personal/educational background give you a unique sense of responsibility to protect American higher education?
MMS: As a child of a Cuban refugee who spent time in Castro’s jails for not supporting communism, I knew that the opportunities I had for education were not something to take for granted. My mother learned alongside me, and she educated me in virtues. She and my father gave me the confidence that I could attain the highest level of education available. Traveling to Cuba for the first time in 1994, I saw the horrors of atheist communism—not just economic impoverishment but deep damage to the dignity of the human person expressed in rampant prostitution and an inability to trust others.
In a previous interview, you talked about how Scala seeks to combat the disturbing rise of “ideology” on college campuses. How do you define ideology, and why is it dangerous?
I saw students at Yale protesting for justice but claiming that all knowledge is nothing but power. Such confusion ultimately undermines justice because it makes all moral judgments subjective. Language loses its objective meaning, resulting in ideology. One way to understand ideology, then, is that reason is replaced by power. What I had seen in Cuba was that in a system that denies truth, even our intimate relationships become understood through the lens of power.
With the rise of ideology comes a similar rise in “negative polarization,” where political groups act more out of a desire to punish the other side than a desire to advance their own. How does negative polarization manifest on college campuses?
If justice becomes about taking something from someone else, not creating a system where all cooperate to build the common good, then why are we surprised when one group claims to be the victim of another? I’ve spent much of my career studying people from impoverished nations, including Haiti and Nicaragua. In those places I met people who know how to forgive horrible offenses. In too many college classrooms, students feel that others are waiting to pounce on them and call them out for their privilege. The absurdity is that those who seek to punish others are themselves awfully privileged. They might be acting out of a sense of their own guilt. But they would be better off bettering themselves than tearing down another.
There are a lot of organizations, and likely a lot of people, who are very interested in bringing truth and beauty back into higher education. Do you think there’s a tendency for these groups to focus only on lofty philosophical goals and to neglect practical strategies?
That depends on what you mean by practical strategies and philosophical goals. Philosophy is supposed to mean wisdom to live well—it’s not supposed to be abstract. Academic philosophy may have become abstract, but I believe there is plenty of practical wisdom in books! I have been influenced by Benedictines past and present who have shown me that humans also intuit beauty and truth by being immersed in an environment that directs all our senses—not just our capacities for making arguments—toward the true and the beautiful. Especially in today’s polarized classrooms, arguments about facts and evidence can only get us so far. We need to truly live together, to have shared experiences, and to have the right philosophical categories to talk about those experiences. Practical strategies should not become a pragmatism of action over contemplation. It’s not an either/or; action and contemplation are two complementary modes of being, and we need to be educated in both.
How does Scala maintain practical strategies? Are there any specific examples that come to mind?
Scala began in 2017 through my attempts to create communities of friendship among students at Princeton and through our summer program. After three summers of taking students to Benedictine monasteries to read and live a different form of education, the COVID crisis began and campuses were vacated. I launched online programs for students and educators and captured my main insights into a book published in 2021 called The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts. A second book of dialogues, The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education, is coming out in 2022. As we return to in-person activities, engaging with one’s adversaries in advocacy need not be polarizing or demeaning. Find a group whose work you admire, go visit that group, participate in an activity, and then ponder what it means for your life.
In recent months, there have been forays into creating new educational institutions, such as the launch of the University of Austin. Could you explain why you decided to reform existing institutions instead of creating a new one?
I believe in calling the universities where I have studied and worked back to their original missions. I want to serve the students like me, who come from faith backgrounds, who believe in the American dream, but who get lost in the lack of order in the curricula and find the expectation of high achievement alongside a rush to soothe hurt feelings to be enfeebling. Any reform movement, I think, needs new initiatives as well as reforming people inside historical institutions.
Does reaching a postmodern audience with an essentially religious message require reintroducing them to ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty instead of through “hellfire and brimstone”–style cultural outreach?
I’ve seen students walk very slowly through rethinking their convictions. I’ve seen others encounter an author or a work of art that changes them almost instantaneously. As an educator, I can’t know what’s going on inside of someone’s soul, but I believe it is my mission to share with others the ideas, authors, and experiences that have most moved me. How and when they respond to it I don’t control. I’m aware of many people who are far from where I am theologically, and I want to be respectful of their journey. Citing tradition and authority doesn’t seem to work as well as patience, really listening to people’s journeys, and praying for their well-being. If a student or colleague is truly open and listening to what I have to share, I don’t care if they are far from my beliefs. So often, students come into a class simply repeating soundbites they have heard but never really thought hard about. I’m learning how to not act shocked—to take their concerns seriously but show them that there is another way, a way I think is better.
In your goals for the foundation, you’ve talked about “bringing students back to good storytelling.” How does good storytelling relate to the mission of higher education?
Perhaps the hardest thing for me has to be sharing my own story with my students. Students want to encounter someone who is authentic—not someone who is so perfect they can’t even relate. I often share little personal stories of joy and pain, faith and doubt, with my students just so they know I’m not superhuman. But I also believe that literature and philosophy, and the Bible and theology, as well as works of art, can help us understand our own stories better. We are self-interpreting animals, but we draw on traditions, images, and other stories. Having a coherent personal story is crucial to being secure in one’s identity. I increasingly ask students to reflect on what they have learned from a Scala event or one of my classes for their own life stories. By hearing others’ experiences, their insights go deeper.
What keeps you going and continuing the fight?
Everywhere I have spoken in the last few years, I see students, educators, and administrators longing for a different perspective, who want to hear what I have to say and help me build new classes and programs. The mental illness crisis was bad before COVID and now it’s worse. I’ve had to stop thinking of this as a “fight”—though often it feels that way—and remind myself that it’s my vocation to share the truth as I see it. I keep going because I know I’m just planting seeds, and God is in control of the harvest.