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Confessions of a Canisius Columnist

Well, this is my final Griffin editorial, and in I think fitting fashion, I’ve titled it pretentiously and written probably too much.

The Griffin and its predecessor, The Canisian, have been around for nearly 100 years. An editorial has appeared in nearly every issue, and I’ve had the honor of taking up since 2021 this task formerly fulfilled by Griffin greats including Scott Sroka, Larry Vilardo and many others who will meet at tomorrow’s editors reunion.

In the first edition of this academic year, I wrote that “the way I ran the Opinion section last year was not ideal. … It is my intention that editorials again, as much as possible, reflect the opinion of a majority of editors rather than the beliefs of an appointed opinion czar.” Well, this time, I’m going to write one last time as an appointed opinion czar, about the lessons I’ve learned from commenting on Canisius weekly for the past few years.

Taking a stance

I began writing for The Griffin in 2020 with obnoxious articles about national politics. As the years went on, my articles decreased in length and geographic scope, but increased in efficiency and impact. Rather than 2000-word articles on international problems, I wrote 750-word criticisms of things at Canisius.

It was a bumpy transition. Still biased by my political interests, I initially thought tuition and other monetary matters were the most important thing. But if a student is at Canisius, that means they’re willing to invest heavily in their education. They are probably more concerned with how resources are distributed and, more broadly, in getting their money’s worth. I began to care more about talking to people on the ground rather than analyzing budgets and abstract theories of education.

I realized that, over years of writing columns, I had built up networks and knowledge that made me qualified — as much as a student could be, anyway — about Canisius’s issues. I waited, like a good democratic citizen, for our elected student government to take the lead on these issues. USA senators, though, are concerned with the day-to-day operation of their committees and student clubs. I didn’t have quite that administrative burden and didn’t have to worry about elections, so I could take long-term, perhaps even unpopular, views.

Though the fact that Griffin editors are not elected poses questions about accountability, one of the benefits is stability. As long as it doesn’t lead to stagnation, our stable position should give us the time and legitimacy to research and take informed stances on issues that affect the entire college. Our main job is to be informed about these issues, and so it always seemed a waste to me that we let that useful perspective go to waste.

Other editors are afraid that advocacy undermines our objectivity, but I think it’s actually more dishonest to claim that we don’t have opinions about the events we experience and people we report on. We should obviously collect and report information, but, like arbitrators, we should also render judgment in important matters. To shun the latter function would be to deprive others of the perspective of potentially the most informed people on a problem.

One instance of this clash in journalistic perspectives occurred last year. In February 2022, three people were chosen as the final candidates to succeed President Hurley. I went to their public forums and asked each a question about what I perceived to be their biggest weakness. After, like professional newspapers do, I wanted to write an endorsement of a certain candidate (I won’t say who it was, in case President Stoute reads this rag), but the previous editor-in-chief shot it down.

I was frustrated. I didn’t want us to be mere middlemen in the decision. I think I was the only student who attended all three forums. I was certainly the only one who asked questions at all of them. I believed that I had as much knowledge about it as any other student, and I also possessed perhaps the largest platform of any student, and so I felt I could really make our undergraduate voice heard.

In part as a protest to the editor and because I simply needed content for that week’s editorial, in the editorial I posed five questions to each of the candidates. It turned out to be the best article I’ve written for this paper. By proposing questions rather than answers, I avoided a direct endorsement and continued rather than concluded the dialogue that the public forums had begun.

President Steve Stoute asked in Tuesday’s town hall, given that “everyone talks about leadership, what is different about how we form leaders?” Through my experience in The Griffin, I have something of an answer to that question. Which is ironic, because my response is that the best education doesn’t provide answers, but instead poses questions — questions about the world, others and most importantly, yourself.

Posing a question

At our age, we don’t know what we want to specialize in, so rather than focus on filling our brains with knowledge of a single field we might not pursue, we should focus on finding a field we might enjoy and, in the meantime, increase our capacity to hold and process knowledge we gain in that career.

In philosophy classes, I learned, through the example of the great thinkers, to shoulder the burden of proof to defend my own arguments. In history classes, I was shown how seemingly factual events can be interpreted in various, conflicting ways. Political science classes showed me that the world is so much larger than my own country. All three made me less sure of myself.

Yet, I feel more confident in my discomfort. A liberal arts education teaches us to both know that we don’t know everything and to forge ahead regardless. As in an essay, we must weigh the evidence, acknowledge the existence of opposing arguments and make a decision.

In Tuesday’s town hall, Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Sara Morris defended a liberal arts education, in part, by arguing that “employers want critical thinking,” and people who can be “clear, crisp, and concise in oral and written communication, understand what information you can trust, integrate information from other places and learn new things.”

That’s true. The way I’d put it is that research universities provide answers, while liberal arts colleges provide questions. The former prioritizes the production of information, and good scholars are produced only secondarily: the latter focuses on the molding of scholars, and good information is produced as a result of that process.

In life, we’ll be confronted with situations we weren’t trained for, with limited information and infinite downsides, but we’ll have to make a call regardless. Being open to new information will allow us to more quickly gain expertise in a new area and make a decision based on the most updated information rather than potentially outdated information we learned as an undergraduate.

Especially in the internet age, we are surrounded by information. The people who can ask the right questions — whether to other people or even to a search engine (or ChatGPT) — will be better off than those who gain field-specific knowledge that might change with new research. Our kind of education is more versatile than ever. Just as I might trade in speculative stocks for more secure assets as I age, I hope to do less asking and more answering as I gain life experience. But for now, I’ve been pretty successful leaning into my lack of knowledge.

My Canisius education in general — and especially writing for The Griffin — has permanently shifted my perspective towards the world. It will be odd to no longer think about the next Canisius phenomena to complain about or praise in this column (and, allegedly, in the Notes from Underground) every week, but I’ll apply the same process to my next institution and beyond. Who takes this editorial opportunity next remains, coincidentally, itself a question without an answer, but, no matter what, they probably won’t be as long-winded. —PH

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