Today around 1,000 people from over 90 countries will depart Grand Rapids with the conclusion of Acton University, an annual event I tend to think of as the Christian nerd summer-camp experience I need. I meet up with friends and colleagues here, I expect to make more acquaintances, I learn and am stretched, days are long and sleep is short, and it is all a ton of fun. I never went to summer camp, but I imagine all those things are similar.
One of my new acquaintances this year, upon hearing I was an economist, said “this must be heaven for you!” And I agreed. The diversity of people, literally singing praises to God in some cases, and focused on truth and learning is heavenly. So is it heaven or summer camp?
It is easier to say what Acton University is not.
- It’s not networking. For a number of reasons, perhaps–increasing pre-professional emphases in higher ed and social media “friendships” included–networking has become a buzzword in many circles, and one I don’t care for. So when someone online suggested Acton U seems to be good networking, I agreed to an extent, but only if we understand it as a deeper sort of networking. It’s most rewarding and (bonus!) effective to meet people organically as you pursue your own interests with your unique abilities and find them there too. You share values beyond even the current topic of conversation, and so it makes sense to prepare for more than a few days of putting your heads together. For me, Acton U is about making friends and building meaningful professional ties that help me feel rooted in a community beyond my campus and around the globe.
- It’s certainly not humorless. The good humor of conference participants is unlike any conference you’ve seen. Despite language and cultural differences, joy and laughter are easily shared. It probably has a lot to do with the hospitality of the Acton Institute’s staff and the thoughtfulness with which the whole event is put together. It’s also that this international crowd—unlike some in America—aren’t looking to be offended at every turn. They have real challenges to tackle, and are grateful for the good will of those who are interested in solving the same problems.
There was also a hefty dose of humor in each of the plenaries this year. Mary-Ann Kelam shared memories of interactions with President George H. W. Bush, Deltan Dallagnol remarked on his handsomeness relative to the actor portraying him on Netflix (citing his mother and wife), and Father Sirico let his Brooklyn roots show a number of times.
Jonah Goldberg, who might as well perform nerd stand-up, , made an economically-literate quip about trade even before he got going on his talk based on his book Suicide of the West.
“If you like my jacket, I bought it in Grand Rapids because I forgot my own. Apparently that means I have a trade deficit with Grand Rapids. You took my money, and all I got was this jacket.”
I love econ humor. (If you get the joke and like it and/or if you want to understand international trade and protectionism better, check out Jonah’s friend and international trade attorney Scott Lincicome’s super-popular t-shirt design or Scott’s lecture at Hope College in 2017.)
- It’s not repetitive. This was my seventh consecutive year in attendance and there is always something new; the people, the classes, the topics are fresh and provide energy and novel ideas, even in the face of some challenging subjects.
Some Personal Highlights from 2019
- One of my favorite courses I attended was Dr. David Deavel’s “Taking Advantage of Freedom: Solzhenitsyn on What to Do with Liberty if You Have It.” In 45 minutes, Dave addressed in detail (1) Solzhenitsyn’s life, intellectual and faith journey, and work, (2) the four enemies of liberty Solzhenitsyn identifies, (3) whether Solzhenitsyn was anti-capitalist, and (4) Solzhenitsyn’s direction for what we should do with our liberty. Every time I talk with Dave, the stack of must-read Solzhenitsyn books grows in my office. I hope this talk will prod me along in my reading to break into the stack because, according to Dave, “Solzhenitsyn is a friend of freedom, but the deepest sense of freedom. We should listen to him because he’s a friend who will tell us the truth.”
“There is a Russian proverb: ‘The yes-man is your enemy, but a friend will argue with you.’ It is precisely because I am a friend of the United States, precisely because my words are prompted by friendship, that I say: ‘My friends, I am not going to tell you sweet words. The situation in the world is not just dangerous, it isn’t just threatening, it is catastrophic.”
Note that, in a few weeks, you should be able to access an audio recording of Dave’s talk, the plenaries, my classes, and all the others from the Acton Institute website. (I also am looking forward to bringing a Solzhenitsyn-themed event to Hope College/west Michigan in 2020!)
- I also enjoyed teaching two of my own classes. One of the best parts is the conversation that follows – in Q&A, at the end of class, in elevators and over breakfast tables and, eventually, email and other continuing conversations. Not only are Acton U participants fans’ of freedom, they love learning!
- My husband, Aaron, and I were able to spend time with our friend, Father Paschal who we met last year and have visited in Germany since. Aaron and Father Pas celebrated the last day of Acton U, with Aaron sporting his new traditional Nigerian clothing and Father later playing a big role in the traditional end to Acton U.
- Another of my privileges and responsibilities at Acton U is a bit of shepherding of Hope College students who are selected to attend as fellows from the college. This year’s crew was exceptionally thoughtful, making great use of the two-hour lunch break to, what else, continue talking about what they were learning in their classes. I hope to be able to share some of their reflections on this blog soon. For now, if you can’t tell from the picture, I can report they all enjoyed the experience immensely.
- Finally, a perfect end to a great conference, and as Jay Bruce said on Twitter, a “taste of heaven:” many of the attendees from African countries performed together with gratitude but also to show the “social capital” (their words) Africans have to contribute. I encourage you to watch the full video here. More than the summer camp-experience I never had, Acton really does point a bit toward Heaven, not just because it scratches my economic-inquiry itches but because of the genuine diversity and humanity it fosters.