Fall Semester Returns Print
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Wednesday, 02 September 2009

Americans, unlike the English, do not divide academic calendars into “Michaelmas,” “Hilary,” and “Trinity” terms. For us, it’s Fall or Spring Semester. We measure our lives by the cosmic cycles, not by the drama of salvation.

A Robert Frost poem begins: “The bearer of evil tidings, / When he was halfway there, / Remembered that evil tidings / Were a dangerous thing to bear.”

When we talk of our universities, do we bring “evil tidings?” Bernard Shaw once said: “Youth is such a wonderful thing; it’s a crime to waste it on children.”

Not long ago, Robert Royal remarked that the generation of those whose own parents did not themselves go to college is almost over. Wendell Berry thinks that the dissolution of stable families and communities begins when we send our children to college.

Is there mind without college? Is there mind with college?

What’s it all about, this college business? Of late, I have seen high school plants that simply have every physical facility imaginable. Likewise we see colleges that, for a small fee or via the taxpayer, provide all the heart could desire.

All studies show, however, that about the least “diverse” places politically and intellectually in our culture are the universities. True affirmative action does not touch this ideologically closed shop.

Catholics originally entered the university business to have a platform from which they were free to state what they held and the reasons why they held it. They professed a quaint “diversity” that could be found nowhere else. This peculiar diversity has largely disappeared.

In a brilliant, too little known essay in Modern Age, in 1987, Frederick Wilhelmsen wrote:

Aristotle insisted that philosophy is the highest instance of the life of leisure, but there is no leisure for boys and girls who are expected to gorge themselves on three thousand years of texts and then regurgitate them come examination day. To remember all the data, as suggested, leaves no time for judgment. Yet judgment, says St. Thomas, is the mark of the philosopher of being and the philosopher of being is the Philosopher (328).

Wilhelmsen was concerned with what Leo Strauss also would worry about, namely, that the “Great Books” programs, which took the place of scholasticism, produced mostly skeptics. The history of philosophy took the place of philosophy and left the mind confused.

Students graduated who knew the names of “thinkers.” They did not know themselves how to think. It did not come automatically from reading “Great Books.” One ought to read Descartes. One ought not to end up doubting his own power to know. But he can only do the latter if he knows enough philosophy to deal with the former. The fact is that philosophy as such is taught in very few places among us.

The best way to learn the truth of this proposition is to read Robert Sokolowski’s The Phenomenology of the Human Person. The title is a mouthful, but Sokolowski takes the mind step by step in the direction of, yes, judgment. The method of philosophy, he says, is to “make distinctions,” to say that this is not that, and to state why.

“Philosophy is not the reading of books; philosophy is not the contemplation of nature, philosophy is not the phenomenology of personal experience; philosophy is not its history,” Wilhelmsen wrote in a striking passage. “These are indispensable tools aiding a man to come to know the things that are. But that knowing is precisely knowing and nothing else. We once were given this, not too long ago, in the American Catholic academy. With a few honorable exceptions, we are given it no longer.”

Philosophy ultimately exists in conversation. It needs to be, as Wilhelmsen put it, “talked into existence.” But it first must be “thought” into existence.

When Monica and Patrick sent the young Augustine off to Carthage, they sent him into moral quagmire. Today’s Monicas and Patricks, as Mary Eberstadt has written in The Catholic Thing, are probably sending their offspring into a worse sink, where the phrase “sink or swim” takes on a special meaning.

Can we prepare the eager incoming classes for Fall Semester? Well, yes, they can defiantly read what they will never be assigned. I would begin with a man by the name of Ratzinger, the equal of whom can be found on no academic faculty I know of. But no one will say this. And, as David Walsh has told us, the philosophers are seeking being and its luminosity.

As one of C. S. Lewis’ devils said to the young atheist, “Be very careful what you read.” I have always liked that young devil. I know numerous books that the young atheist should never touch, lest he be tempted, as Plato said, to “turn his soul around.”


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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