Jousting over IdeasGAMBIER, Ohio (December 4, 2012)
Tommy Brown '13 of Winnetka, Illinois; Matthew Hershey '13 of Scarsdale, New York; and Alexander Variano '13, of Tarrytown, New York, are the founding members of Agora, a public discussion forum. They recently won the Franklin Miller Jr. Award, which recognizes unusual or significant contributions to the academic environment. Joumana Khatib '13 of Upper Arlington, Ohio, a student writer in the Office of Public Affairs, interviewed the award winners.
Khatib: How did you come up with the idea for the Agora?
Hershey: I got the idea sophomore year. I really enjoyed my Quest for Justice class, and I thought it would be neat to have an atmosphere like it outside the classroom-one where people could continue those kinds of discussions in a forum setting.
Brown: I had also just come out of Quest for Justice, where you're able to openly discuss seemingly contradictory ideas. I look to Agora as an opportunity to practice genuine civil discourse among people that might disagree.
Variano: We really liked having the roundtable discussion talking about big ideas: politics, philosophy, and other subjects.
Hershey: We also thought that allstu (e-mail) and other online forums are bad means for discussing controversial, interesting issues. The Internet lends itself to anonymity, and things can get ugly quickly, so we created a face-to-face forum for interesting, civil discussion.
Khatib: How do you organize the meetings? Are the discussions primarily politics-based?
Variano: It came from our common interests: libertarianism, and the intersection of the state, the market, and society. We wanted to find something broad enough to get people interested and general enough to pull in people who don't have to have a ton of background knowledge about the subject. The meetings are structured like a forum. We hold them in Peirce (Hall) so people can discuss over dinner.
Hershey: I think students come because they're interested in what the professors have to say. But I think the professors are very much more interested in what the students have to say and prefer the students to engage each other.
Variano: What I really like about this is that when professors come, they don't take it over. They're good at taking it to the next level and heightening the discussion, but they don't dominate. When they come, they don't lecture, they participate. They want to make it a conversation. The reason we all gather here is to have this kind of high-quality interaction between students and professors.
Khatib: What are you most proud of?
Hershey: The reception. For the first meeting, I was expecting maybe two or three professors and a few students, but it went for three hours and we had about sixty people. It was packed.
Brown: How willing professors are to come to these discussions and participate. I think it really fulfills the purpose of an academic environment, where you can have people from all backgrounds come together and chat.
Khatib: What about Kenyon makes Agora work?
Variano: The thing that really worked to our advantage was the relationship between students and faculty. That's the reason people come to Kenyon-they want the high-quality, intensive interaction with professors. So the professor involvement was a huge selling point.
Brown: Students are, generally, intellectually curious, and they have a hunger for some level of philosophical debate.
Hershey: Kenyon kids are argumentative-they like that debate.
Variano: Kenyon students definitely have opinions, so we wanted to give everyone a productive outlet for conversation.
Khatib: How has the group's winning of the Franklin Miller Award impacted Agora?
Brown: This award shows that Agora is a group whose mission is well-supported by the community, and that there is a genuine interest on campus for a group like this.
Hershey: I think it also reaffirms that Kenyon is an intellectual place. The fact that they gave us this award shows how supportive the College is of clubs that are very intellectually oriented.