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viewpoint

The patron saint of campus debate?

| Wednesday, October 9, 2019

In the recent flurry of viewpoints, lectures and signage displays, it seems that world- and nation-wide controversies are playing out at Notre Dame in a spicier way than usual. 

I am not some sage alum who has achieved enlightenment and views campus controversies from 40,000 feet. But here are a few noncontroversial truths: 

1. American society is currently quite polarized and our means of communication with each other brings controversial, emotional and extreme content to the fore. 

This is just as true at ND, for better or for worse.

2. Notre Dame is deeply marked by its character as a Catholic university, notwithstanding all the inconsistencies that accompany applying that term to a large swath of diverse individuals.

Cultural and political discussions at Notre Dame are influenced by No. 2, whether you like it or not.

3. You will be hard pressed to find an individual on this earth whose cultural or political opinions are deeply influenced by tweets, op-eds or campus displays.

Again, Notre Dame is no exception.

What this means is threefold. 

First, it means that rhetoric from all sides is tending toward the low-end of the quality spectrum. Even well-meaning, well-educated, special “Notre Dame people” are often guilty of crappy rhetoric when making cultural and political arguments. 

Second, it means that Notre Dame is equipped with a tradition and a lens for viewing these controversies that most other institutions and schools don’t have, so it should use them conscientiously and with the nuance befitting its status as an elite university. The mission statement is pretty lucid on this point. 

Third, it means there’s lots of room for improvement. There’s no reason Notre Dame has to be the best at anything. Like our academic departments and our sports teams, we as a body of Notre Dame people have to keep striving to improve, or else our quality will sink and our ability to affect the world will be impaired. 

Let’s not forget that minds and hearts are changed first and foremost through relationships. No one gives a damn what you say if they don’t trust or at least respect you.

In his novel about a young man’s conversion to Catholicism, soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman portrays the culture of dialogue at Oxford at great length. (Newman is well known for his book “The Idea of a University”; the novel “Loss and Gain” is like an illustration of some of the ideas in that book.) It might seem crusty on the surface — did these guys ever do anything but drink tea, stroll through meadows and talk about Christianity? — but it contains all the fervor, emotion and high stakes that we see in our debates today. The main character is constantly pulled into intellectual and deeply personal conversations with his teachers, friends, acquaintances and family members about his doubts about the Anglican church. Because of their relationships, they actually influence each other. Literally all but one think he is absolutely wrong, dishonoring his family and sinning to the point of damnation by even considering becoming a Roman Catholic — and yet they all have extended conversations with him and continue to live and study and pray and work with him for years while he forms his opinions and discerns his course of action.

Let’s be more like that and less like ideologues with megaphones on street corners. It’s the idea of a university, after all.

Saint Newman, pray for us.

Rebecca Devine

Class of 2016

Oct. 5

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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