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The Right Idea of a University

This article was written as a response to a previous article, “The Wrong Idea of a University,” about the closing of Southern Catholic College, my alma mater.  As I thought about how to write this article, it became evident to me that words would, ultimately, fail what I desire to express; the experience of four years, translated into a universal truth, is hard to put back into the particulars of words.  I, one more time, turned to the prayer which I believe carried me through those four years, the Memorare.  In English, the prayer’s final line is rendered “Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me.”  On the other hand, in Latin it reads “Noli, Mater Verbi, verba mea despicere, sed audi propitia et exaudi.”  The English translation, though poetic, loses the connection between Mary as the Mother of the Word (Mater Verbi) and the words of the petitioner (verba mea).  So it is that I pray, through the intercession of Mary, Seat of Wisdom, the writing of this, the words put down here, may reflect the will of the Word.

What more can be said on the subject of education, and of the University education in particular?  In a sense, it seems almost impossible to contribute, to presume to build upon the works from antiquity.  But the depth and the richness of the Western intellectual tradition has been formed not merely through the great names and great works, but also through the nameless adherents and students of better men; if this essay may be a line in a letter, the dot above an “i,” in a word in a sentence in the tomes of the great tradition, it would be more than its author presumes.  A particular debt is owed to the work of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman and the 20th century Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper.

If there is one physical feature of Christendom College that is particularly striking, aside from the poignant centrality of the chapel, it is the school’s library.  Though somewhat marred by a sea of computers in the center of the main floor (or so it was in 2005), the building is nonetheless characterized by a calm and yet elevating beauty; it induces the peace of contemplation.  One immediately feels that he is in a place of learning, of wisdom.  Likewise, amidst a half dozen so aesthetically well-composed buildings, including a new chapel that ranks among the most beautiful of North American churches built in the last 40 years, the library at Thomas Aquinas College in California envelopes the visitor with a profound sense of the intellectual atmosphere.  It is tempting and easy to look around at such settings and say without qualification that “Yes, here is a University.”  To do so would, however, be a grave mistake; for while Christendom and Thomas Aquinas are certainly Universities, it is dubious whether other places of even greater academic atmosphere and history are still deserving of the name.

Nice buildings, large holdings of books, idyllic landscapes, accommodating classrooms, the trappings of academia—all of these are certainly conducive to a University education; but they no more (and in fact, far less) guarantee or even indicate a true center of learning than a beautiful church guarantees local orthodoxy.  The most heterodox of priests may preach to fellow heretics in front of the most glorifying of tabernacles (perhaps grudgingly); and the most brilliant of professors may teach eager students in run-down trailers or sloppily converted hotel rooms (though not without some resentment).  What the heretics lack—what divides them from the Church—is that very same thing for which the professors and students strive, and in so doing, for the University.  It is the Word—the Logos.

It is in this regard that Southern Catholic College, however it ostensibly failed in the eyes of the world, managed to excel.  Classes were taught in a run-down trailer and in sloppily converted hotel rooms; and yet between the professors and the students there existed a continual conversation, a continual exchange of ideas through words, a consistent attempt at expression and comprehension of the Word itself.  In an interview done to promote the school, Dr. Cicero Bruce, professor of English Literature at Southern Catholic, gave a description of the literature program which rather accurate described the whole of the humanities program at the school: “Here I believe we proceed from the supposition that there is something true and good; you might describe the literature program here as logocentric.  In other words, it is centered around words—words on the page, metaphors—but around, ultimately, the Word of God; yes, the Word of God.  In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And it’s that Word of God, that Logos, that we believe inspires the literature in the first place.  And the words on the page, the metaphors of the poet become portals into that Logos, into that fount of Wisdom.”  (The video may be seen here).

It is this pursuit of the Logos, through words on the page and in conversation, through the unceasing dialog, that the University is grounded, and through which it grows.  Such an endeavor, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—not to be put to any use, not to be subordinated to some practical end—the world, engaged as it is with “total work,” to steal a phrase of Josef Pieper’s, does not understand.  The world, instead, occupies itself with man’s daily needs and his daily wants; his food and his television, his electricity and, yes, his toilet paper.  It is the duty of the University to push man beyond these needs and base desires; for while in and of themselves they pose no harm, they allow man to divert himself from his true purpose, from the pursuit of perfection through knowledge of and engagement with the true and the good.  Such is what Newman advocated in his Idea of a University; an effort which, not easy, not simple, and not without struggle, is nonetheless in itself rewarding; the “knowledge of a gentleman,” the artes liberales, the form and foundation of society (wed, of course, to the spiritual heritage of the Catholic faith; something which seems unnecessary to argue for this audience).

It is sad that so many schools today, where perhaps this environment could be fostered, are instead suffocated beneath the bureaucracy of mere administrators—by which is mean those who, without experience in the education of the gentleman, of the liberal arts, are brought into the institution with some misconception that they may nonetheless facilitate such an education.  This atrocious state of affairs is not merely a situation of the blind leading the blind; it is of the utterly sense-deprived obscuring the vision of the newborn, stunting development, constraining would-be growth.  The liberal arts teach integration of all the world; and yet the liberal arts college all too often, as happened at Southern Catholic, is a fragmentary structure in which neither faith nor education, nor the inseparability of each from all aspects of life are properly understood.

In conclusion, this is not the place to conjecture about the particular configuration of the Catholic University.  It is merely a statement of principles: employ good professors, recruit good students, and put them together; for the University to grow and to be sustained, it must first exist.

P.S., it ought to be noted that Fr. Shawn Aaron, most recent president of Southern Catholic, did participate in the classroom and frequently engaged students in academic discussions; if only he had been four years earlier.

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