100 Years of Educational Excellence: Focus on the Public Affairs Conference
A recent Public Affairs Conference student-director described the purpose of PAC this way: “to empower the individual to enact change.” Decades earlier, Clayton Ford, an early director of the School of Government/PAC, emphasized the importance of individual engagement as well, noting, “I strongly subscribe to Jefferson’s view: ‘That government is strongest of which every man feels himself a part.'”
To “empower the individual” and to encourage each individual to feel a part of government have long been central themes for the Public Affairs Conference (PAC) since it began in 1939. Sponsored by and springing from the School of Government program—both established with funding and visionary oversight by Angie W. Cox in the 1930s—the PAC is an annual highlight of the College year, an opportunity for the Principia College community to deliberate on an important issue, and a chance for students to interact with credentialed experts in considering a critical, global issue.
Amidst the growing threat of Hitler’s totalitarian regime, the inaugural conference’s theme—“Making Democracy Work”—set one long-held standard for the PAC: relevance. Other examples of this trait include “Is Communism Dangerous in the United States?” in 1949, “Cold War: A Problem in United States Policy” in 1958, “Vietnam, A Challenge to United States Foreign Policy” in 1965, and “Europe in Transition” in 1990.
Another noteworthy and consistently held PAC trait is that it is planned, organized, conducted, and presented by College students. In cooperation with a faculty sponsor, student-directors assemble a PAC board, lead the choice of the conference theme, choose and invite speakers and panel members, publicize the conference, organize the venues, and carry out hundreds of other tasks necessary to make the conference a success. In this way, the conferences serve a dual purpose: Attendees learn about and discuss an issue critical to the day and thereby increase their knowledge and develop a deeper commitment toward addressing it. Equally important, the students conducting the conference get a firsthand education in citizenship, service, and governance. Their experience provides the type of practicum in citizenship and political participation that the PAC’s founders wanted to develop in Principia students.
Fulfilling this purpose in fresh ways, this year’s conference, “Peacebuilding: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution,” brought speakers such as the co-executive director of the Center for World Religions, Citizen Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, the current and former presidents of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Program at the Center for American Progress, and other leaders in peacebuilding from around the world. (Watch a video about the conference.)
One of the conference’s student directors describes peacebuilding as a “. . . practical, active approach to creating peace in the world. It’s not just saying ‘let’s love each other and everything will work out.’ It is [the] specific work . . . being done at the local, national, and international levels to help civil society not only heal after conflict, but learn how to prevent conflict from taking place.”
Underscoring a strong connection between the concept of peacebuilding and metaphysics, the student directors invited, for the first time ever, a Christian Science lecturer (Christine Driessen, CSB) to speak at the conference. As one of the directors noted, “We just really wanted to inspire people to start creating peace within their own lives. Because it starts with inner peace, you cannot start on a world level; you need to start with yourself.”
Empowering the individual to enact change: the PAC in action!