BY HUGH TURLEY — In 1956, Rev. James P. Shannon became the president of Saint Thomas Military Academy and the College of St. Thomas, which at the time were all-male institutions that shared a campus in Minnesota. At the age of 35, he was the youngest college president in the United States.
As a graduate of both the high school and college (now a university), I can say that Shannon’s leadership helped shape the character of many young men. I visited him in 1999, to discuss what I perceived as a general lack of truth in our society. He gave me a collection of articles he had written for the college newspaper, The Aquin. The following essay, reprinted with permission, is from 1962 but its message still rings true today — for all of us.
One mark of an educated man is his ability to differ without becoming angry, sarcastic or discourteous. Such a man recognizes that in contingent matters there will always be a place for legitimate difference of opinion.
He knows that he is not infallible; he respects the honesty and the intellectual integrity of other men, and presumes that all men are men of integrity until they are proved to be otherwise. He is prepared to listen to them when their superior wisdom has something of value to teach him. He is slow to anger and always confident that truth can defend itself and state its own case without specious arguments, emotional displays, or personal pressures.
This is not to say that he abandons his positions easily. If his be a disciplined mind, he does not lightly forsake the intellectual ground he has won at great cost. He yields only to evidence, proof, or demonstration. He expects his adversary to show conclusively the superior value of his opinions and he is not convinced by anything less than this. He is not intimidated by shouting. He is not impressed by verbosity. He is not overwhelmed by force or numbers.
His abiding respect for truth’s viability enables him to maintain composure and balance in the face of impressive odds. And his respect for the person and the intellect of his opponent dissuades him from using cheap tricks, caustic comments, or personal attacks against his adversaries, no matter how brilliant or forceful, unjust or unfair, they may be. Because of his large views of truth and of individual human responsibility, he is prepared to suffer apparent defeat in the mind of the masses on occasions when he knows his position is right. He is not shattered by this apparent triumph of darkness, because he realizes that the mass-mind is fickle at best.
He is neither angered nor shocked by new evidence of public vulgarity or blindness. He is rather prepared to see in these expected human weaknesses compelling reason for more compassion, better rhetoric and stronger evidence on his part. He seeks always to persuade and seldom to denounce.
The ability to defend one’s own position with spirit and conviction, to evaluate accurately the conflicting opinions of others, and to retain one’s confidence in the ultimate power of truth to carry its own weight are necessary talents in any society but especially so in our democratic culture.
To lack firm conviction is to be rootless. To lack respect for the differing position of others is to be haughty or ignorant or both. And, to lack conviction of the power of truth to state its own case is to be unworthy of intellectual combat. Men who lack one or all of these talents reveal clearly in public and private discussion the limitations of their education and the extent of their personal insecurity.
There is some evidence that these virtues are in short supply in our day in our land. The venerable tradition of respectful argumentation, based on evidence, conducted with courtesy, and leading to greater exposition of truth is a precious part of our heritage in this land of freedom. It is the duty of educated men to understand, appreciate and perpetuate this tradition.
Rev. James Shannon
March 16, 1962
Reprinted with the permission of the University of St. Thomas.