When Will They Ever Learn?

In a few months, American Catholics will mark the fiftieth anniversary of a suicide pact. It is called the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” though its official and misleading name is a “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University.”

I use the word “misleading” advisedly, because nowhere in the document can you find any careful thought about what a university is, or whether a Catholic university is a mere variety of the more general thing rather than a distinctive institution in itself, or what it means to be Catholic at all.

The school formerly known as the College of Our Lady, now Notre Dame du Temps Courant, boasts the statement on its website under the heading “The Idea of a Catholic University,” but any similarity between what follows and the sober, deeply-read, and humane reasoning of Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University must have dwelt only in the imaginations of the administrators who drafted the statement – if at all.

One searches the statement in vain for the name of Jesus, or for any sense that the Church has an urgent word to speak to a world gone mad; for the world left to its own devices is always going mad, and all the worse when men believe they are building upon a Christian foundation while leaving behind the actual faith, the Church, and Christ. Rather, it is now from the world that the Catholic university will take its direction – the “contemporary” world.

I have been struck dumb with wonder at the perfect record of self-styled progressives when it comes to reading the signs of the times: They are always wrong, and often calamitously so.

I may give the signatories of benefit of the doubt, and say that they actually believed that Catholic colleges could best serve the world by abjuring the authority of the Church, whether from pope or bishop or magisterium. Grant that they believed that their colleges would be enriched by adopting a standard of excellence taken from the academic professions such as they were, and not from the virtues, whether natural or specifically Christian.

John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane, 1889 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

Still, their blindness to the cultural disintegration proceeding apace and in their midst warrants some analysis. Let me approach it at an angle. Suppose you are steeped in that classical and Christian tradition that is more than two thousand years old – the education of Newman, or of his contemporary Matthew Arnold, a Christian manqué. What could you do with that – how could you meet the needs of the time?

There is no need to speculate. We need only look at the record. Men who as boys had sweated over the Greek aorist went on to be the greatest explorers and ethnographers the world has ever known. They charted the Great Wall of China, penetrated the jungles of Borneo, brought the alphabet to speakers of Swahili, and unearthed the ruins of Troy.

The Catholics among them, with that same education, but submissive to the Church, enjoyed a literary Renaissance in the twentieth century at the same time that educational progressives led by John Dewey were busy dismantling the cathedral of learning, stone by stone. For a good seventy years, there were giants walking the earth, Catholic and near-Catholic: Chesterton, Maritain, Gilson, Marcel, Guardino, Mauriac, Claudel, Bernanos, Undset, Pieper, O’Connor, Tolkien, Weil, Lewis, and many more. It was a Renaissance that was sputtering to its end just when the Land O’ Lakes was stamping its butter with the seal of Newchurch.

The old education was never really old. It was timeless. That is not an adjective for an advertising agency. It is a statement of fact. Human nature does not change: and those thinkers and artists and poets who have probed that nature most profoundly can never be out of date, just as they have proved nowhere to be out of place.

The youth whose imagination turns toward the moral climax of Homer’s Iliad, when Achilles sets aside his wrath at last and grants mercy to the aged King Priam, will not find Confucius wholly alien; and can any human folly surprise someone who has read Genesis?

If we believe that Jesus is who He says and if we trust in the Church that He founded, then why should we be so diffident in confronting the world in any place or age? Is there a culture of human beings out there whom God has not made? A race of superior intellects who do not, left to themselves, dwell in darkness and the shadow of death? A pagan way of life that holds forth a higher standard of morality than that of Christ?

Progressivism by contrast is stillborn; it is a plant torn up by the roots. In 1967 was it a sign of cultural promise that bishops should stand on the corners of Hollywood or Harvard with their mitres turned upside down, hoping that a passing Barbara Streisand or Timothy Leary would flip them a quarter? The family had been showing signs of fracture. Popular culture had sunk into the celebration of drugs and death. Why Johnny Can’t Read was already more than a decade old. Whole orders of priests and nuns had already crumbled into apostatic ruin.

It’s the same with “progressives” now, those in the cultural quicksand who prefer to thrash forward instead of grasping the limb extended above their heads. They want us to follow the world’s current understanding of sex, which is like asking Jack Kevorkian to lead the March for Life. Satan and his fellows must be growing fat for lack of work. But let me adapt at least one of the cultural expressions of the LOL years:

Where have all the Cat’lics gone,/Long time passing?/Where have all the Cat’lics gone,/Long time ago?/Where have all the Cat’lics gone?/ Gone for idols every one./
     When will they ever learn?/When will they learn?

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He teaches at Providence College.