Building a Community?

Anthony Esolen

Forty three years ago, the faculty at Providence College did something not only extraordinary in itself but quite against the tide of the time.  Across the city, Brown University had just jettisoned its entire core curriculum, as if Plato and Augustine were suddenly out of date, only valuable for those curious few who might be inclined their way.  Nothing was considered so valuable that all educated people should know about it; particularly not if it was the heart of the civilization wherein Brown University was conceived, flourished, and still pretended to exist.

The Brownians were floating haphazardly along with the current.  But at Providence College, there had been in place a small but remarkably successful Arts Honors program, in which a select few students, about fifteen per entering class, would take a two-year-long, twenty credit course in western civilization, organized historically, taught by pairs and then teams of professors from various disciplines, and covering history, literature, art, philosophy, and theology, from the Mesopotamians to the present day.  The professors saw what was happening elsewhere, and, moved both by a genuine and generous democratic impulse and a conservative commitment to a liberal education, crafted an analogous program for all freshmen and sophomores, also team taught, covering the same material, though with somewhat lighter duties for the students.

It required an enormous commitment of resources.  I don't just mean the hall that had to be built for large lecture classes.  As enrollment grew, as many as sixty faculty members at any one time would be teaching in the program; often the course would make up two thirds of their teaching load.  But there was plenty of compensation for that commitment, some of it foreseeable, and some of it a pleasant surprise.

What was foreseeable?  A common language, a common fountain of knowledge.  When I am teaching Renaissance English poetry to juniors and seniors – and that is already remarkable, since such courses have largely vanished from many other colleges – we can have an intelligent conversation.  My students and I can refer, in a single period, to Scripture, Saint Augustine, Plato, Dante, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Calvin, the Reformation, and the Council of Trent.  I'm not saying that they are young experts in them.  But the doors are there to open.  They met Plato when they were spanking-new freshmen, and they can meet him again and again, in their courses in humanities and the arts.  Indeed, I give plenty of lectures at Providence that I could not give at my mater avaritiae, Princeton, because the very clever but quarter-educated students (such as I was then) would not know what I was talking about.

What the creators did not foresee, perhaps, was that the program would bind people together in an energetic and fertile community.  Parents would send their children to Providence to learn from the program they had learned from.  Students could share stories about the professors they had in common, or about all the things they had read in common: the Odyssey, The Consolation of Philosophy, Paradise Lost.  Professors learned from one another, because they attended one another's lectures; and thence grew the habit, on some teams, of professors interrupting one another with questions or comments, and students often getting in on the action.  Professors made friends with one another based upon common objects of interest or devotion.  They did so even when they were not on the same team, because everyone got to know everyone else; I myself have taught alongside thirty five different professors since I began to teach in the program, in 1992.

I haven't yet mentioned the most profound source of communion, and that is simply that we are a Catholic college, as is well reflected by the strong presence of philosophy and theology in the program.  If your flesh breaks out in a rash every time someone relates Shakespeare's Tempest to the prophecy of Isaiah or the letters of Saint Paul, then you are probably not going to apply to teach at Providence College in the first place.  The course is not for preaching, but its subject matter applies to the lives of students of faith in an immediate and intimate way, and not just in their individual persons, but together, as a community.  The most eloquent witness of that communion is a handsome copper-roofed building called the chapel.

But the program has had its vocal opponents, and here is where the tale grows downright bizarre.  For more than twenty years I have heard the critics, most of them from the social sciences, carping.  The critics will contradict one another if you wait a year or so.  Sometimes it is said that we cover too much ground; sometimes that we cover too little, and that we should include discussion of eastern civilizations.  Sometimes we are wrong to assign excerpts; sometimes we are wrong to waste time with whole works.  Sometimes we are “impersonal” because we lecture; then we are told that our hours of contact with our students should be curtailed.  Sometimes we fail to do justice to the arts; then we are told that the arts aren't necessary.  Sometimes our syllabi are too much alike; sometimes they are not alike enough. 

These are all criticisms that are at least in theory defensible.  But what the critics said they wanted instead was what they sought to destroy.  For more than twenty years, they have said that they wanted all freshmen to have a common experienceAnd at this point all argument is pointless.

Imagine, after you have taken a group of wide-eyed people on a tour of the sacred art in Rome, from the Sistine Chapel to the mosaics at San Clemente to the catacombs, someone tugging at your arm and demanding that your group have a common experience of art, and setting them up to execute a paint-by-numbers picture of Lassie.  Imagine, after you have read The Divine Comedy, and wondered with Dante at the Love that moves the sun and the other stars, someone shouting to break up that common joy and recommend, for the sake of communion, the latest book by a political hack.  Imagine a choir singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy, interrupted by a tone-deaf professor for a rap session on bullying in school, because that will bring their feelings into harmony.  Imagine people celebrating a feast, offered a bag lunch with a chicken salad sandwich and an apple, on the grounds that they need common nourishment.

Well, the fans of painting Lassie by the numbers have finally secured their victory at Providence College.  This year, the incoming freshmen will all have read the same book of pop sociology.  Thankfully, there still stand the chapel, and Homer, and Plato, and Virgil, and Cicero, waiting to usher them back into a world of intellectual life, communion, and wonder.

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