On Monday, November 11, I delivered the first “First Lecture” to students at the University of Notre Dame. This series – modeled on the idea of the “Last Lecture” – is intended to introduce a new member of the faculty to students, particularly faculty who have joined Notre Dame with explicit interest in supporting the Catholic mission and identity of the university. I post my remarks in full, below.
Patrick J. Deneen
University of Notre Dame
I am deeply gratified and honored to have received this invitation from you, the students, to deliver the first “First Lecture” at the University of Notre Dame. This is a marvelous idea – to ask a professor to speak to you about why he or she is here at Notre Dame, to provide an opportunity to reflect on what draws people here, and what vision might animate this very special place.
Some, even many of you, perhaps know that I left Georgetown University at the end of academic year 2012 to join the faculty in the Department of Political Science here at Notre Dame. I was a tenured member of the faculty at Georgetown, and so I had – barring any serious breach of basic decency – a job for life at one of the nation’s preeminent universities, the oldest Catholic institution with many comparably wonderful traditions like those at Notre Dame, in a dazzling and wealthy city, the center of national and international politics and increasingly a place of expansive cultural and culinary offerings, where I founded and ran a program that had become one of the intellectual centers on campus and even the broader DC environs. Why would I leave all that to come to a university without having received a promotion, with comparable rankings, in a depressed rust-belt city whose population has been dwindling and rife with crime and abandoned houses, surrounded by corn fields and buried under “lake effect” snow for about six months of the year?
In an effort to help me answer that question, I thought I’d ask some of you why you’re here. The first assignment that I gave to students in my University seminar, in which fifteen first year students are enrolled, devoted to the subject of the aims and ends of education – was to ask for an answer to the question, “why I am attending the University of Notre Dame?” Among the most common answer submitted – along with football and the alumni network that would help when applying for jobs – was that Notre Dame has a remarkable sense of community that is palpable even to students visiting campus for a day on a campus tour, and already profoundly experienced in the first days and weeks among the fifteen students in my class. If asked to answer the same question, I would give a similar answer – we moved across the country to a new region and campus on grounds similar to the reason that many students attend Notre Dame – not the restaurants, not the weather, not the buildings, not even the football – but rather, the incomparable sense of community that pervades this place.
In thinking about the various reasons that were offered by those first-year students, with the benefit of hindsight and some years, I would submit that it the fondness and outright love that students and alumni demonstrate for this place is the community that they experience and remember during their time here. Football – whether we win or lose (and we do some to lose some tough ones) – is an opportunity to celebrate and revel in that sense of community, and the strength of the alumni community is built upon that deeply shared sense of membership that extends even to those who attended long after one’s graduation. Even amid the palpable joy expressed by students about their strong sense of belonging here, there is also an undercurrent of anxiety that I have heard expressed from time to time, especially as one moves inevitably from the heady days of that first year to the waning days of one’s senior year.
Every student knows at some level that the few years spent in this place, among these people – with best friends, hallmates, classmates, loved ones – that these fleeting years are likely the ones when you will experience most fully a pervasive sense of membership in a community. It is the most comprehensively you will ever feel a member of something true and good, the most fully you will ever feel a part of something bigger and better than yourself alone. Coming, as many of you do, from nice homes in nice neighborhoods, you are aware that many things still await you – success, adventure, love, marriage, family, wealth, maybe a boat or a vacation home, travel and new experiences – but the one thing that will be hardest to achieve after your time at Notre Dame will be anything approaching the sense of community that you will experience here. Notre Dame both prepares you for all those wonderful things you can rightly anticipate enjoying, but in other ways, it gives you a taste of what you will all too rarely experience once you graduate. It leaves you at once with a great sense of anticipation for what is yet to come – but also, inevitable nostalgia for what you will find difficult to experience again in any comparable way. You will come back every so often – some of you six Saturdays a year, some of you perhaps a football weekend every other year or every few years, depending on where you are and what you are doing – but every visit back will be suffused with the slightly manic effort to re-visit and re-create that sense of belonging, and to convey that feeling to friends, family and someday, children who accompany you on your visits back, that you had here for four years, and that few of you can expect to experience with anything like this intensity or fullness once you leave this place.
For most faculty in most institutions of higher education today, we do not experience the university in the way that you students do. Obviously, we don’t get the benefit of the 24-hour a day campus life, and most of us are long-past that sense of liberation that many of you feel being away from home for the first time – we have too many bills to feel that elation. Few faculty expect to experience in any way the sense of community that you students come to know while in college. For many, our college or university is our employer, the place where we have a job, to which we commute and receive our paycheck. It is not our “community.”
Yet, there’s an interesting paradox here: the faculty are the more “permanent” members of a university; the students pass through for a brief time, but the faculty can spend their entire career at a single institution. By an earlier understanding, it was the faculty that was the heart and the core of the “community;” indeed, it was more often the case in pre-modern times that faculty would live on campus (particularly since almost all were religious), and students would “commute” to campus from town. It was, in fact, the relationship between the faculty that gave rise to one of the original words to describe this kind of institution – “collegium,” from which we get the word “college.” Its use in the Latin dates back to the 14th-century, and it meant originally “community, society, or guild.” Even when the institution was called “university” – deriving from the Latin word “universitas,” meaning “whole” or “entire” – pointing to the object of inquiry and the nature of knowledge, understood to be something comprehensive and whole – still, such “universities” were made up of “colleges,” as we see today in the case of the University of Notre Dame with its Colleges of Arts and Letters, Engineering, Business and Architecture. Only within a “collegium” could the “universum” be rightly discerned.
The words “university” and “college,” while still used to describe institutions of higher learning, tend to mean their exact opposite today. We have today what Clark Kerr called a “multiversity” – not a university – composed of faculty who do not form a “collegium” on their home campuses. Today, faculty are largely formed and educated to regard their home institutions as shells that contain a multiplicity of different enterprises that are fundamentally disconnected from one another. The move away from the “college” as community of scholars, to the research model in which faculty largely work in seclusion in areas of ever-greater specialization and specificity, has become the dominant model in higher education today. Its genesis lie in a change in how knowledge was to be “created” and known – essentially, as pieces that could be known and discovered by individuals working largely in ignorance of each others’s work on their own campus, in which – increasingly – faculty would have more in common with faculty working in similar areas at OTHER institutions, rather than at their own. A common parlance about what education aimed to achieve was replaced instead with all the languages of Babel – every discipline having its own jargon and “discourse,” generating, among other things, increasing need for a growing bureaucratic administrative class to take over in a whole range of areas once of faculty concern. Part of the immense growth in college costs has come about because of the need for a burgeoning administrative class, which itself was the consequence of the growing expertise of the faculty in their areas of speciality, with their corresponding ignorance about the basic running of the university (ask, e.g., a random faculty member the requirements for an undergraduate degree – likely he will not know the basic requirements for graduation).
As research specialization became paramount, the teaching of undergraduates became to be seen as onerous and distracting, and was increasingly farmed out to graduate students and adjuncts at many research institutions, while the faculty at elite institutions seek to reduce teaching loads and increase sabbatical times. The teaching of graduate students became more highly desired, particularly given that they, too, were preparing for lives of specialization in institutions organized around the ever-greater sub-division of labor. Faculty prestige and rewards lie in publications and disciplinary recognition, not teaching. The title “college” became decidedly antiquated and even embarrassing; for a revealing acknowledgement of this fact, take a look some time at the changes to the names of institutions of higher learning over the past fifty years or so. Over that time, hundreds of institutions have changed their names, and in almost every case, they have replaced the name “College” in their title with “University,” in order to signal to the world that they are a serious research institution.
As one would expect, the fundamental casualty of this new set of arrangements was the basic shared commitment that had been at the heart of institutions of higher learning – the education of young adults coming of age. Along with the shedding of the name “college,” there was the simultaneous abandonment or evisceration of “core curricula” at most institutions of higher education. Substantive requirements were replaced with “distribution” or “area” requirements that could be filled out in any multitude of ways. There was no coherence to the education of undergraduates, because there was no longer any coherent view of what an undergraduate education should be. At base, there was no agreement about what a good human life was, and so, at first there were some titanic battles over the curriculum reflecting that disagreement, but eventually, nearly every member of the faculty simply “agreed to disagree” and ceased devoting any attention to the issue. Administrators were hired to do studies. (Here’s an amazing thing: twenty-five years ago, Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind was an explosive best-seller when he argued that the rise of multicultural, feminist, and identity-based education constituted the nadir of Western tradition. Today, one might rightly expect that a book such as his would go unnoticed, because we have come to manifest the indifference over curricula that he predicted would come about). Today, faculty are increasingly like the figures described in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, consigned to putting heads on pins without any knowledge about the product they are producing. Because they are only engaged in the work on “parts,” they are oblivious to the whole, including that most central question of the kind of human person we aim to “produce,” or to foster. Instead, we work in our tiny corner of the multiversity, relying on “the invisible hand” to put give rise to some coherence out of fragmented and incoherent curriculum. Universities today are filled with Marxists who behave like Smithians.
There is another model of education that one finds only in symbols and words on most campuses, and at least in some continuing evidence on many Catholic campuses, to varying degrees – an education based in the belief in knowledge that is “universum” – that is whole and entire – that comes about through “collegium.” This view is expressed none better than by the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his book (that should be required reading of every student at a Catholic institution, as it provides the justification and grounds why you are required to take courses in Philosophy and Theology), The Idea of the University.
I lay it down that all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by a mental abstraction…. As [the disciplines] all belong to one and the same circle of objects, they are one and all connected together; as they are but aspects of things, they are severally incomplete in their relation to the things themselves, though complete in their own idea and for their own respective purposes; on both accounts they at once need and subserve each other. And further, the comprehension of the bearings of one science on another, and the use of each to each, and the location and limitation and adjustment and due appreciation of them all, one with another. [3rd Discourse]
Of course, Newman recognizes that limits of time and comprehension, as well as native talents and gifts, mean that every teacher and student at a university will necessarily specialize. However, such specialization takes place in a broader and deeper context of preliminary understanding that all of knowledge forms a whole, and it is a part of the calling – the vocation – of each member of the faculty to seek the connections with his or her field of expertise and every other field across the university. This can’t be achieved by continuous study – this is achieved in two main ways. First, in and through conversations between colleagues across disciplines and “colleges,” drawing together the pieces of knowledge into the “universum” of wholeness; and secondly, through the vocation of teacher, in which every member of the faculty should be animated with a concern for how his or her individual “piece” comprises part of the whole of the formation of the young persons being instructed. Under such a view, more fundamental than the division of labor are the connections that should be sought and cultivated. This is not to be the haphazard job of a student who might light upon such connections through a random selection of courses and faculty, in which the faculty focus on their piece, oblivious to the curriculum; rather, this should be the ongoing project of a “collegium,” a community of scholars that constantly gathers to discuss and inform each others’ work and teaching.
Before joining the faculty here, I came regularly to Notre Dame over a number of years for various events, and what I discovered is that Notre Dame has a “collegium” within its modernizing university – that there is a dedicated set of faculty, particularly those drawn here because of the Catholic nature of this institution, who are devoted across disciplines to fostering a community not only for students on football weekend, but at its heart, in every aspect of this institution. Indeed, this vision of the university IS the Catholic vision – and, of course, not only in the university, but in the entirety of the world. As was understood in the earliest days of the Church, the Church was not a place – not a building – but an “ecclesia,” a gathering of people, drawn together for the common and shared purpose to worship and better understand God through the bringing together of their many diverse talents and gifts for the benefit of the whole community (as Paul describes as the manifestation of love in 1 Corinthians, 12-13).
A Catholic university is one particular manifestation of worship and fidelity, the ongoing effort to know God and approach his love in every respect – through the study of God himself through theology, as well as his Creation, including especially the pinnacle of his creation, man. For this reason, the humanities – the study of the human creature – at a Catholic university should and must have a special place of pride as part of a call to become the creature that God created and intended. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, humans in the fullest sense are not born, they are “made” – that is, they achieve their telos, their final end or flourishing, through intentional and conscious formation. Education is not simply knowledge, in the end – though, of course, knowledge is one of its central aims – but it is ultimately knowledge in the service of virtue, and virtue as the proper exercise of knowledge, that is a distinctive aspiration and mark of a Catholic institution.
Both Aristotle and Aquinas understood ultimately that this condition could not be achieved alone, that it required community – according to Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, “man is by nature a social and political animal.” The most alarming fact of our world today is that, in all likelihood, you will have the greatest experience of community between the ages of 18-22 years old, and you will seek ways to re-create that experience for the rest of your lives, but, with some relatively few exceptions, will likely fail. Here is the hard truth: America is to community what hypoxic zones are to fish. America is really good at generating economic opportunity (though, not recently), generating wealth, fostering a society of technological innovation, lots of entertainment and other forms of stimulation and distraction – but an overwhelming finding of much social science data shows that we are very bad at forming strong and lasting communities, starting with families, and implicating all sorts of human forms of institutions and organizations, including churches, towns, neighborhoods, and even – increasingly – colleges and universities.
America was a society conceived in the belief in the inviolability of the rights-bearing individual. Increasingly, that view of human beings has gravitated from the pages of philosophy to the real world itself: we have made ourselves, through gargantuan efforts (often, ironically enough, through investments of “big government”) into a society of autonomous individuals. Much government policy today that is often accused of being “collectivist” actually has at its end the displacement of the functional role of communities – including the Church – for the purpose of “liberating” the individual. The operative image to keep in mind is “Julia,” whose fictional life-story was a promotional ad of President Obama’s re-election campaign – the woman who achieved a life disconnected from every other human being (including an apparently fatherless child who makes a brief appearance before a school bus takes him away forever), whose independence comes about by a massive investment of government resources.
Community today is a rarity, and like any rare commodity, it’s expensive – though, by design and originally, it was very inexpensive and widely available. Today, you students get to have the experience of this particular community for about $60,000 per year, so that many of you can successfully enter a world in which the prevailing norm is driven by ever-fuller experience of individual autonomy. The high cost of this brief foray into community is giving way to a further transformation of higher education, in which campuses and residential life and all the attendant face-to-face interactions that form the heart of a student’s experience here are increasingly replaced by on-line education – for instance, the rise of “Massive Open Online Courses,” or “MOOCs.” The persistence of this costly form of community naturally appears increasingly superfluous to a world that has concluded higher education can be reduced to pieces of useful knowledge, increasingly measured by assessment and outcome-based education that, as currently proposed by President Obama, will be rated based on how much money students make after graduation. The elimination of the residential college is the logical result of the elimination of the ideal of “collegium” that together seeks “universum.”
And so, I came to Notre Dame for reasons deeply personal and vocational. Along with my wife and family, after many years in the suburbs of Washington D.C., living at a divide between worlds of work and school and worship and home, we concluded that we were living in a particularly oxygen-deprived hypoxic zone. Today, in our daily interactions, we regularly interact with colleagues in a wide variety of disciplines and different Colleges – in political science, but also philosophy, theology, English, Architecture, Business, having a common source of language deeply rooted in a shared Catholic conception of higher education. The line between our “professional” and “personal” lives have blurred, as should be the case in a “collegium.” We elected and were very fortunate to live close to campus, in the hopes and intention that as the years pass, our home will become an extension of the campus, and the campus an extension of our home.
But I finally can’t disconnect this personal ambition with one that is “professional” and vocational. As I have argued elsewhere, the current arrangements in America, premised on a false conception of the human person, are “unsustainable.” We can and very likely will continue to extract what we can from the past – in the form of both moral and physical resources – while borrowing from the future whose denizens will not be able to repay inherited debts. We will do this to prop up the current practice of a false human condition, and will continue to lose the ability to know what and how to form good and sustainable human communities. I came here in part for the personal reasons of where we wanted to be; but also, with some hope that Notre Dame has retained enough of a “collegium” that it can be one of the remaining sources from which we might yet be able to re-learn the arts of association. On the one hand, I feel sorry for all of you, students of this special place, for having to leave this cold, often dark, often dank, wet, snow-covered and often desolate landscape for brighter and more exciting places. You will have beauty and wealth and adventure, but you will always miss Notre Dame, because here you experienced something that is increasingly rare in community-hypoxic America. But rather than make Notre Dame more like that world you will enter – as seems to be the trend in higher education everywhere – it is my hope that I, and a hearty band of collegues – the collegium – along with you students and, someday, as alumni, may yet make America more like Notre Dame, at its best. For the sake of America, for your children, and toward building the Kingdom, I hope we have a fighting Irish chance.