Union Philosophical Society debates timely topics of today and yesteryear
by Bill Sulon
November 10, 2010
Phil Kiffer ’11, president of the Union Philosophical Society, places the organization’s symbol, a white rose, in the hand of the Benjamin Rush statue each Tuesday during the semester as a meeting reminder.
It’s a clear, crisp, late-autumn day, and Dickinson’s iconic Benjamin Rush statue is surrounded by yellow and orange leaves and limestone walls when Phil Kiffer ’11 approaches bearing a white rose.
Kiffer, a history and Russian major from Goldens Bridge, N.Y., places the rose alongside the quill in the hand of the Rush statue, a ceremony repeated every Tuesday afternoon during the semester to announce the meeting of one of the college’s oldest student organizations, the Union Philosophical Society (UPS).
The 20 UPS members—Kiffer is president—as well as 10 to 15 visitors meet Tuesday evenings in room 317 of Denny Hall. There, in keeping with the intent of the Dickinsonians who founded UPS in 1789, Kiffer and his fellow students immerse “themselves fully for the duties of active life.”
In the old days, UPS members debated topics such as the Sherman Antitrust Act and often were pitted against members of the college’s even older Belles Lettres Society, founded in 1786 and represented by a red rose.
UPS disbanded and re-formed several times. Meetings initially were open to anyone, then were held in secret, its members “forbidden to disclose any of its proceedings.”
Nor do the Dickinson archives contain many details of what UPS members chatted about during the organization’s first century.
“No event in the history of this society ever brought more embarrassment upon its members than that caused by the burning of Denny Hall, in which the society hall was located, on Thursday, March 3, 1904,” UPS secretary Allan D. Thompson, class of 1907, wrote that month in his first post-blaze minutes. “In a short half hour were blotted out all the records of 115 years of the prosperous existence of a society where growth has been co-incident with that of the college; at one stroke was wiped away our beautiful Hall with all its costly equipment and decoration. While the latter can be replaced the former can never be—the past shall live only in memory.
“Thus we begin another epoch in our history with the opening of this record,” Thompson continued. “May its fair pages … always [be] ruled by the same fairness and harmony which was characteristic in the past.”
Modern-day members of UPS are more than mindful of its historic origins.
“We continue to have a good balance of tradition and modern issues,” Kiffer says. “We encourage our members to read up on the history of the organization.”
In addition to announcing meetings with a white rose, UPS occasionally revisits topics of yore. Three years ago, members dressed as Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson debated whether the colonies should secede from England. Two years ago, they debated the 1847 McClintock Riots, which took place after two slave owners from Maryland crossed the border to claim their fugitive slaves who had reached Carlisle.
This year, UPS topics have been wide ranging, from frivolous to serious to, appropriately, philosophical—the latter theme recently tackled when members debated whether self-identity is fixed or malleable. (The post-debate vote was a draw.)
Around Halloween, UPS put one of its members on trial, alleging she was a witch.
On Nov. 8, the society hosted a campuswide discussion on the relevance of Greek life at Dickinson and, earlier this semester, debated the pros and cons of the plan to build a Muslim cultural center near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. Muslim students were invited to attend that session, which ended with a vote overwhelmingly in favor of building the center.
“Our members are diverse—we have members who major in philosophy, biochemistry, English, Russian—and we have great diversity in our topics,” Kiffer says. “Being part of UPS is a great way to talk with other people who have much different backgrounds, and the topics force us to think about things we wouldn’t normally think about. UPS helps people think outside the box, improve their public-speaking abilities and step outside their comfort zones.”
It’s a step future Dickinsonians can expect to take if they join UPS, Kiffer predicts. “We’re having a good year, and we’re going to be around for a while,” he says.