Saturday, August 17, 2013

Against Rejectionism


"This Is [Still] the Best School That Is"

It seems to be vogue to reject one's past: "Oh, I use to do/believe X, but now I do/believe Y."  John Maynard Keynes is reported to have said that when the facts change he changed his mind.  Certainly there is nothing wrong with one's views changing as one grows in wisdom.  But it seems the zeitgeist now presumes a rejection of past views.

One manifestation of this general trend is the rejection of past institutions, particularly educational institutions, most especially those with unique characteristics.  I think I speak for many, perhaps most, of the University of Dallas' graduates when I say that some of my views have changed since attending that school.  But on the whole I am struck by the solidity of the values I imbibed there.  In answer to the broad trend of rejectionism, let me offer a specific defense, a defense of my own alma mater.

Should I reject UD's politics?  I came to the school as a self-consciously conservative Republican.  I attended the 2000 Republican National Convention and was on the floor when George W. Bush was nominated for the presidency.  Did UD embrace and foster the political views I brought?  The Princeton Review ranks UD the 6th most conservative school in America.  (Though UD did not appear on recent lists from the Young America's Foundation or The Daily Beast.)

In my four years there I would not say I became more or less conservative, but more smartly conservative.  It was at UD that I was introduced to the writings of Russell Kirk and first attended a meeting of the Philadelphia Society.  I became less interested in the views of the Republican Party.  In the years since graduation I have come to shed the language of left/right, liberal/conservative almost entirely.  I would now describe myself as an integral Christian humanist and I try to take my cues from the Church's social teaching, including Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, works I first read at UD.  Have I rejected UD's politics?  Not exactly.  My views have evolved, based largely on UD's own education.

Should I reject UD's theology?  Some might describe UD's theology as conservative.  I think orthodox - that is, in accordance with the teaching of the magisterium, the pope and the bishops in communion with him - is a more accurate description.  But let us investigate this notion of conservative theology for a minute.  If one uses the term "conservative" in the literal sense of preserving something from the past, this is an accurate description: UD teaches the Bible as well as dead theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.  Even more recent figures studied look back to such historic thinkers. (I recently re-read Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of History in St. Bonaveture, a book assigned to me my senior year.  The title theologian died in 1274.)

One sometimes hears today that Christianity is not necessarily conservative or even that it ought not be.  If by this one means that Christianity ought not be identified with the Republican party, a party supportive of the death penalty and often ambivalent about aiding the poor and migrants, I would agree.  (Though it would be naive to make such a criticism and overlook the Republicans' defense of unborn children, support for traditional marriage, and pro-growth policies aimed at creating jobs, yes, even for the poor.  Likewise, the opposite observations could be made of the Democrats.)

If, however, one means that Christianity ought not be attached to the idea of conserving things from the past, this is a more dubious claim.  If one rejects the ancient scriptures of the faith and the historic teaching of the Church's bishops, one does not cease to be conservative; one ceases to be a Christian all together.  (If one rejects only the authority of the bishops, while retaining the Bible, one becomes Protestant.  There is, of course, great overlap between the two bodies of teaching.  In 325 the Council of Nicaea affirmed the Incarnation, the notion that Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Any Protestant would accept this doctrine not because he accepts the authority of the bishops gathered in council, but because the prologue to John's gospel says as much.)  While there is a progressive quality to Christianity - just look at the unfolding of God's grace and revelation in the Old Testament - a Christian cannot be so anti-conservative as to throw out stuffy old doctrines like the Incarnation and the Trinity, such historic practices as fasting and observance of weekly communal worship, and such hierarchic notions as leadership.

Should I reject UD's spirituality?  Spirituality is not exactly the same thing as theology; the latter is a system of beliefs; the former is the personal practice of those beliefs.  My spiritual life has followed an interesting trajectory: toward traditionalism while at UD, away from traditionalism afterward.  I might be tempted to dismiss the Gregorian chant, polyphony, monastic vocational discernment, and the rest as a passing fad, something beyond which I have now moved, except that, as my wife and I settle into family life together, those things from UD have taken on new meaning.  We recently changed parishes, for example, for a more traditional liturgy and Thomistic teaching.  Time appears to be proving the resonance of the spirituality I acquired as an undergraduate.

Should I reject UD's demographics?  Without a doubt the University of Dallas is a white upper-middle class school.  Having subsequently lived alongside Salvadorians and African-Americans in some of Greater Washington's less affluent neighborhoods, the narrowness of UD's demographics has become more obvious to me.  A greater diversity of races and classes at UD would not be a bad thing.  However, I am now struck by two things.  First, UD was - and, by all accounts, still is - an extremely diverse place.  Some of my closest friends had parents with MDs, JDs, and PhDs.  Their incomes were often similarly elevated.  But I also spent a spring break in Arkansas with a friend whose family lived in a mobile home heated by a wood stove.  Second, having spent four years at a large public university, I have seen the lack of diversity which programs aimed at producing it create.  The statistics for race and class may look better on paper, but intellectual diversity or vitality does not necessarily follow.  In contrast, Princeton Review writes, "What truly sets [UD's] curriculum apart... is not the challenge, but rather the scope and diversity of it. As one student enthused, 'I never thought I'd have so many different takes on all the subjects I've studied.'"

One of the simplest measures of diversity which affirmative action and its watered-down variants ignore is geography.  I grew up in Arizona with parents from the Great Plains; I instinctively believed that New York was some distant den of iniquity and pollution which no one would ever want to visit.  That view changed when I became friends with a New Yorker at UD.  Likewise, my classmates came from public, private, and home schooling in roughly equal measure, a diversity unlikely to be matched by most schools professing to promote diversity.  I do not believe in placing people in racial boxes; whenever I can, I skip the race section on forms.  UD's admission form did not even ask about my race.  That seems to resonate with a world in which people are not "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Should I reject UD's social worldview?  The phrase "social worldview" may not be the best, but I could not think of another to address the broad charge of closed-mindedness.  Let me consider two particular issues which may elucidate this vague criteria.

I came to UD in 2002, in the shadow of the fallen Twin Towers.  Iraq was invaded in my second semester.  There were many discussions about Islam and the threat from Islamic terrorism.  I regret that not all of those discussions were as well informed as they might have been.  In the last few years I have learned a great deal more about Islam and developed considerable respect for its adherents.  I would, however, add two qualifiers to my regrets about some misdirected notions of Islam that may have circulated.  First, there is a kind of apologia for all things non-Western which can be every bit as blinded as pro-Western jingoism.  There are real shortcomings in the Islamic world, like the widespread prevalence of pederasty in Afghanistan and Central Asia.  A frank discussion of Islam and Christianity should recognize the virtues and shortcomings of each.  One is at least as likely to find that at UD as anywhere else.  Second, UD equipped me with the tools - historical, philosophical, spiritual - to come to a greater appreciation of Islam.  Although that development did not happen while I was there, the connection is quite clear in my mind.

Princeton Review recently placed UD on its list of schools least friendly to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.  As I have written before, the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."  If this fails to occur at UD, I regret that, deeply.  However, the Church also teaches that, "basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."  I suspect that those answering the Princeton Review's queries likely assumed that such a condemnation is unfriendly.  Certainly it must be proclaimed with sensitivity.  But if the Church is correct in its teaching, sharing this truth, however painful it may be to many, is an act of charity; to hide the truth and proclaim falsehood is no act of kindness.  That UD hosts the Courage program is little known, but proof that the school supports both teaching and practice.

"This is the best school that is."  With these immortal words Dr. John R. Sommerfeldt endorsed the University of Dallas.  (Why make an ordinary statement when you can make it existential, right?)  I have attended several schools, visited several more, and met students from a variety of others.  I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about higher education.  And the longer I am away from UD, the more convinced I am of the truth of this endorsement.

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