The Universities We Do and Do Not Need

The Universities We Do and Do Not Need

Anthony Esolen on politicized professors: “They don’t understand that I have better things to do than to inveigh against Trump or Clinton.”

til recent events at Providence College disabused me, I’d said for many years that because I taught at a genuinely Catholic school, I enjoyed greater freedom as a professor than anyone else I knew. That was because of a peculiar combination of features that did not apply elsewhere.

First, we treated people as if we remembered once in a while that they were fellow sinners on the way to death and judgment.

Second, we did not rule out the ultimate questions. At nearby Brown University, you might endanger your career if you were an untenured professor and you taught Shakespeare from a theological point of view, but at Providence you need not fear.

Third, and most important, we believed in truth: and that was why we gave wide leeway to the secular professors in our midst who could not contribute directly to the specifically Catholic mission of the college. When truth is your aim, and when honesty compels you to acknowledge how slender anyone’s hold on truth may be, you will appreciate those who do not speak with your voice, if for nothing else than to be the grindstone against which you can sharpen your steel.

I am not at all confident about these things now. That is because our first concern seems to have wandered from truth to political action, or to an appearance of the sort of political commitments that will “sell” in the collegiate marketplace.

The word around school now, from the political left, is that academic freedom must be employed “responsibly,” by which they mean that the professor must always be aware that what he says or writes may make his students feel uncomfortable.

They go so far as to insinuate that I or professors who believe as I do might use our power, in grading and in assigning work, to perpetuate injustice against certain groups of students.

The president chimed in, saying that academic freedom must be reconciled with what he called charity; implying that charity was not compatible with the rather mild criticism that I leveled at unnamed professors and students who want to alter the character of our college and to undermine or to eliminate our signature program in the Development of Western Civilization.

One of the ironies of being a conservative in academe, and not always a pleasant one, is that you are scrupulous about keeping contemporary politics out of your class in, say, Renaissance literature, while knowing quite well that your colleagues have little else to talk about but contemporary politics. The same professors assume that you will do what they do all the time, which is to use the classroom as a stage for partisan exhortations, while subjecting to contempt any student brave enough to stand against you.

They don’t understand that somebody like me has better things to do than to inveigh against Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I have Dante and Milton to teach. But at a stroke, they destroy the premises upon which alone academic freedom may be justified. If the classroom is for the free investigation into truth, then neither any political project no matter how righteous, nor any personal feelings no matter how sincere, may be allowed to interfere.

And if that is true of the classroom, it is a hundred times true of any article a professor may publish which is oriented toward finding or developing or propagating the truth.

My responsibility is the same as any professor’s: it is to speak or write the truth as I see it. If I am in error, the responsibility of my critics is to point out where I have made a mistake in reasoning, or where my premises are false, or what I have failed to see or failed to incorporate into my argument.

It may be understandable that someone who deals in deeply human questions will meet sometimes with anger or hurt feelings, or with an accusation of political mischief; understandable, but no more justifiable and of no more consequence than if he had been writing about the periodic table of elements. “How dare you say that about the lanthanides!” is not an argument.

Of course, the politically energized do not care a whit about the feelings of their opponents, but that is not the point. If you conceive that your job as a professor is not the humbling pursuit of truth, but something else, then academic freedom simply does not apply to you.

What, after all, is so precious about what you do that it must be protected? We do not need universities for political action; we have plenty of that everywhere else. If anything, we need as it were a temple set aside from such action, free from the prurience of advocacy and ambition and the lust for conquest.

We do not need universities for the inculcation of an etiquette that will allow people to be comfortable in public places; we have plenty of that everywhere else. If anything, we need as it were a wrestling arena set aside from such drawing rooms, free from the need to consider whether Aunt Lillian can be seated next to Uncle Frank, or what grandma will think if we bring up that unpleasant matter of the sale of the farm.

There are two corollaries to what I say here. The public has no overriding interest in ponying up funds for somebody’s soapbox, or for a pseudo-academic wine and cheese party, where everyone with the correct opinions is affirmed. Neither of those things is worth a single one of the carpenter’s or nurse’s hard-earned dollars.

We would be wiser people without television, take it all in all; and we would be wiser, take it all in all, without colleges as they are. But the Catholic, as things stand, does have an interest – in finding those places still committed to Truth Himself, in whatever sane and justifiable way they put that commitment into action. They need our support, and deserve it.

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2 comments on “The Universities We Do and Do Not Need

  1. Captain Kirk: Mister Spock! Untenured professors endangering their careers by teaching Shakespeare from a theological point of view… analyze using your usual superior Vulcan logic which we no longer call “superior” so as not to be accused of excessive rigidity and neo-Pelagian triumphalism by sensitive progressive modernists and secular liberals with self-esteem issues who might issue microaggression warnings….

    Spock: Fascinating, Captain. Perhaps they are not aware of Father Milward’s and John Henry de Groot’s work and might get their feelings hurt by the discovery of a Catholic Shakespeare involved in Jesuit intrigues.

    Father Mulcahy, S.J.: Oh, yes, Protestants and secular humanists sometimes react emotionally to Catholic triumphalism. That turned out to be quite a dilemma for St. Thomas More!

    Küng Fu: Modernism the Legend Continues

    Master Po: What is troubling you, Grasshopper?

    Kwai Chang: I am wondering, Master, how can one understand the Western Intellectual Tradition without some exposure to the major Catholic philosophical, literary, and theological masterpieces and their central themes and ideas?

    Master Po: Strange are the ways of the cycle of karma and samsara, are they not, Grasshopper?

    Captain Kirk: Yes, they are strange. Bones, do you realize that I still get requests to sing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”?

    Dr. Bones McCoy: The ’60s were a strange time, Jim. But consider yourself lucky that you can still sing!

    Bob Dylan: It’s only strange from a certain point of view. This postmodern era will seem strange fifty years from now.

    Kwai Chang: Ah, Grasshopper, we must sharpen your Taoist and Zen awareness so that you will know these things. If a caterpillar hears a Shelby Mustang convertible racing down the highway at 95 miles per hour which hexagram from the I Ching would indicate a more favorable opportunity to cross the road?

    Kwai Chang: I cannot be certain, Master.

    Master Po: Ah, Grasshopper, there are many mysteries on the magic carpet ride of the shape-shifting and evolving magisterium which flies on the Hegelian dialectic of modernism from Teilhard to Enneagrams. The mansions of integral humanism have many windows to open to let in the fresh air of the modern world. In our journey from Dante and Aquinas to Karl Rahner and Hans Küng you will find yourself feeling confused and bewildered, but if faith did not require challenges how could we ever know if we truly believe?

    Kwai Chang: I cannot be certain, Master.

    Master Po: If the mysteries of life did not require a leap of faith, how could we ever know them?

    Kwai Chang: I cannot be certain of that either, Master.

    Master Po: What can we know for certain, Grasshopper?

    Kwai Chang: Surely I do not know, Master.

    Master Po: Ontological certitude is something which must be earned, Grasshopper. Faith requires challenges. If a donkey could guess the cosmological significance of every hexagram of the I Ching why would he have to make his living pulling a cart?

    Kwai Chang: This is a trick question, is it not, Master? It is like one of those annoying and puzzling Zen kōans like ‘if a tree falls in forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?’

    Hans Küng: I vuz going to say that!
    But I will also issue a microaggression warning….

    Professor Jürgen Habermas: Excuse me for interrupting, but did Mister Spock ever figure out what Teilhard’s Enneagram number is?

    Ann: Who’s Jürgen Habermas?

    Elvis: This might take a while, Sugar Baby! So hold on!

    Well, Jürgen Habermas is a Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher from the universities of Göttingen , Zürich , and Bonn, who studied under the critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main Institute for Social Research, researching the foundations of social theory and epistemology in order to articulate postmodern theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

    Ann: Oh, that’s interesting. So what does Geworfenheit mean?

    Chrissy: What does Geworfenheit mean, Jack?

    Jack: Well, Chrissy, you see, Martin Heidegger was puzzling over Duns Scotus for his college thesis after he was kicked out of the Jesuits and…since it’s always fun to invent a new school of philosophy….

    Chrissy: OK, so who’s Duns Scotus?

    Father Mulcahy, S.J.: Oh, very good, Chrissy. Fortunately, there is a course on Duns Scotus and Medieval Scholasticism at Fordham this semester…

    Carol Brady: What are you reading, Mike?

    Mike: One of the great classics of the Vatican II era.

  2. It is important to understand how the anti-Catholic agenda managed to get its Trojan Horse through the gates and firmly installed to complete the wreckovation:

    Quote: “The path to secularization

    Perhaps more significant was Fordham’s effort to overcome New York State constitutional restrictions on the availability of public funds being granted to “sectarian institutions”. The school was advised by two Columbia University Law School professors (the Gellhorn Report) to end the exclusive Jesuit membership of its board of trustee, as a new board was created with a majority being lay persons. That step enabled the state authorities to reverse their original refusal of money as they concluded that Fordham, regardless of its origins, was not “under the control or direction of a religious denomination or taught denominational tenets or doctrines”.

    Ultimately, but not immediately, other things at Fordham were dropped in accord with the Gellhorn recommendations, such as the presence of crucifixes in classrooms, the recitation of prayers at the beginning of classes, and the wearing of religious grab by professors…”

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