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An embarrassment of riches

| Monday, January 25, 2016

“An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University and nothing else,” Cardinal Newman said.

I am a writer, not an academic. Old school, a generalist, a free-range intellectual, one whose penchant for cross-border raids — today physics, tomorrow history — has given me an outrider’s take on academe and its discontents. No skin in that game. These days there is no shortage of scholars lamenting the kiss-off of the life of the mind.

Millenials, stacked-up in ticket-punching institutions of higher learning, provide exhibit A: a captive population whose pronounced anti-intellectual bent has caused no end of soul searching. Excellent sheep, in the damning phrase of one despairing savant.

At Yale, the refrain is the same. Seek to engage students beyond the pro forma syllabus slog — goad or provoke them into going off the deep end — and find yourself a pariah on ratemyprofessor.com

“Dude gets all worked up about nothing.”

The App Generation, transfixed by the smartphone, is not about to navigate beyond its comfort zone unless there is a tangible payoff at the end. Smart to a fault.

Which is to say the life of their minds hinges on classroom mastery. No revelation on the page for them. Battle-tested from birth, black belts in the heuristic arts by the third grade, they know their way around a curriculum. And — rule number one — it’s friend-or-foe teachers. So boycott “all worked up.” Entreat or cajole them to move beyond credentialism and find push-back and “Who is this fool?”

Behold then, the state-of-the-art in academic freedom, the parallel universe, wherein professors do their research thing and compete in the cutthroat game called tenure, and students do their Google search thing and compete in the cutthroat game called careerism.

At Notre Dame, careerism is the big man on campus, notwithstanding a shoutout to ethical qualms. All those brand new buildings made possible by heavy-hitters concentrate the mind greatly. Seven hundred business majors. Welcome corporate recruiters. The MBA is the blue-and-gold standard, glad-handing flush alumni, a skill-set readily acquired on Game Day, go Fleecing Irish. Sky box 101.

In the other universe — all those talks and symposia begging for a paltry turnout — a noted theologian lectures on the future of the planet to — generous count — 20 people, including, mirabile dictu, an undergraduate who dares to ask an intelligent question.

I don’t know whether to be embarrassed for the students or mortified by the institution that pockets their tuition and punches their ticket. Certainly the no-shows, in great numbers, argues for the failure of the University to inculcate a respect for learning in and of itself. Seven hundred literature and history majors hanging on every word of the learned speaker.

Punch your ticket by remaining indifferent to the intellectual life of the campus. Indeed, swamped by course work, over-burdened with parental expectations, beset at every turn by peer pressure, synapses owned by social media, prove your sliver of autonomy by evincing an anti-intellectual mentality. How cool is that? By all means socialize in the library, snack too.

So keep them out of the candy store, found in the parallel universe, a cornucopia of lectures, talks and panels about the things that really matter. Notre Dame has an impressive schedule of speakers, everything is first cabin (the receptions in particular), and the life of the mind — on life support in the classroom — flourishes on the wall posters of O’Shaughnessy Hall.

Since October, when I arrived, I have been privy to discussions about nuclear power, Iran, Primo Levi, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, German memory-making, privatization of research, social justice, working class professors, ISIS and Paris, the encyclicals of Pope Francis and the origins of World War I. I was even able to squeeze in a talk of my own on Berkeley’s Radioactive Roberts. True, I did attend the Duffy Lecture, an embarrassment to the department of English. I wanted to headbutt the speaker, too arch by half, but the reception with wine took away the Maileresque venom.

Riches then in abundance met with acute embarrassments. The gadarene rush to the exits once compulsory attendance at the lecture expires is an affront of the first order. The image that stands out, courtesy of the Jordan Auditorium, is of a valiant undergraduate attempting to ask a question while his peers stampede around him, drowning him out and rendering him invisible. The stampede into a lecture or talk — non-compulsory — would constitute a miracle, and so far on campus I haven’t witnessed one. Do you believe in miracles? One can only pray.

The faculty at Notre Dame is first-rate, the students are affable and courteous, and the facilities are outstanding. For an old-school writer like myself you can’t ask for a better college experience. Especially since my undergrad years (post-Navy) were spent at state-of-siege Berkeley. The Berkeley of “On strike? Shut it down.”

No threat of that here. No problem. Rather a different threat, one that arises from the too smooth operation of the University. Chill. Profess the life of the mind while looking the other way as students look askance at that life and witness a gradual shut-down of the very idea — purpose — of a university. Quo vadis, Notre Dame? I have it on good authority that Cardinal Newman is turning in his grave.

Robert Andersen is a visiting scholar at the Reilly Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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