Illustration by Gianna Say, BA '25
This June, I had the opportunity to participate in a weeklong seminar at Harvard University, examining the philosophical foundations and political implications of sex differences. In her opening lecture on the metaphysics of sex, theologian Angela Franks wrote these three questions on the board, identifying them as the core questions of the Western world:
Who am I?
How am I to live?
How are we to live together?
Thanks to my UD education, these questions are not new to me. I’ve been grappling with them since I was a starry-eyed freshman. Back then, I felt such urgency to figure out all the answers. Even though the books we read in our Core courses were thousands of years old, the dilemmas they addressed felt immediate and pressing. My classmates and I stayed up late into the night, talking about Aristotle’s vision of friendship, Plato’s tripartite psychology, and how these ideas connected to our own lives, our relationships with each other, and our struggles to figure out who we were and what we should do with our lives.
More than a decade later, my existential angst has faded, calmed by the accumula-tion of personal and professional choices that now give shape to my life. The world is not quite so wide open as it was back then. I have responsibilities as a wife and mother, and I have made career choices that opened some doors and closed others. Yet I still find myself drawn back to these fundamental philosophical questions—not primarily for myself, this time, but in an attempt to under-stand the deeply different beliefs that men and women hold about what it means to be human and how to live well. I want to be able to navigate deep disagreements with my friends and neighbors with both charity and clarity. And I am called to fulfill my role as my children’s first teacher, forming them well and giving them the tools to seek truth.
As Dr. Sue Hanssen might say, channeling Henry Adams, our answers to the three questions listed above give us a spool around which to wind the disparate threads of our knowledge and experience. Like Adams, we live in a time in which rapid tech-nological advances and disorienting social changes can make us question inherited truths. This is particularly apparent in the context of sex and gender, which is the topic of much of my current research and writing.
In my work as a writer, I try to connect new ethical dilemmas and complex contempo-rary questions back to the core philosophical assumptions that lie beneath. How should we respond to the popularization of post-modern gender theory, which tells us that our identity as men or women is determined by our internal sense of self, not our physical bodies? If a friend or family member asks us to use pronouns that do not accord with his or her bodily sex, how should we respond? Should we support laws that seek to ban “gender-affirming” medical treatments for minors? These are difficult questions, and answering them demands both prudence and compassion. But they are much easier to work through if you have a clear sense of the core philosophical claims involved in each potential answer.
In the seminar I attended this summer, which was hosted by the Wollstonecraft Project and taught by both Dr. Angela Franks and legal scholar and pro-life feminist Erika Bachiochi, we traced the evolution of views about men and women from the classical period (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas), the modern (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau), all the way up to the present (Margaret Sanger, the National Organization for Women, Judith Butler, Andrea Long Chu). There were several other UD alumnae and students in the class. We spoke often of the ways our education prepared us to encounter these texts. In some cases, such as John Locke, the readings presented by our seminar leaders were in tension with the narrative we had been taught at UD. Yet the skills we acquired from our alma mater allowed us to critically evaluate both interpretations and decide for ourselves which came closest to the truth.
In my case, the way I use my UD education is clear. But not all UD alumni are quite as into philosophy as I am. My husband, Anthony, for example, was happy to leave his Core classes behind and move on to his physics coursework. Still, that doesn’t mean that the answers to the three core questions I listed at the beginning of this essay don’t affect his life and his work.
Today, he is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, leading a quantum computing research group. He spends a good part of his days designing and fabricating tiny devices and then using liquid helium to cool them down to almost absolute zero, when the motion of even subatomic particles is slowed almost to stillness. This allows him to use electronic pulses to manipulate and measure the spins of individual electrons. The goal is to use the spin state of electrons as a replacement for zeros and ones that make up the binary code in traditional com-puters, which would make computing many orders of magnitude faster and smaller.
In the meantime, however, Anthony also has to act as a mentor and leader to his group of graduate students and postdocs. He needs to use practical wisdom to discern how best to help each of them learn and grow as researchers and as people. He has to negotiate the complicated politics of the contemporary academy — from relationships with administrators to compliance with new policies on diversity, equity and inclusion — with the very high stakes of tenure on the line. And he has to draw on his writing skills to put together multimillion-dollar grant proposals to fund his research. Whether consciously or not, in all of these pursuits, Anthony is guided by the core set of ethical principles instilled by his parents and refined by his education at UD.
I suspect the same is true of our fellow UD alumni in all lines of work, from home-schooling their children to working in finance, politics, education or STEM fields. They might not have reached all of the same conclusions that I have, particularly on prudential political questions — UD is the Catholic school for independent thinkers, after all! — but they have been given the tools to think deeply about assumptions and arguments that lie behind the questions that they face in their personal lives and in our shared familial, communal and political life.
That’s the beauty — and the enduring gift — of a UD education.
Serena (White) Sigillito is editor-at-large at Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute. She recently completed a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship and writes often on topics relating to work, motherhood, sex, gender and embodiment.