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Dr. Solomon’s hopes for Notre Dame

Tom Bounds | Friday, November 13, 2009

 In this column, “The Notre Dame They Know,” I will interview individuals who have been influenced by the University of Notre Dame.

I will seek to discover the unique role that Notre Dame has played in their life and vocational journey.
It is hoped that this column will inculcate a deeper, more honest and more 
profound love for Our Lady and Her University.
The lead-gray sky hangs heavy over the Golden Dome on an autumn afternoon as students, bundled up against the creeping cold, scurry across campus to class. Passing north of the Hesburgh Library and turning left, one stands at the foot of the window-clad brown brick behemoth of Flanner Hall
Ten floors up in an office adorned with pictures of Popes, politicians and philosophers, Professor David Solomon, a jovial man in sport coat and tie with dark peppered hair combed atop a round face, reclines in a black chair. With arms pulled back, fingers laced behind his head,  Solomon, seated beneath an icon of the Madonna and Child, begins his story.
“I was born into a southern Baptist family and was educated at Baylor, the great Baptist University. I came here in 1968 … I was the third non-Catholic ever hired in the Notre Dame Philosophy department.
“As a young man trying to be an intellectual, I was — like any Protestant — amazed at what the Catholic intellectual and artistic tradition had to offer … Beethoven, Mozart, Dante … virtually every bit of English literature that I loved was inspired by Catholic ideas … I was astounded from the very beginning that Catholics were so resistant to their own tradition. At the same, I loved the intellectual seriousness of the University… it was exciting.
“Over time, I became worried about the direction in which Notre Dame was moving, especially in hiring and in faculty composition. I thought Notre Dame’s destiny should be as a distinctive University … the best University of its kind, and I was struck by Notre Dame’s tendency to follow the models of other Universities that had other reasons for existing.
“By the time I was mid-way through my career here, the majority of the philosophy faculty was non-Catholic, and, even among the Catholics, there were very few whose philosophical interests were formed by the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.”
Discouraged by these trends, Solomon worked to reinvigorate Catholic culture on campus, serving as director of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy and founding director of the Arts & Sciences (Glynn Family) Honors Program. After these efforts, Solomon founded the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.
“We are unique among most ethics centers in that we operate out of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. I think we’ve had an impact on campus. We’re hosting our 10th fall conference next week (Nov. 11- 13) … and it has received an enormous amount of interest on campus and beyond.”
Solomon shared his thoughts on several of the influential figures in Notre Dame’s recent history.
“Fr. Hesburgh has been the most important person for Notre Dame in the last half-century. He was a great public figure, and had a very expansive vision of Notre Dame … He famously stated that ‘He wanted Notre Dame to be a great Catholic university, but you can’t be a great Catholic university until you become a great university.’ And he signaled at that time giving priority to moving up in the ranks according to secular criteria. I think the question is whether he unleashed forces that are going to undermine Catholic character.
“Ralph McInerny represents the very best of the neo-Thomist tradition that formed the framework for Notre Dame Philosophy … He wrote a paper a few years ago called “The Road not Taken,” which argued that Notre Dame had had an opportunity to reinvigorate this rich Catholic tradition, but instead turned away from it … McInerny has been a voice in the wilderness … I hope he’ll be around for awhile.
“Alasdair MacIntyre is the leading Catholic philosopher in the world … His work “After Virtue” is the most important work in moral philosophy in the last half of the twentieth century. His most recent book “God, Philosophy, Universities” is a vision of what a Catholic University should be, and I think it is a stinging indictment of what Notre Dame has become … The thesis of the book is that it is impossible to be both a Catholic University and a modern research University as it is conceived.
“Fr. Jenkins was a student of mine … We have been close friends for many years. I had great hopes for his presidency and his Inaugural Address was stupendous. I’ve been somewhat disappointed in what’s happened to Notre Dame during his first term … I had deep disagreements with him both about his treatment of “The Vagina Monologues” and his invitation to the president, but I still have high hopes. Among other things, he has the potential to be the finest scholar Notre Dame has ever had as president.”
Asked about his greatest concerns and hopes for Notre Dame, Solomon observes, “I think the University has been remarkable for the lack of real discussion about the substantive goals we are trying to achieve educationally. As an institution, we have settled for clichés about excellence and the like, which are constantly being preeminent without any content. We do not have a unifying vision, or a forum in which this can be discussed.
 “I am most hopeful about the students who, in spite of the mistakes we’ve made, have improved enormously. There’re signs that the culture is so shallow and empty that some of the brightest and most talented young people are turning to more traditional models for their lives and for belief. It makes it possible to imagine we may be able to reinvigorate some of these more classical conceptions of the world and of human life that animated the tradition that founded this university.”
In conclusion, Solomon observes, “Notre Dame is the only university that has an opportunity to be both a great university and to carry on the best parts of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. How can you not love the University, giving everything that it stands for?”
 Tom is senior majoring in Math and Philosophy. He can be contacted at [email protected] 
Professor Solomon is W.P. and H.B. White Director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He recommends that you read “God, Philosophy, Universities” by Alasdair MacIntyre.