Linda Smith, News Editor
A few dozen University of Dallas students gathered upstairs in the Haggar Student Center last Wednesday night to watch their peers debate Thomas Aquinas’s just war theory in SPUD Academics’ first – and likely not last – Rostra.
According to current SPUD Academics Coordinator Steven McDowell, the seeds for this new event were planted when last year’s scheduled Bradford debate speaker cancelled at the last minute. To fill that void, two teams of four students debated the role of government in an economic crisis.
“Even though the event was last-minute, everyone agreed that it ought to be done again, and, as SPUD Academics Coordinator, I decided to bring it back,” McDowell said.
McDowell and Student Government President Renee Davis worked together to create the event.
“The name comes from the Roman rostra, which was a platform on which orators, magistrates and politicians would address the Roman people,” Davis said. “We wanted a name that would aptly illustrate or allude to the kind of event we envisioned the Rostra to be.”
The first Rostra featured a discussion of the use and practicality of Aquinas’ just war theory today. Participants had three minutes each to relay their argument to the audience, with Davis keeping time at the front.
Philosophy major Danny Fitzpatrick led a team of seniors that argued in favor of the theory. Fitzpatrick said that their argument “hinged on the thought that what is most ideal is in fact most real, and that there must thus be a basic compatibility between the simplicity of the ideal and the complexity of the material.” Seniors Tara McCrorey, Daniel Orazio and Michael Walker added real-life examples and refuted objections. Fitzpatrick summed up his team’s stand by saying, “Justice and peace are separate, and if war should be necessary to join them, Aquinas’ theory guides us in waging war peacefully, maintaining the highest level of moral virtue while contributing to the common good.”
Patrick Brehany, joined by Reid Cover, Camille Pecha and Emma Langley, led a team of senior philosophy majors that argued against the theory. Team captain Brehany said that their first argument “highlighted key insufficiencies in this original formulation, especially in regards to the modern world,” while their second argument “highlighted significant issues surrounding Aquinas’ treatment of capital punishment and Christian charity, which, upon review, call into question the possibility of war ever being justified.”
At the conclusion of the debate, both teams left the room while the student audience decided that the red team was the victor of the debate.
“I was very pleased with my team’s performance,” Fitzpatrick said. “Each member’s work demonstrated the fruit of many hours of thought and craft and contributed to a cohesive, fluid line of thought.”
Senior Anna Kaladish attended the event and felt that its goal was to show students that “we must not only learn and love the truths of our UD education, we must also be able to convey that knowledge and love to the rest of the world.”
“I’m skeptical of anything marketed as ‘first annual,’ but this is one of those rare gems that really could become a genuine tradition,” Kaladish said. “The debate itself was civil and articulate. It was a source of pride yet, at the same time, humbling to listen to our peers give such well-structured arguments on both sides. That was the real beauty of the event.”
“The debate was a great way to see the fruit of the work of some students a little more advanced in their classes at UD than I, in a lower-pressure, but still professional, venue,” junior politics major Matt Bellet said. “A collegial debate directed towards an important philosophical question seems to me a great way to make our intellectual pursuits more communal. I hope this Rostra and events like it become a tradition.”
Davis reflected upon the role this event could serve at UD
“I hope the Rostra becomes an event where the stellar individuals in each academic department will be able to come together and formally engage in the kind of discussion we students at the University of Dallas are more than capable of holding,” Davis said. “We are a school of thoughtful, highly intelligent students. This event is meant to allow the upperclassmen from a broad range of backgrounds [to] exhibit their knowledge and, hopefully, model the kind of dynamic impact we can have on our world.”
McDowell too was pleased with the event.
“It was quite wonderful to see UD students brainstorming, organizing and presenting such complex arguments on their own, particularly on such an intricate topic,” McDowell said. “I think it’s a great way to get students involved in academic events, and I got a lot of comments praising the students-only feeling of the event. Don’t get me wrong, lectures are fantastic learning opportunities, but there was something about the Rostra that made students feel actively involved in the academic life of the school. It’s entirely possible that we might hold another student debate next semester — but stay tuned on that one.”