“Teaching,” said the former nun in blue jeans, as if she were instructing a room full of halfwits about something very important, “is a political act.”
It was early December 1991 at Providence College, the school where I taught for 27 years, the school that I grew to love deeply, though that love, it seems, was mostly unrequited. Then, it was still a place where liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and people of no faith at all formed close friendships.
Now, it is a den of vipers, transformed by the victory of the ideological faction that the ex-nun represented. She was among a group led by a sociology professor who rallied under the banner of a group called Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR), which wanted to turn teaching into a tool for political revolution. What they were able to do at Providence College sheds light on what is now occurring in every area of human life that was once sheltered from partisan hatreds and enmity.
In the late 1950s, Providence established a Western civilization program for its honors students. At that time, the program was composed of 15 freshmen and 15 sophomores. It was a two-year course, five hours a week, taught by two teams of three professors each, one team for freshmen and one for sophomores. It covered history, literature, philosophy, theology, and the fine arts, from ancient Israel and Greece to the Glorious Revolution in the first year, and from there to the present in the second year.
Then the Vietnam War hit, and in 1968 students across the country marched and protested. Capitulating to the Vietnam protests, or perhaps using them as an excuse to achieve what they already wanted to accomplish, college presidents and councils were quick to trash most of what remained of the old, classical, Western civilization curricula.
Across the city at Brown University, the administration allowed in 1969 a student named Ira Magaziner a free hand to amend the curriculum. Magaziner acted as a liaison between the deans and the black students on campus. He proposed essentially no curriculum at all: a few broad area requirements and that was it. Brown went for that ride, adopting Magaziner’s so-called Open Curriculum. Magaziner later leveraged this success to become a political consultant who authored the national health insurance plan which crashed and burned in the hands of his friend, First Lady Hillary Clinton.
The professors at Providence College were appalled by Brown University’s Open Curriculum, not because they were politically conservative, but because they were educationally conservative. Largely ethnic Catholics—Irish, Italian, French, and Portuguese—who voted Democrat, they had no affection for the blue-blood Republicans in New England, figures similar then to Lincoln Chafee and Bill Weld today. They saw themselves as the keepers of a beautiful and precious heritage and wanted to ensure it was passed on to the young people in their charge.
They wanted more than to save it, as if it were merely a Gainsborough to hang on the drawing-room wall. The heritage was a living thing, as was the Christian faith that had animated it for nearly 2,000 years. They believed that the study of Cicero, Dante, Tocqueville, and Dostoyevsky could help set one free from the errors, the blindness, and the outrage of one’s own time. They were at once both liberal and conservative.
So, turning sharply against the fads of the 1960s emanating out of Brown, the professors of Providence decided to extend the gift of Western civilization rather than throwing it away. They adapted the courses for the honors students and made them the core of the school’s curriculum for all freshmen and sophomores. Every day of the week, for two years—think of it! The syllabi varied a little between professors, but on any given day 200 freshmen in one room might look at slides of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, while 200 freshmen in the next room heard a lecture on Machiavelli’s The Prince, and 200 sophomores in a third room listened to the Humming Chorus from “Madame Butterfly,” as Cio-Cio-San waits, in vain, for Pinkerton to come.
So it as at Providence when I began teaching there, up until the emergence of SOAR in 1991. I do not imply that most of the students cared for the liberation that was offered to them through the Western civilization program. Many did; perhaps all of them did at one point or another. But the professors pressed on regardless. It was their duty and their delight.
The program changed some lives; it preserved the Catholic identity of the college during the decades in which the broader society became a religious wasteland; it strengthened the departments whose members taught in it; and it brought professors together. Across the departments, professors who otherwise would have had little to do with one another were united, beyond all political divisions, by the objects of their common devotion. Two lovers of Milton could, and often did, have a drink together and talk the afternoon away.
But, on that evening in 1991, students had gathered in protest under the direction of a new sociology professor who knew nothing about the Western civilization program and would never learn anything about it.
A more fitting title for the SOAR group he led would have been Students Organized Against Reading, for they never said, “Why are you teaching us only the Old Testament and not also the Bhagavad Gita?” They never said, “Why do we look at paintings by J.M.W. Turner but not also paintings by Hokusai?” They were defined not by what they loved, but by what they scorned. We who taught in the program would ask, “What do you want us to include?” We never received any suggestions. It was more important not to read Milton than it was to read Rabindranath Tagore.
SOAR mangled Providence’s Western civilization program, curtailing it from 20 credit hours to 12, and tacking on a “capstone” semester, wherein students could choose among a variety of courses without connecting to anything they had read before. It was, as I called it, a faculty sandbox.
The sociology professor himself teamed up with one of my friends in the English Department to teach such a course, on “the city.” If you think they discussed what a city is, turning to places like Plato’s Athens or the London of Boswell and Johnson, you are much mistaken. My friend talked about that London, to be sure. The sociology professor, antisocial to the last, devoted all his time to the evils of Republican President George W. Bush and his supposedly racist treatment of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Something else was lost when the Western civilization program was mangled. Or, rather, something was quickly fading, and this fading manifested in the program’s downfall. It had to do with the low ceiling over the souls of newly-made professors: the dank little specialties into which they had burrowed, too timid to dwell in bright open fields. The professor of Anglo-analytic philosophy was not interested in teaching Plato. The professor of 19th century American novels about women and slavery was not interested in teaching Goethe. Nobody new except for the theologians gave a damn about reading selections from John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.
When common love and common objects of devotion are lacking, what do people turn to? Some will mind their own business, but man is ineluctably social, for better or for worse. At Providence, political action of a relentlessly sinister kind rushed in to take the place of the Christian faith and commitment to a timeless liberal education.
Friendship? Forget it. In the last several years, I know of no fewer than seven professors who have been attacked by peers and students, confronted with demands for their heads on platters, for things they never said or did, or for things they were justified in saying or doing, but that fell afoul of the regnant and increasingly fascistic politicians.
Ask a feminist candidate for a job in philosophy whether she can fairly present the Church’s position on abortion? Gender discrimination: and if you do it again, pal, you’re gone.
Tap a habitually late young lady on the head with a rolled up paper to remind her to turn in her next assignment on time? Be accused of racism.
Defend three young men accused of holding a whites-only party and flinging racial epithets? Be slandered as a racist yourself, despite the fact that the young men in question were exonerated on all counts following a faculty pile-on and investigation. The pleasantness of these investigations one might accurately compare to a semester-long colonoscopy without anesthesia. To protect my friend involved in this particular debacle, I will withhold the details.
In other words, watch your step, or else: endure the bureaucratic colonoscopy; develop a heart murmur from the stress; and be forced to retire early.
Most recently, a security officer at the college sent out a warning, as is the procedure when a crime has been attempted or committed nearby. A student was approached by a light-skinned male driving a car. The man, speaking Spanish, was behaving suspiciously. The officer inadvertently neglected to mention in his report that this man attempted to force the student into the car, in an attempted abduction.
The perceived discrimination of this security officer against Latinos kicked the campus outrage machine into overdrive, and it didn’t stop even after everyone soon learned of the missing detail about the abduction. The officer was put on a leave of absence for 60 days, after which he was ushered into the cellars of the Ministry of Truth to undergo sensitivity training.
In 2010, this same security officer went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake to assist in medical and relief work. He also went down to the Caribbean in 2008, to help in the aftermath of hurricanes Gustav and Ike. A finer man by far than the professors and administrators who have kicked him in the face for trying to keep the students safe.
Thus does the foul and cancerous thing called political action kill its host, the polis. Not that the polis—the school, the town, the parish, the county, the local choir, the Elks Club, the softball league—has been much better than sick and rickety. But we did have a community, or a piece of one, at Providence College. People did become friends, across partisan divides, because they shared what they loved. All of that is gone now. Outside of the chaplain’s office and the theology department, the place is as I said, a den of vipers.
I do not dwell among the hissing snakes, not anymore. I now teach at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, where we devote four years and six hours a week to the same subjects and cultural eras which at Providence we attempted to cover in two. This week we read The Prince and Luther’s Commentary on Galatians. Next week comes more from Luther, and paintings by the artists of the high Renaissance, and a foray into Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In my other classes we are reading Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the poetry of Robert Frost, and the prose of Malcolm Muggeridge.
We are as one: we pray together, we sing and worship together, we break bread together, and we read books together.
We have a real school and a real polis. This is rare indeed in our time.