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Thank The Academy

Matthew Smedberg | Friday, May 19, 2006

It is graduation season: the sun is warm, the weather poetic, and the pages of The Observer full of celebration and (self-)congratulation. I do not need to add to this torrent; in the spirit of life in the real world “commencing”, therefore, allow me a few remarks of a more pointed nature.

When the Oscars roll around every March, the actors, directors, craftswomen and techno-geeks who bring us the magic of the movies accept their little golden statues with speeches that begin by thanking the Academy. Their salaries are paid by the people who shell out ticket money, but it’s the Academy who decide who gets honored for achievement in the art and craft of filmmaking. The Academy could award its prizes to the biggest moneymakers – show business is still business – but they usually choose not to. Instead, the awards go to films which serve the larger purposes of drama and art: making the audience think, posing hard questions, startling them and waking them up.

As it happens, a few thousand of us are gathered here to receive awards from the Academy. Not the Motion Picture Academy, of course, but some of the comparisons stand. Where we go from here is a question with as many answers as there are graduates, but judging from the tables populating Notre Dame’s career fairs, it would seem that the Academy is most interested in as many of us as possible working at national or multinational corporations – and sending periodic and sizable remittances back to South Bend. This, it is said, is our way of Thanking The Academy for giving us the tools to succeed.

Well, in my own case, the foreseeable future doesn’t promise a job which will allow me to offer the Academy much monetary thanks. Even if it did, however, up until late this year I doubted that I could find it in my heart to donate much to this University unless things took a marked turn. But Fr. Jenkins’ statement on Academic Freedom, issued 5 April, represented that turn, and if its realization is anything like its formulation, I still have hope for education at Notre Dame.

I have no intention of thanking the Academy for existing or for building attractive buildings for classes and events – Bob Jones University does that much – and I have no intention of thanking it for its dorm spirit or its athletic tradition. The Notre Dame that I thank or don’t is one thing, or it is nothing: it either is, or is not, a place where ideas are submitted to rigorous scrutiny, and where minds are enabled to engage in that scrutiny. It is a place where drama, art, and literature are valued and engaged, where culture and upbringing are not the measure of all things, where viewpoints are not only voiced but heard and examined.

John Jenkins has demonstrated to my satisfaction that he intends Notre Dame to be such a place. He did so by refusing to identify the voice of the teacher or department with the institutional voice of the University. He did so by visibly listening to students and faculty during the academic freedom debate, rather than what many feel is the standard M.O., hearing only the donors, trustees, and ratings organizations. He did so by attending the Vagina Monologues, and moreover being powerfully affected by them, despite his honest disagreement with their espoused moral prescriptions.

I have yet to meet the person honestly interested in promoting the welfare and equal rights of women in American society, who has attended the Vagina Monologues and not been powerfully affected. Thank you, John Jenkins, for not letting me down.

It is my petition to all who read this, many of whom are now or will soon be in a position to thank the Academy monetarily, to ensure that their gratitude go where it is deserved. To a university which welcomes but a single perspective, let there be no gratitude. To a university which reinforces the mental blinders which its students enter wearing, let there be no gratitude. To a university which discourages questioning, even of the core principles which support its very existence, yes even the existence of God, let there be no gratitude.

Some have expressed fear that a Notre Dame where such plurality is welcomed will discourage Catholic intellectuals from seeking employment here. I say, if they are afraid to confront their ideas, we do not need them; indeed, the educational and scholarly goals of the university would be undermined by their presence.

There is much about Notre Dame not to love, and for some this Academy will not be the best fit. But John Jenkins has made a significant move toward ensuring that Notre Dame will not be a one-idea town, that those who do come here for the football or the food or because their father went here will leave having been challenged and, if we are lucky, even excited by the ideas which they have engaged.

Matthew Smedberg can be contacted at smedberg.1@nd.edu