Smoked Out in Latrobe

Peter Wood

             Last week I participated in a three-day conference on “The Idea of the American University” presented by the Center for Political and Economic Thought at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  It was an invigorating event.  The “idea of the American university” pays homage, of course, to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University (1852), one of a handful of really key works in defining the university.  Newman’s work, however, was somewhere in the background for this particular conference.  The topic that was front and center was what, if anything, to do about the drastic retreat from the liberal arts in contemporary American higher education.

                John Agresto, former president of St. John's College in Sante Fe and now Acting Chancellor and Provost of the American University in Iraq, began with a defense, more or less, of the American university’s willingness to be all things to all people.  Preparing people for careers as engineers and nurses is not only practical but is morally sound as well.  Moreover, the claims that liberal education elevates the individual look more and more doubtful. By and large, he said, it is the students in the liberal arts these days who fashion their persona on disdain for their culture and their civilization. 

                Agresto’s counsel may have been tinged with irony but for the duration of the conference he stuck with his stand in favor of morally sound instruction in what used to be called the “servile arts” as opposed to the morally less sound liberal arts.  The rest of the speakers were not so sanguine.  We heard the case from Michael Foley, professor of patristics at Baylor University, that Augustine is the “great grandfather of the university as we know it.”  But Augustine himself was divided over the liberal arts:  do they lead forward to the intellectual breakthrough that God and the soul are the most important things?  Or are they a cul-de-sac that impede the deepest insights? 

                Of course, much of what one learns in a conference happens in the in-between moments.  In this case, I learned that Professor Foley is the author of a deeply insightful essay, “Tobacco and the Soul,” first published in First Things, (1997) but subsequently elevated to Pipes and Tobacco.  His argument was that cigarettes, cigars, and pipes correspond to three parts of the soul, as defined by Plato:  “cigarettes correspond to the appetitive part of the soul,” cigars “correspond to the spirited part of the soul,” and “the pipe corresponds to the rational part of the soul.”

                This seems a felicitous discovery.  Though I am no smoker, my own paper for the conference was titled, “Roller of Big Cigars: the American University as Cheerful Mortician, ” which builds on an image from Wallace Stevens’ poem The Emperor of Ice Cream.  Nor was this all.  Friday night festivities included a visit to Joey D’s Sala Da Fumo (cigar bar) in the cavernous basement beneath the Latrobe, Pennsylvania train station.  Here the spirited part of the soul contended with a beat-up pool table missing the cue ball and jammed into nearly unshootable  quarters between pillar and walls.  It also turned out that conference organizer and host Professor Bradley C.S. Watson has contributed to the philosophical literature on pipes, with his 2002 article, “Up in Smoke,” in the Claremont Review of Books.  

                Surely this confluence of smoky references means something.  It seemed to connect with the mischievous side of academics who dissent from the orthodoxies of the contemporary university by upholding much older orthodoxies.  The conference brought not only Augustine to bear on our troubles, but also de Tocqueville, Henry Adams, Chesterton, and a raft of other thinkers so far removed from today’s fashions as to be almost brand new and exotic.  One tendril of this incense was lament.  “On the Home of Truth When There is No Truth,” was how Fr. James Schall, from Georgetown University, titled his talk.  He was essentially offering counsel to those who seek a genuine education behind enemy lines, and he has made a vocation of finding the books one needs to read to accomplish this.  Professor William B. Allen from Michigan State struck a similar note with a talk that asked, “Now That College is the New High School, Where Do We Go to Get an Education?”  And Mark Henrie, vice president of academic affairs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, spoke on “The End of the American Core Curriculum.” 

                Fr. Schall was a bit hard to figure.  At one point he mistook me for a monk.  Later he showed me a local tabloid in which the editor had run a first-person tribute to her late father.  She consoled herself with the hackneyed thought that he would live on her life and in the lives of her children.  Fr. Schall asked me what I made of it and, slightly embarrassed, I said it was beautifully put.  He looked at me with impatience and asked what I really thought, but then jumped to the conclusion:  not a word here, he said, about the actual immortality of her father’s soul.   He had smoked me out.  I hadn’t even momentarily noticed the exclusive this-worldly quality of the obit.

                Conferences, of course, are all about interruptions.  To profit by them, you have to connect the pieces. 

                Lament was far from the dominant tone.  A stronger tendril of the incense was a defiant and somewhat paradoxical confidence in American civilization.  Gary Glen, professor emeritus of political science at Northern Illinois University, offered a sober account of “the going down of university education on one professor’s lifetime,” but he traced the descent as a triumph of demotic American life over aristocratic impulses.  The connection between the “liberal arts” and the leisure of gentlemen who need not work for a living was underscored by other speakers as well, including the sole Canadian academic at the meeting, William Mathie, professor of political science and the founder of Brock University’s Great Books program.  

                These were, to be sure, muted endorsements—attempts to see the consonance between American life and our sprawling, often incoherent version of higher education.  One speaker, however, had a robustly happier view.  Susan Hassen, associate professor of history at the University of Dallas, invoked the notion of “eccentric culture”  from the French historian Rémi Brague, who argues that Western civilization is best understood as carrying forward a culture it didn’t invent, but only borrowed.  The master image here is Aeneas fleeing Troy with his household gods and carrying his aged father on his back.  American higher education, said Hassen, is likewise a “perennial escape to eccentric orthodoxy.”  Eccentric, in this case, means both oddly nonconformist and also deliberately off-center.  Our repeated founding of colleges that break off from the center, in Hassen’s view, is “the most distinctly American contribution to education.” 

                The last tendril of smoke was the sly humor of this affair, perhaps best exemplified in the talk by Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College.  He spoke on “Dignity and Higher Education Today,” and nicely exploited the opportunities to notice the indignity that we so often seem to prefer.  (Lawler's paper and all the others will be published in due course in a single volume by the Center for Political and Economic Thought in its series on Culture and Policy.)

                That wasn’t all the smoke.  Professor Brad Watson also took those who wished to accompany him to an indoor firing range in downtown Latrobe, about a block from the now derelict store on Ligonier Street where a 23 year-old pharmacy clerk, David Strickler, invented the banana split in 1904.  LaTrobe has suffered some hard times, including most recently the closing of the nearby historic hotel, the Mountain View Inn.  But the shooting range was doing fine, and we had a fine academic time blasting holes in green silhouettes.  

                In writing The Idea of the University, John Henry Newman started off by trying to make the case for why a specifically Catholic university was needed in Dublin, an argument that led him to examine the relation between theology and other knowledge, and eventually to his case for the unity of all knowledge and “knowledge as its own end.”  Americans are only intermittently interested in “knowledge as its own end,” and much more taken with the idea that a college degree is a ticket to a good job and a secure life.  The “unity of knowledge” is, likewise, not conspicuous in our culture, especially in the universities, where the choice is often between forms of reductionism that deny the validity of any but a narrow spectrum of ways of knowing, and the infatuation in the humanities with fragments, aporia, and intellectual entropy.     

                As it happens, Saint Vincent College is about a fifteen minute drive from the hamlet where I spent a good portion of my childhood.  I hadn’t been back in about 35 years to the cottage in the woods above Buttermilk Falls on the Loyalhanna Creek.  I stopped and took a picture of a gas pipe spanning a ravine.  One of the neighborhood kids once dared me to cross it.  He demonstrated the feat, but I chickened out.  The neighborhood itself presented a combination of improvement and decline.  The road is now paved; the slag heap from the old Bessemer furnaces that smoldered on through the years like a volcanic fumarole in the forest had been discreetly whisked away presumably by the environmental clean-up engineers; the scary abandoned house with a nameplate above the door saying “Shangri-La” was gone the way of all lost horizons—whisked away presumably by the irony clean-up engineers. 

                But the woods had been cut down to make room for trailers, modular junk, and the dishabille of democratic bad taste. I parked in the driveway of the all-but-unrecognizable cottage and knocked at the door, but there was no one home.  Not surprising.  It was mainly a summer place.  It is probably impossible to revisit such scenes without some sense of loss, even if it is only disguised regret for the Shangri-La of one’s own childhood.  But there is a larger story here too about the odd—the eccentric–mixture of progress and cheapening in the American landscape. 

                Can we be a large-hearted, innovative nation that gets things done without also getting coarse sensibilities and the driveways full of junk?  Maybe not, but the best way out of that dilemma is to seek a worthier sense of our lives, both private and public.  Liberal education is one of the ways to shape aspiration for higher things.  We should give it a try.     

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