Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1985. The grandson of immigrants who worked in the coal mines of West Virginia, George is known as one of the nation’s leading conservative intellectuals. As a practicing Catholic who holds views considered “conservative” on many issues, George’s outspoken critiques of abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, pornography, large-scale government welfare programs, and human trafficking often put him at odds with his colleagues. But he has a gift for being able to engage with those who disagree with him in a respectful and constructive way and has earned widespread respect among his peers. As a teacher, what George does exceedingly well is challenge students to be more introspective and to subject their typically conventional beliefs to critical analysis. During the recent wave of attacks on monuments erected to historical figures, George posted the following on his Twitter account:
“I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it. Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it.”
“So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing: (1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and (5) that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness. In short, my challenge is [for them] to show where they have – at risk to themselves and their futures – stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.”
George believes that these kinds of thought exercises are essential in the university setting, since he believes that the intellectual life is about truth-seeking. “The spirit of truth-seeking is first a spirit of humility,” George has argued. “It’s a spirit that recognizes one’s own fallibility, that whatever one’s convictions, beliefs, or judgments, they are fallible.” And once one begins to take truth-seeking seriously, he or she will then discover (hopefully) the need for courage to live in accord with the truth, as well as the need for mercy and grace. George has attributed his own moral formation to the example of his parents. His father was a man of “simple piety, generosity, humility, integrity, and compassion.” His mother “stressed the ways in which living up to the demands of Christian faith was a noble challenge.”
Prof. George’s parents taught him well, imparting to him the qualities of a good teacher, one who seeks Truth and who, out of love for his students, wants to help others seek it too. Good teachers are a great gift. Pope St. John XXIII, in his social encyclical Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”) points to the Church as our essential formator, teacher, and guide in building up a good society, which we are called as Catholics to do with humility, charity, and love for Truth.