27 September 2009

The luxury of great books and greater faith

William Chase diagnoses and laments the decline of the English department:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

Replace "English department" with "the Church" or "Catholic theology" and you will have a fairly accurate picture of what is happening in our neck of the ecclesial and academic woods.

What's the cure for the study of literature?

It would be a pleasure to map a way out of this academic dead end. First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.

This is exactly what we do at the University of Dallas. Problem solved.


  1. John Kasaian10:05 AM

    Amen to that!

  2. Anonymous3:16 PM

    Great post, Father! I'm a UD alum (English major).

  3. Anonymous7:32 PM

    Father Phillip --

    Two related problems are the lust for novelty and the rush for results.

    To an outside observer, the notion of "every man his Pope" is not an exclusively Protestant phenomenon. I heard recently about the work of a Catholic religious scholar (no need to mention the order) writing about Jesus as Magus. His conclusions will no doubt be "original" and will almost certainly be replaced in short order by yet more extreme re-visionings. So one watching an academic discipline over just a few years will see its captivity to fad and fashion.

    The proper refutation to this (perhaps prideful) impulse can be found in the Apostolic Hypothesis. Or more recently in the Ugandan martyrs or even the New Russian martyrs as recently recognized by the Orthodox. "A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian."

    As for results, one man talked to me about the "communion of saints" years ago. It seemed nuts to me, and I remember every word. As a Protestant, I was allergic to a college course that touched on the Scriptural basis for doctrines of Mary. Now I see her constantly. As a young man, an elderly grocer next door mentioned that he named me in his prayer every day. I was speechless. I hope to have words of thanks for him some time (see perhaps the "Communion of Saints" above).

    Only the Church, rooted in eternity, is able to sow for a harvest fifty or a hundred or whatever years away. That is part of what the Catholic Church used to regard as "evangelism."