The Universities We Do and Do Not Need

Until recent events at Providence College disabused me, I’d said for many years that because I taught at a genuinely Catholic school, I enjoyed greater freedom as a professor than anyone else I knew. That was because of a peculiar combination of features that did not apply elsewhere.

First, we treated people as if we remembered once in a while that they were fellow sinners on the way to death and judgment.

Second, we did not rule out the ultimate questions. At nearby Brown University, you might endanger your career if you were an untenured professor and you taught Shakespeare from a theological point of view, but at Providence you need not fear.

Third, and most important, we believed in truth: and that was why we gave wide leeway to the secular professors in our midst who could not contribute directly to the specifically Catholic mission of the college. When truth is your aim, and when honesty compels you to acknowledge how slender anyone’s hold on truth may be, you will appreciate those who do not speak with your voice, if for nothing else than to be the grindstone against which you can sharpen your steel.

I am not at all confident about these things now. That is because our first concern seems to have wandered from truth to political action, or to an appearance of the sort of political commitments that will “sell” in the collegiate marketplace.

The word around school now, from the political left, is that academic freedom must be employed “responsibly,” by which they mean that the professor must always be aware that what he says or writes may make his students feel uncomfortable.

They go so far as to insinuate that I or professors who believe as I do might use our power, in grading and in assigning work, to perpetuate injustice against certain groups of students.

The president chimed in, saying that academic freedom must be reconciled with what he called charity; implying that charity was not compatible with the rather mild criticism that I leveled at unnamed professors and students who want to alter the character of our college and to undermine or to eliminate our signature program in the Development of Western Civilization.

One of the ironies of being a conservative in academe, and not always a pleasant one, is that you are scrupulous about keeping contemporary politics out of your class in, say, Renaissance literature, while knowing quite well that your colleagues have little else to talk about but contemporary politics. The same professors assume that you will do what they do all the time, which is to use the classroom as a stage for partisan exhortations, while subjecting to contempt any student brave enough to stand against you.


They don’t understand that somebody like me has better things to do than to inveigh against Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I have Dante and Milton to teach. But at a stroke, they destroy the premises upon which alone academic freedom may be justified. If the classroom is for the free investigation into truth, then neither any political project no matter how righteous, nor any personal feelings no matter how sincere, may be allowed to interfere.

And if that is true of the classroom, it is a hundred times true of any article a professor may publish which is oriented toward finding or developing or propagating the truth.

My responsibility is the same as any professor’s: it is to speak or write the truth as I see it. If I am in error, the responsibility of my critics is to point out where I have made a mistake in reasoning, or where my premises are false, or what I have failed to see or failed to incorporate into my argument.

It may be understandable that someone who deals in deeply human questions will meet sometimes with anger or hurt feelings, or with an accusation of political mischief; understandable, but no more justifiable and of no more consequence than if he had been writing about the periodic table of elements. “How dare you say that about the lanthanides!” is not an argument.

Of course, the politically energized do not care a whit about the feelings of their opponents, but that is not the point. If you conceive that your job as a professor is not the humbling pursuit of truth, but something else, then academic freedom simply does not apply to you.

What, after all, is so precious about what you do that it must be protected? We do not need universities for political action; we have plenty of that everywhere else. If anything, we need as it were a temple set aside from such action, free from the prurience of advocacy and ambition and the lust for conquest.

We do not need universities for the inculcation of an etiquette that will allow people to be comfortable in public places; we have plenty of that everywhere else. If anything, we need as it were a wrestling arena set aside from such drawing rooms, free from the need to consider whether Aunt Lillian can be seated next to Uncle Frank, or what grandma will think if we bring up that unpleasant matter of the sale of the farm.

There are two corollaries to what I say here. The public has no overriding interest in ponying up funds for somebody’s soapbox, or for a pseudo-academic wine and cheese party, where everyone with the correct opinions is affirmed. Neither of those things is worth a single one of the carpenter’s or nurse’s hard-earned dollars.

We would be wiser people without television, take it all in all; and we would be wiser, take it all in all, without colleges as they are. But the Catholic, as things stand, does have an interest – in finding those places still committed to Truth Himself, in whatever sane and justifiable way they put that commitment into action. They need our support, and deserve it.


*Image: The Students’ Torchlight Procession by Adolph von Menzel, 1859 [National Gallery, Berlin]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.