At the heart of the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University is an undisguised love for America and an open commitment to its greatness, says Director Steven F. McGuire. The Ryan Center, he notes, was founded to take American history, traditions and principles seriously and to promote the study of free societies in general.
The center is named for a Villanova graduate who served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for over 40 years and was widely respected on both sides of the aisle. Before taking office, Matthew J. Ryan was himself a teacher and “believed that citizenship education was essential to maintaining strong democratic citizenship and maintaining free citizenship.”
McGuire says the center provides students with a “rigorous study of our founding political documents and our political institutions, the history and political thought of our country, and the Western political thinkers and history that have influenced our political development.” This idea of civic education contrasts with the classroom teaching that is becoming popular today, which is more oriented towards political engagement.
“Active citizens and political leaders will be engaged,” says McGuire. “But to be effective and serve the common good, they need knowledge and virtue.”
With a Ph.D. in politics and a background in teaching, McGuire joined the center in 2016, eventually succeeding its founding director, Colleen A. Sheehan. He describes the center’s primary goals as educating students on the “rights and responsibilities of citizens and the art of political leadership,” promoting “freedom of speech and political and intellectual diversity on campus,” teaching “liberal and civic Education in the West” – and in particular the American tradition, and the creation of opportunities for students and members of the community to “learn and discuss politics and political philosophy”.
The center’s primary offering is its fellowship program, a “student-led group dedicated to free and open discussion of contemporary political issues, political philosophy, statecraft, and the history and principles of American government,” as described on its website .
Fellowship benefits include participation in weekly student debates on current political issues and larger issues of American and Western political thought. Fellows also participate in the annual student conference, which hosts discussions between students and faculty on fundamental issues. In addition, grantees have the opportunity to apply for internships, interact with the Center’s faculty staff and visiting scholars, and collaborate with the Center’s faculty as they invite and schedule speakers to campus each academic year.
McGuire notes that grantees often attend special events. For example, in 2019, a group of students attended Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s lecture in downtown Philadelphia. During that academic year, says McGuire, students traveled to Gettysburg to study the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln.
As students graduate, they can remain associated with the center by becoming members of the Ryan Society, a group of alumni who “continue to promote free institutions and the common good in their daily lives.” Alumni have later served in the judiciary, banking, and Marine Corps and Navy.
Civic education, McGuire argues, “should also be liberal education.” The center’s public events, which can be attended by any student from the university or the local community (an archive can be accessed here), “invite students to think for themselves, ask questions and try out their own ideas” on the day For example, during Constitution 2021, the center hosted William Ruger, a foreign policy expert, who discussed the Constitution’s view of war powers in the context of the end of the war in Afghanistan.
Other offerings include the Political Animals podcast sponsored by the Jack Miller Center. There were guests from across the ideological spectrum, including Thomas Chatterton Williams, who discussed free speech, the abolition of culture and race, and political thinker and Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen, who shared his thoughts on the future of the Republican Party.
McGuire hopes that through the center’s promotion of civic education and liberal education, students will be able to practice the virtues necessary for free societies to thrive.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal