I graduated from Notre Dame for the first time in 2007. I managed to stay away for a year. I sometimes quip that I failed to achieve escape velocity. While most take this to be a joke, it is not.
I was trained by our English Department to be a critic of postmodern literature. As a result, my sense of irony became overdeveloped: I learned to approach not just books but also people and institutions with a cold air of skepticism, looking for the self-serving agendas beneath their self-righteous rhetoric. I was convinced of my superiority — of the clarity of my vision compared to that of my peers, who somehow continued to take life at face value.
Nothing was safe from the critical mindset that I had internalized — including the institution that had taught me to adopt it. The elders of Notre Dame — its administrators, faculty, staff, and alumni—spoke of her tradition, of her inclusion of all of her children into one family under the sight of God. My peers accepted this without irony — an attitude that, at the time, I found incomprehensible: could they not see that this was just a story — a stratagem to generate, by means of enthusiasm and nostalgia, future donations? That the elders of Notre Dame encouraged orthodox morality so that her “children” might marry and, 18 years later, send their children and tuition back to the Dome?
There is an element of truth in these accusations: Notre Dame is an institution like any other, and if her actions did not lead to her continued survival, she would no longer be around to do things like publish student newspapers. Indeed, in hindsight, I see an element of brilliance in the story that the elders of Notre Dame tell their students — a brilliance that has allowed Notre Dame to endure against significant odds. Nonetheless, I had missed something crucial.
For Notre Dame is not an institution like any other, not quite. In my arrogance, I could not see this until I went into the world — where I could not shake the feeling that something crucial was missing. It took me a year to realize what it was: if one scratches the surface of those institutions on the outside, there is a shallowness to them, a smallness to their purposes that makes them impossible to take seriously. They too tell us stories, but their stories are rather less sincere: the entirety of popular culture has come to be a kind of marketing, leveraging our every behavior for ends that would be sinister if they were not so petty. We are to them cogs in the larger machinery of manipulation.
Notre Dame is not like this. She too is, in some sense, a machine in which we are but cogs. But what differentiates her is the depth of her purposes: Notre Dame takes steps to ensure her continued survival, yes, but that survival is not an end in itself. For she does not hoard the resources that we give her: she spends them. On us. Or, rather, on creating the family that she said she would create in the first place. I know this now because I have allowed myself to become part of that family — to take the words of the Lady not as manipulative but as sincere. For the first time, Notre Dame is my home.
There is a tradition at Notre Dame that one will not graduate if one climbs the steps of the main building as an undergraduate. In my ironic mode, I could see this tradition only as a superstition: I climbed the steps every chance that I got, laughing each time at the simplicity of my peers. When I graduated anyway, I laughed harder: I had transcended Notre Dame. I had need of her no longer.
Things seemed less funny when I returned a year later. It was no longer so obvious to me that I had actually managed to transcend Notre Dame — and even less obvious that it was the kind of thing that one ought to transcend. I admit that it might be that I am now as blind as I once thought my peers. But if to look at the world with sincerity rather than irony is blindness, it is unclear to me that sight is better.
I suppose that I wrote this column to encourage those of you who might think as I once did to reevaluate things — to try to look at the Lady on her own terms. It is worth it, I think. At any rate, I have vowed not to climb the steps before I graduate. Maybe this time I will actually achieve escape velocity — maybe I will finally learn, that is, the sincerity that I was supposed to have learned the first time.
Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show on WVFI every Sunday at 3 p.m. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.