Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 106 (October 2000): 39-45.
I went to Brooklyn Prep—“The Jesuit High School in Brooklyn,” as the blue and white prospectus put it. At least in the Greek Honors class at Brooklyn Prep, it was somehow clear that those of us who wanted to get a first–rate college education would likewise go to a Jesuit College. The Jesuit colleges that mostly divided up the spoils—the thirty–five Greeks in the class of 1961—were Fordham, Holy Cross, Georgetown, and Boston College.
Fordham was the default, for folks who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave the city, and somewhat déclassé because one would most likely be going there as a day hop. Holy Cross did a good job of pushing its image as an elite liberal arts college. Our student council president went there. Georgetown had a reputation then of being a kind of playboy school, which probably meant no more than that it was preppier than the others, and we didn’t really know about preppy in Brooklyn, especially in 1961. It did manage to grab two of the smartest folks we had in our class, but given the kind of admissions profile it has now, it is odd to think that at the time it was not an especially difficult school to get into. Boston College had the reputation as the most intellectual, the place that was really looking for “brains” (as geeks were called in those days). Boston College made it into our junior year Greek class, since its motto, “Ever to Excel,” comes from Homer, and we were starting Homer then. My best friend at Brooklyn Prep went to BC.
And then there was Manhattan College. Manhattan was in a curious position because it was the only Catholic college in New York City that had an engineering school, and so a lot of Brooklyn Prep kids who were good in science wound up there, even though it was not run by the Jesuits but by the Christian Brothers. Manhattan had another program that was siphoning off prime Jesuit talent, and not just from Brooklyn Prep. In the College of Arts and Sciences at Manhattan, sometime in the fifties, there emerged a small program that was an interesting variation on the great books program at St. John’s College. What I know now, thanks to James Burtchaell’s book The Dying of the Light, is that the idea for the program didn’t come directly from Annapolis, nor did it spring full–blown from the minds of the Manhattan faculty; it must have been imported from their sister Christian Brothers school, St. Mary’s College in California, which had developed a similar program in the forties.
There was a charismatic and subversive English teacher at Brooklyn Prep, Charlie Winans, who had no particular reverence for the Jesuit mystique, and who heretically thought that the Jesuits were simply one order among many—it was from him that I first learned about a non–Jesuit saint named Francis of Assisi, for example. He would steer favorite students toward the Manhattan program: four core courses each year, in literature, philosophy, history, and fine arts, starting with the ancient world and going up to the twentieth century. So he convinced me (and several others in our year and in the years before me and even for a few years after me) to go there, convincing me in the process that it was better to winter in New York City than, say, Worcester, Massachusetts.
So I turned down an NROTC scholarship to Holy Cross and became a commuter at Manhattan College. My first year there was an academic apocalypse, all but impossible to explain to my current students, who believe themselves to be crushed under the weight of their five–course loads. In addition to the four core liberal arts classes, we were required to take courses in science, math, language, and theology. There were science and math courses especially tailored, which is to say watered down, for the liberal arts folks, but a combination of stupid advisement and intransigent administration on their part and academic machismo on mine meant that I wound up taking both calculus and the physics course designed for the scientists and the engineers. (In case I didn’t get the point, the textbook was entitled Physics for Students of Science and Engineering.) So there I was, way out of my league in any case, taking courses that I simply didn’t have time or room for.
Then there was the language requirement. I had studied Latin for four years, Greek for three, and French for two at Brooklyn Prep. There was no classics department to speak of at Manhattan, at least compared with places like Fordham and Holy Cross, so I signed up for French. But somebody in the orientation process at Manhattan was either impressed or confused by my credentials and thought that seven years of classical languages in high school had somehow prepared me to leap over two years of French in college, and I wound up as a first–semester freshman in a course in Seventeenth–Century French Literature with a bunch of juniors and seniors. Corneille and Racine with the French majors, calculus and physics with the engineers.
And then there were the core courses. Two weeks into the first semester, our ancient philosophy professor’s reserve unit was called up, and he went off to the army. His chagrin at this unlikely turn of events was probably only slightly greater than my own when I learned that he was being replaced in my section (and only mine) by Alfred DiLascia, terror of the philosophy department and indeed of the entire college. Feared as the hardest grader in the school, he was a fanatic for text crawling and impossible exams, and hadn’t the slightest concern with what freshmen could or could not do. Read the text, he would say. I thought I knew how. Then I took his midterm. And the texts he had us read for the rest of the year, in a two–credit course, were eleven dialogues of Plato, including the Republic, the Theatetus, and the Sophist; the Ethics and the Metaphysics of Aristotle; and the Essential Works of Plotinus. But the hardest course in the core (and looking back at it, probably the best) was ancient history. Again, a teacher new to the course overestimated (by his own later admission) our capacities: huge chunks of the Old Testament, all of Herodotus, and all of Thucydides, along with a couple of books on ancient Near East cosmology and an ancient history textbook.
That leaves theology. I think in retrospect that the biggest structural deficiency in the Manhattan College liberal arts program was its failure to integrate theology with the core subjects. We could have read the Bible from cover to cover that year. Instead, we studied something called Fundamental Theology, using a text that had been written by Brother Luke Salm (who is cited several times in Father Burtchaell’s notes as an authority on the history of the Christian Brothers, as well as mentioned with respect in the text itself as a “wise and faithful educator”). Though this course did not put anything like the demands on us that the core did, mine was the only section of the course that year taught by Brother Luke himself, who had a reputation as the toughest grader in that department, and who was one of the few brothers at the time who had real theological credentials.
I wish I could say this boot camp of the mind was an unequivocally good experience, one that turned me into a deep thinker and a practicing scholar. Looking back, I still feel pretty good about the fact that I survived, especially since I was also spending three hours a day riding the IRT. I did learn how to read on the subway, an important skill. That first year no doubt also helped me to take learning very seriously. I was certainly exposed to an awful lot; later, when I got to graduate school, I was genuinely surprised that there were people there who had not read Plato, let alone Plotinus. And I think that first year helped me later in another way as well: nothing that I subsequently experienced was as demanding as my first year of college. But it was too much. Boot camp of the mind, at least one that extends over a full year, is a precarious and even dangerous way to learn. Out of necessity I learned how to cut corners, and to cut corners by appearing to know more than I really did. Appearing to know more than I really do has always threatened to turn subtly from a methodology to a mentality, from a survival skill to a way of (academic) life.
In sophomore year I flourished. Without science and math to worry about, and with more normal expectations in history and philosophy, it was a lot of fun. The theology courses that year were mediocre at best. In French I was now reading nineteenth–century poetry and when I recited the stuff (fortunately, mostly to myself) I sounded a lot like Bill Murray trying to get Andie MacDowell into bed in Groundhog Day. But it was the four core courses in the Middle Ages that really did it for me. We looked at Gothic cathedrals in fine arts, and in philosophy we reversed the usual priorities and read a lot of Augustine and a little Aquinas. In history we read some Gibbon and Henri Pirenne. And in John Nagle’s world literature class the scales fell from my eyes: we went from Augustine’s Confessions to Old English poetry to the Song of Roland to Arthurian romances the first semester, and the second semester read a little Chaucer and a lot of Dante, the entire Divine Comedy in fact. Even at St. John’s they don’t do that. I write about Dante now, and teach Dante as well (and Chaucer, and Arthurian Romance, and a great books humanities course required of all our students). But nowadays when I’m feeling frisky about a healthy Dante enrollment of, say, thirty students, I remind myself that all 110 sophomore liberal arts students read the entire Comedy at Manhattan College in Spring 1963, even government majors, including Rudy Giuliani.
To continue the narrative into the second part of my college career would entail special mention of my junior world literature course, which went from Petrarch to Cervantes to Milton to Swift. But that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is that the program no longer exists. My own wildly idiosyncratic and overdone freshman year notwithstanding, it was an imaginative and daring program. It had flaws, to be sure. Without the luxury of St. John’s wonderfully low student–faculty ratio, we were probably fed too much and we discussed too little. We had to do a lot of writing, but for the same reason our writing was not critiqued thoroughly or rigorously enough. From the vantage point of the present, the program’s lack of attention to the non–Western world seems an obvious fault; less obvious but in some ways more puzzling was its almost total lack of attention to America. Perhaps the biggest flaw was that sometimes the program sacrificed depth for breadth. But it had teachers, really good teachers, who were up for it, and who treated us accordingly. It had some students who appreciated it and thrived on it. Since we were all doing the same stuff, teachers and students alike, we could and did all talk together about serious things. Best, I think, it allowed us, indeed forced us, to make connections between texts and ideas and disciplines. It was a noble experiment and a noble alternative.
But it didn’t survive the sixties, which were really the seventies. It didn’t survive relevance. It didn’t survive the financial problems Manhattan College was having. And it didn’t survive the collapse of the feeder system. A few years after I graduated from high school, Brooklyn Prep was sending its honors kids (who weren’t taking Greek anymore) to Columbia, not to Fordham or Manhattan. A few years after that, it wasn’t sending them anywhere at all. I don’t know all the details of what happened at Manhattan, but I’m willing to bet that most if not all of them precisely parallel the collapse of Manhattan’s sister great books program at St. Mary’s College, as described in Burtchaell’s book.
In 1972, the New York Province of the Society of Jesus closed Brooklyn Prep and sold the buildings to the City University of New York. It became Medgar Evers College. I was close to this one because many of the faculty were my friends, including both my old mentor and the Jesuit priest who had presided at my marriage two years earlier. By now, several of my contemporaries were also teaching there. It closed because of the usual suspects: first, the financial drain on an institution that could no longer count on a sufficient number of Jesuits to roll back their salaries into the operating expenses; second, the changing neighborhood—Crown Heights was getting dangerous, it was said, nothing more than an extension of Bedford–Stuyvesant, and the school was therefore no longer appealing to students from other parts of Brooklyn, let alone to the fairly large contingent of students who used to commute in from Long Island in my day. Besides, a whole bunch of new Catholic high schools had opened up in Brooklyn and in Queens and on the island, and Brooklyn Prep was already losing students anyway. A lot of people I talked to during the crunch time thought this was a golden opportunity—whom should the Jesuit High School in Brooklyn be educating if not kids from Bed Sty? And a lot of these same people wondered after the fact about the connection between the changing demographics and the decision to close Brooklyn Prep as opposed to any of the other high schools in the Province.
It was handled very badly. No one among a faculty that had labored long and hard and well for very little was told much of anything. They received assurances from an administration that also, as it turned out, hadn’t been told much of anything. No one thought it was really going to happen. No one thought it could happen. The analogy is probably a bit over the top, but back then (and even now) it felt a whole lot like the betrayal fifteen years earlier in 1957 when the Dodgers closed up shop in Brooklyn and headed west. The connection is kept alive for me because I watched the wrecking ball successfully take on Ebbets Field from the window of my sophomore classroom. That was my first big lesson in mutability and for me the point of the analogy is exactly the fact that in both instances no one really thought it could happen. But it did happen, and a lot of lives were badly out of kilter for a long time after Brooklyn Prep closed. It’s very hard to realize that in the final analysis, among those who make the decisions, you were not even part of the equation. Betrayal by those who have been given a special trust, as my buddy Dante puts it.
Fast forward seventeen years to 1989. I am at another Jesuit high school, on another coast, in another world: Bellarmine Prep, a very different kind of high school, where Silicon Valley sends its children to prepare for Stanford. Chris Lorenc, a fine English teacher at Bellarmine, and one of the participants in an NEH seminar on Dante that I had directed the previous summer in Italy, has invited me here to teach a few of his classes. I am delighted to be at a place where his seniors are actually reading Dante’s Paradiso. He is introducing me to the Jesuit administration. To make conversation I tell them that I am one of them, that I went to a Jesuit high school. “Which one?” “Do you remember Brooklyn Prep?” The tone of the conversation changes abruptly. One of them becomes very serious, his expression changes, and he says, “That was a terrible thing, a terrible thing.” He talks for five minutes about the tragedy, about the awful way it was handled. The reverberations continue among the Jesuits.
I am an academic orphan. Of the two schools that did the most to shape me one does not exist any longer, and the other does not exist in any form that I would recognize. I see myself as a small and ineffective one–man public relations office for two defunct organizations, hoping in some small way to capture the flavor of what has too easily been caricatured and belittled as it has been left behind.
I start with an interesting fact that connects high school with college: at both Brooklyn Prep and Manhattan College, the best teachers were the laymen, not the Jesuits, not the Christian Brothers, even though teaching excellence is certainly no small part of the self–identity of both orders.
Why should this have been so, and what conclusions should we draw from it? I think it was so because the priests and brothers were not, for the most part, in love with their subjects. They were often trained in a particular discipline because that’s where the order saw the need—that is, in those cases where they were in fact trained for their discipline—and I sometimes had the feeling that a brother teaching English or a priest teaching chemistry would have been just as effective teaching accounting or economics. They were obedient servants. This is a virtue not to be underestimated—it is the virtue that made the system possible at all—but it also meant that at some level many of them were faking it.
So one conclusion might be that the schools would have been better off without the brothers and the priests, or at least if they had kept them in administration. I have come to the opposite conclusion. I think that somehow the brothers and the priests were enablers for the lay teachers, and this was as important as their teaching. Having priests and brothers on the faculty attracted a certain kind of idealist who might have gone elsewhere without them, or maybe turned people into idealists who didn’t know they were idealists at all until they came to teach there. They were in schools where it was very hard not to see teaching as a vocation rather than a job or even a profession, because an embodied definition of vocation was already in place in capital letters. Whether they liked it or not, they taught because it was a vocation, not a job, but they didn’t have to be up front about it. They could even pretend to themselves that they were doing it for less high–minded purposes.
Unlike the blackrobes, a surprisingly large percentage of the lay teachers were in love with their subjects. They were also freed from worry about large questions about the point of it all. In a sense, the big picture was already taken care of. They were freed from worry about assessment, or discipline, or national standards. They had a lot more time to teach. And so, as I see in retrospect, with comparisons drawn among other places from my own thirty years of teaching, the best of them were wildly eccentric in ways that were healthy and in ways that no longer have a real part in today’s structured system. There was room for a lot of healthy and creative craziness, in its flamboyant outward and geeky introspective varieties.
I think of Harry Hazelton, coming to us—eighteen–year–old freshmen—live from some parallel universe, pacing back and forth, little flecks of spit on his lips the signal that he was really into it, lecturing about nineteenth–century philhellenism and its tendency to over–intellectualize the Greek world: “You see the figures walking around on the vases with these enormous erections, and I don’t think they were contemplating philosophy at all.” I think of Harry Blair in his Brooks Brothers rumpled elegance somewhere between Peter O’Toole playing Mr. Chips and Oscar Wilde playing Oscar Wilde, doing Act Four, Scene Seven of King Lear so that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house: “No cause, no cause.” Or I think simply of the bizarre notion that at Brooklyn Prep they thought that the best way to educate a bunch of working–class kids mixed in with a few middle–class kids was to have everybody in the school do four years of Latin.
When I was taking my turn as chair of the English Department at SUNY Geneseo, and frustrated by some particular sequence of events, my wife would tell me that my problem was that I wanted the college to be a monastery when it was really a corporation. She didn’t mean it this way but I think one of the many reasons she was right is that I have found monks to be by and large more singular, more eccentric, and more interesting than corporate executives. Many of the best teachers I had at Brooklyn Prep and Manhattan wouldn’t have made it in today’s academic world because they had no sense of how to package themselves as professionals, a skill we all pick up by osmosis nowadays in graduate school and in starting out in our “careers.” But a lot of the time that we spend making ourselves into professionals, they spent reading Dickens and Sophocles.
When I was browsing through The Dying of the Light and was as yet still uncertain about buying it, what put me over the top was the fact that, for the Catholics, Fr. Burtchaell’s longest case study is Boston College. My son graduated from BC two years ago, with some pretty strong opinions about the place. The book provided me with a chance to look at the school from a very different perspective, and compare the considered opinions of two very articulate experts. However different the perspective, and however different the methods of articulation, they both saw the same school.
I attended a forum on student life during freshman orientation at Boston College, something for the parents to do while our children were off somewhere else being weaned. “Is there a drug problem on campus?” one of the parents asked during the question and answer session. I thought that the answer was thoughtful and is probably fairly accurate. “We don’t think we have a problem with hard drugs here” (though my son would later assure me that there were plenty of the softer variety to go around). “The drug of choice at BC is alcohol, and it is a very serious problem, and here is how we are dealing with it.” Fair enough. Who am I to assume a position of moral superiority? No one ever lost money opening another bar in Geneseo. Alcohol abuse is the name of the game at every college in the country and it is, indeed, a serious problem.
But my son had an interesting observation. He said that on football game days, tailgating starts sometime around nine o’clock in the morning, and that any student in the college could walk around with a keg on his head and no one would notice. It isn’t just that alums and maybe even family offer a couple of beers to students. No big deal. Rather, 9 a.m. is the kickoff for a weekend’s worth of drink–till–you–drop bingeing with all of the nonsense and damage that goes along with it, and this particular liturgical rite is pretty much officially sanctioned by a school that admits to having a huge problem with alcohol. I use this example to come to a point that Fr. Burtchaell makes, namely, that there is a dangerous difference at BC between rhetoric and reality.
My son, home for the holidays during his senior year, was asked at a party for the umpteenth time how he liked BC. I overheard him say something like the following: “My courses and my teachers have been good. I’ve made some good friends. I have a good living situation on campus—I like my apartment. I really like being in Boston. But I don’t like Boston College.” This is not an easy passage to interpret, as I would say to my literature students. Granted good teachers, good courses, good friends, good living, and Boston, what’s left not to like? Wouldn’t anyone gladly settle for that combination as the sum and substance of a good college experience? Maybe he was trying to take irony to a new level? No, having listened to him for four years on the subject, I realized when I overheard these remarks that he was being dead serious. I thought I had a clue or two about what he meant. Having read Fr. Burtchaell on BC, I now think I have more than a clue.
BC talks about diversity, and is quick to point out how much more diverse it is now than in the old days when it drew mostly from Irish Boston and from Jesuit high schools on the eastern seaboard. But comfortable, affluent, suburban kids from Long Island look an awful lot like comfortable, affluent, suburban kids from Los Angeles, Houston, and Denver. The suburban preppy jockishness of the place is what is most apparent to the naked eye—and if my two experts are anywhere near right about the place, it is the outward and visible sign of a suburban preppy jockishness of the soul. One of the more severe indictments of BC in The Dying of the Light comes from a BC philosophy professor.
Philosopher Joseph Flanagan, S.J., has ob served the scene on the BC campus even more tartly. If he is correct, hopeful observers are whistling in the dark. Most BC students, he points out, are considerably formed and educated before ever coming to the university. They already have a philosophy and a theology, and there is nothing Catholic about either of them. The young students are bred into rampant individualism, which makes them largely immune to Christianity.
When my son decided to go to BC I was very pleased because I knew something about the resources of the place, and I thought I knew something about the tradition that formed it. I knew that Michael Buckley was there and a number of other household names in Catholic intellectual circles. I thought, yeah, faith and reason really can come together. Here is a place that says it can be both Catholic and a university. Here is a place that can do what Manhattan College was trying to do in the old days, but with a truly staggering affluence that provides resources they never dreamed of at Manhattan.
I remember being impressed at an open house at BC held for the admitted but still wavering, when several faculty members came to the podium to say that BC was a place where intellectual discourse and moral discourse could more easily and more fruitfully come together than at a secular university. They push that very hard, and it has a real appeal to parents (like myself) who might otherwise be a little queasy about acquiescing to the extortion of paying for top of the line private universities these days. (I might add that especially given its endowment, BC is much tighter than most when it comes to handing out financial aid. More than a few parents sell what they have and give to the rich that they may have their daughters and sons go to BC.) BC is very Catholic when it comes to projecting its image outward, not only to prospective parents, but to its alumni as well. But this outward–looking image has practically nothing to do with the inward–looking reality—the school that is actually encountered by its undergraduates. The only way these Catholic resources are available to undergraduates is if they happen to come there already committed to the Catholic tradition, and if they already know where to go to find that tradition’s presence on campus. There is nothing in the requirements that demands that they find it. There is nothing in the BC curriculum that demands that they deal with it in a serious intellectual way. Students may well stumble into a pocket of the tradition by accident, but that is a long way from the propaganda that goes out to the parents and the alums. Suburban preppy jockishness of the soul is left to flourish uncontested.
What’s more (and here I might be on shakier ground), my perception of BC is that moral decision making from the top is often little different from the poll–taking that drives so much of our national political process. Question: What is BC’s stance with respect to the gay and lesbian student organization on campus? Answer: How will it play to the alumni and prospective (and present) parents? I read what I thought was a very decent op–ed piece by Fr. J. Donald Monan, S.J., on just this issue in the student newspaper early on in my son’s time at BC. Fr. Monan invoked the Catholic tradition: he said that sanctioning the gay and lesbian student organization on campus could be construed as sanctioning a gay and lesbian lifestyle that was incompatible with the Catholic tradition as Boston College understood it. Then and now I think I could come up with some decent counterarguments. But I thought his position had much merit and I was impressed that here was an issue that could generate some serious moral discourse.
But my son was furious. Mostly because in his view Fr. Monan, by playing the trump card, the Catholic card, made it seem that the Catholic tradition was in fact the ultimate arbiter of what goes on at the college, when in fact it is used with the utmost selectivity and has no effect on so many other day–to–day activities of the college. BC plays the Catholic card when it is convenient or necessary to do so, mostly for keeping the image intact. The tradition, as Fr. Burtchaell has abundantly detailed, has nothing to do with whom they hire to teach their courses, it has nothing to do with what they actually require students to take, and it has a little but not really very much to do with what they offer. These are the factors that determine what a school will or will not be. What I came to see, much against my will I might add, was that BC and Fr. Monan, having forfeited the power to affect these institution–defining factors, have likewise forfeited the authority to speak about this one, or about the tradition at all. I’m willing to believe that Fr. Monan’s stance was not intentionally based on PR. But that’s the only way one could make sense out of it, whatever his intent.
“To those of you whose Greek is a little rusty, it means ‘Ever to Excel.’ It comes from Homer’s Iliad, and is of course the motto of Boston College.” Fr. J. Robert Barth, S.J., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has just read the ten lines or so that surround the motto in the original Greek as his introduction to the Honors Convocation during BC commencement weekend, 1998. Corny but effective. Then he reads the English translation. I am in the audience, a proud father. I am carried back about forty years to when I first heard these lines from Harry Oppido, S.J., at Brooklyn Prep, my junior year. J. Robert Barth is a smooth, witty, urbane, very bright Jesuit. (I was much taken four years earlier with his presentation of what Jesuits are all about at freshman orientation.) Harry Oppido was your gutsy gruff variety. Each well suited to his job. Certainly my Greek is a little rusty, but for a wonderful moment I was more than happy to forget about any gripes—mine or my son’s—about BC and rejoice not only in my son’s accomplishments but in the continuity of a shared tradition. It was as good as going to Ebbets Field with my father or to Wrigley Field with my children. Too bad I had to spoil it by reading The Dying of the Light. Most of the students on stage there, among the best and brightest at BC, had never read the Iliad, not in Greek, not in English—or at least they didn’t read it at BC. Fr. Barth wasn’t really speaking to them. My response was to get all nostalgic. Theirs was “whatever.” We are all a little rusty in Greek these days.
BC keeps sending me all kinds of things. I still get the alumni magazine, even though I am not now and never have been a BC student, and even though they also send a separate copy to my son the alumnus. They send me notices of local alumni gatherings, again, addressed to me rather than my son. Most of all, they send me fundraising requests and have telemarketers call at regular intervals. Their new $400 million capital campaign is entitled “Ever to Excel.” I confess that I like to read about what is going on there, even though it is filtered through a powerful PR machine. A lot of it seems very interesting. But when they talk about how far they have come since the provincial old days—and it is a constant theme—and how they are looking forward to catching up with Duke one of these days, I get a little sad and a little mad.
Ronald Herzman is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English at SUNY Geneseo.