The Schaff Lecture was held last Monday, January 30. The Schaff Lecture is an annual event made possible by the generosity of Charles Schaff ‘41. It brings to campus speakers on topics related to “fundamental human values - those principles that direct a person's decisions and actions because they clarify what is 'right' and what is 'wrong’,” said Reverend Will Whitmore. This year’s speaker was Dr. Yuval Levin, a social, cultural, and constitutional studies expert. The school chose Levin for “his expertise and perspectives on the role of community. As we continue to renorm our community in a post-pandemic world, it is important for us to consider what role institutions like ours play for the individuals who are involved in them,” said Whitmore, a member of the panel that selected the speaker.
Addressing the role of institutions in a place like Mercersburg Academy or any school comes with its challenges. Levin said, “The hardest part is to overcome the sense of defensiveness that everyone has. People feel like they're being attacked when we talk about history and civics.” There is also a difference between speaking about this topic at private institutions compared to public institutions. Levin continued, “What’s relevant is the audience, and the audience is the rising generation. But public institutions have to speak for the whole community. They don't have the luxury of saying this is what we believe in and if you don’t like it you can leave. They serve everybody.”
Levin believes teenagers are an integral part of civic education and engagement: “Teenagers play every role. The next generation is going to have to take possession of society for good and bad. That means knowing its problems, and its strengths. It’s never too early to start.”
From the perspective of the students, Bob Hollis ‘24, a member of the Quinn-Ferguson Honors Seminar that had dinner with Levin prior to his lecture, said, “He was a really interesting speaker and he was a lot better to speak to at dinner with a smaller group because it came off as more personal. On stage, however, that aspect was lost. Politics is a hard thing to talk about, especially with high schoolers, even more so with high schoolers who don’t want to be there.”
Another student, Ryan Casey ‘23, offered his insight, “To me, he was like a politician without the charisma. He was very repetitive, wasn’t able to grab my interest, and didn’t actually consider questions but instead took the time to hammer in points he had already said.”
The lecture ended with a question from William Tutt ‘25, who asked the speaker what he wished everyone in the room would take away from the night. Levin responded with a note of hope. Hope is what he wanted students to take away from the night - hope in our institutions and in our future.