The Catholic Thing
Ivory Tower Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 25 January 2010

The term “ivory tower” is in fact biblical, from the Song of Songs (7:4). But it came to be applied to the Blessed Mother and is indeed one of the names given to her in the Litany, “Tower of David, Tower of Ivory.” Thus, it has the connotation of the self-possession of Our Lady.

The word today typically refers to academia and is usually not a compliment. A journal at the University of Minnesota is entitled Ivory Tower. Its current issue advertizes itself as “The Totally Boring and Non-Offensive Issue.” I did not bother to check the title of previous issues, but one can imagine, “The Totally Absorbing and Offensive Issue." It’s funny when you are a sophomore.

But at this time of year, students return to the university for the second semester, or two more quarters, depending on the institutional system. Freshmen are accustomed to the place by now; seniors are immediately aware that this is it, with jobs, applications, weddings, professional and graduate work. The middle classmen are ready for their best work, at least at their age.

Old professors (no names) look back and wonder if students are learning anything on their watch. I heard recently that, in its new offices, the Wall Street Journal rid itself of all books. Everything is on-line. One must more properly say, I think, that everything is on-line but a book, a physical object, an artifact. We have newfangled electronic “books” on which you can call up whole libraries.

Here at Georgetown, we have a new business school, a palatial thing. Each room is wired for sight, sound, and air. You see students sitting in a classroom all looking at their own or a common computer screen. There may or may not be a professor in the room. The equivalent course is usually available at hundreds of other universities. Why is the professor necessary, really, if he is merely a director of a computer screen, watching session? The students can dial in the same course on-line at other hours of the day.

Do we even need classrooms? This generation is nothing if not computer literate. Everyone has a cell phone on which he can talk to his friend in Hong Kong anytime he wants.

I am frankly a defender of the Ivory Tower, of walls around universities, intended to keep students in, to protect them, for a short blessed spell, at least, from current events. But I know about Al Qaeda, genetic engineering, and the financial crash. These are the kids that will bear the brunt of what it is they have largely been protected from knowingoften by their own politics. In many ways, universities are the last places in which a true confrontation with ultimate things will occur. But it will occur in each student’s life, usually outside the Ivory Tower.

This semester I decided to do a course on classical political thought, no mean subject. I will probably begin by reading Strauss’ City and Man, a sober book if there ever was one. One has to choose his readings here, as the course includes both the Greeks and the Romans, with their similarities and differences.

Just the other day, a student told me that she had just purchased a copy of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which I had once somehow mentioned in class. Put in a nutshell, that is what “education” is really about. A student in a used bookstore somewhere buys Plutarch and wants to know where to begin. This book is of course 1296 pages long. It deserves a full semester of reading.

We will read Thucydides, Aristotle’s Politics, of Plato only the Gorgias. I wanted to include a book containing the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, but it is out of print. The material is on-line, I know. It’s not the same. We will read the three Theban Plays of Sophocles.

I find that the Romans often get a short shrift. This course should probably be divided, but I ask what I am doing? I am reading things worth reading for their own sakes with students willing to read along with me. Hence, we will read some Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. My little book, Unexpected Meditations Late in the XXth Century, was modeled on Marcus's Meditations, written in my Roman days. Marcus Aurelius always has a profound effect on students. The issue of Stoicism and Christianity is one of the most delicate in all intellectual history, and is still with us today.

So what is a university? It is not a “research institution.” It is a place a professor and fifty or a hundred students can gradually read through together the works that tell them both what is. That is all you need. As Plato said, we deal with souls here.

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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Comments (10)Add Comment
"what is"
written by Adam, January 26, 2010
Ah... rowing against the tide that wishes to teach, learn, and know only "that which yet might be!" How can one justify stopping only at knowing "what is" when there is so much hope and change to which we must attend?

It should not remain unsaid that the Ivory Tower can only advance the cause of truth, goodness, and beauty, by forming souls and sending them out to transform the temporal order. And how can one expect do so without knowing persons and things as they truly are and have been?
With Reservation
written by Mark Quinn, January 26, 2010
I agree that students deserve unfettered time and place to learn. Unfortunately, the "Ivory Tower" moniker usually applies (in my experience) to faculty who live in an unreal world of tenure and lofty modern liberal thought quite divorced from reality and the hardships of those who enable them to exist in the Ivory Tower. Perhaps student merit the real-world sabbatical, but professors require grounding.
In Defense of the Teacher
written by Willie, January 26, 2010
I think that teaching must be the most eleemosynary profession that exists. Often accompanied by poor pay and time consuming preparation, he is responsible for molding our youth into thinking beings no matter what profession he many finally enter. The electronic age has its benefits but in some cases has deprived the student of interpersonal dialogue. So often the world outside the ivory tower is not what it should be. Perhaps the surreality of the ivory tower can teach us to make it better.
what to do, where to go
written by debby, January 26, 2010
Fr, bless me for I have sinned. I have imagined that educators longed to pass on by mentoring logic, reason, the thought process. I have trusted that teachers love to teach! I have & will continue to sin in my anger that instead of the former they "teach to the NJ Test" & shoot for A's rather than discovery & wonder. & that's only 4th grade! I buck this system daily as I cant Homeschool now-pray for our kids!
Also-why should Ivory Tower ideal learning leave a student $10,000s in debt?
Many Blessings
written by Ars Artium, January 26, 2010
I read "The Regensburg Lecture" while riding the Acela express from Washington to Boston and was wishing for more from Fr. Schall this morning. So it was lovely to find this small lecture waiting. I will attempt to replicate the reading list given here. Study will be greatly diminished without the presence of this great teacher but I am trusting that even so I be a better person for the experience.
Bless Fr. Schall
written by Achilles, January 26, 2010
Ars, I echo and amplify your thoughts! What a gift is Fr. Schall- would that teachers would humble themselves to the Truth-
Willie, I always love your comments and rarely disagree, but today.... Teachers, if we are so bold as to call them that, are paid a kings ransom for what I see as 'power sitting'- Rare indeed is anything like Fr. Schall's class-
Modern University
written by Joseph, January 26, 2010
The modern university is typically a sterile place, more hollow than hallow, devoid of charm and tradition (except when it comes to football, maybe). Bishop Sheen wrote, "the capacity for wonder is killed in many universities. Men emerge interested in the question of whether they are at the top of the class, or the foot, or somewhere in the middle, working their way higher. The interest is in the self and its rating poisons the proud man's life--for self-centeredness if always a form of pride."
Don\'t Noun that Verb
written by Mack, January 26, 2010
The schools are exactly what The People (bless 'em) make them, usually by a failure to vote. A common stat (which I cannot source at the moment) is that 53% of Catholics voted for the Abortionist-in-Chief. And how many Catholics voted for their local school boards.

"Homeschool," btw, is not a verb.
Online learning
written by Kath, January 26, 2010
As a graduate of Catholic Distance University's MA Theology program, I can attest to the walls on the cyber-Ivory Tower. I learned a great deal from my interaction with my professors online, and have established and maintained friendships among my fellow students. If one cares to learn and someone is earnest in their desire to teach, your goal for education will be met -- professor and student will "read through together the works that tell them both what is."
written by pedsurg, January 27, 2010
Father: Amen and thanks !! One small quibble; the ideal place you are describing might best be termed residential college rather than university; Georgetown excepted of course.

Holy Cross '78

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