Sunday, April 6, 2008

Confirmative Action

Last week the Rev. Wilson Miscamble, a professor of History at University of Notre Dame, spoke at Georgetown about the conscious and strenuous efforts that he believes would be required to maintain the Catholic character of Catholic institutions of higher education such as Georgetown. His main proposal – that Catholic colleges and universities should seek to hire and retain a faculty composed of a majority of Catholic professors – received a critical response by incoming interim Dean of the College, Prof. Chester Gillis of the Department of Theology. Prof. Gillis argued that such a course was undesirable because, above all, it would compromise the “academic excellence” of the institution. It was suggested that such a compromise would lead, in turn, to the reduced academic status of a university like Georgetown.

I find this response puzzling in at least two respects. First, this University – like most others – currently considers criteria that, it is argued, should be included along with the ambition to achieve “academic excellence.” These include, but are not limited to, efforts to increase gender and racial diversity. There are times – most expressly in efforts to promote affirmative action – when it is argued that “academic excellence” should not be the sole or exclusive criterion. At other times, it is suggested that additional criteria such as gender or race should be considered when “all things are equal.” If either of these two arguments hold true in such cases, why cannot the same hold for the effort to actively and consciously recruit Catholic faculty? I raise this question not to criticize affirmative action policies per se, but precisely to point out that we are already willing to consider additional criteria deemed to be important to the institution. If such criteria can be deemed to be legitimate in addition to “academic excellence,” then why not Catholicism at a University with an official affiliation with the Church?

Secondly, and to my mind more importantly, I am puzzled that the very criterion of “academic excellence” is invoked as if it is a self-evidently neutral and objective standard, one that is not itself worthy of investigation. The criterion of “academic excellence” is largely guided and influenced by the canons of scientific inquiry, and is measured mainly by the ability of faculty to publish original research in peer-refereed journals and highly ranked academic presses. As a consequence, this criterion valorizes specialization over the integration of inquiry and education across fields toward the end of forming the whole person; it emphasizes the training of graduate students over that of the formation of undergraduates; it implicitly rejects or at least mistrusts the legitimacy of tradition as a source of authority or guidance and makes little or no place for pedagogic approaches that seek to convey tradition or emphasize one’s own cultural inheritance; and it places most emphasis upon the judgments of wholly secular disciplines outside one’s own institution, thus ultimately conforming any University to the expectations of highly ranked secular and religiously disaffiliated peer institutions. In short, the seemingly neutral criterion of “academic excellence” is loaded with a deep set of philosophical presuppositions that ultimately influence and shape the institution, and which have led universities around the nation inexorably toward the rejection of religious affiliation and a dogged pursuit of conformity to a single and unquestioned norm.

The irony is that it is precisely a Catholic worldview – one that understands the compatibility of faith and reason and which seeks to achieve a comprehension of the connections between all the branches of knowledge in light of a created order – that is particularly well-suited to gaining a critical distance from the unexamined presuppositions contained in a criterion such as “academic excellence.” A university guided by such a worldview could quite ably achieve excellence according to that standard without necessarily conforming wholly to the commonly invoked standard now rendering our nation’s institutions wholly identical. I would submit that Georgetown can do a greater service to higher education – particularly in the education of our secular peer institutions and to the cause of diversity in higher education – and ultimately and most importantly to the education of our students, if we keep vibrantly alive such avenues of inquiry. It bodes ill, however, when faculty and officers of this institution invoke a criterion such as “academic excellence” without further reflection on what it really means and avoid asking whether we must wholly conform to the world or be willing to resist its narrowing and homogenizing tendencies.

This essay ran as a "Viewpoint" column in the Georgetown Hoya;
and, see Thomas Hibb's excellent reflection, here.


Dad29 said...

If 'academic excellence' had anything to do with, for example, perfection(s) ....


Anonymous said...

...efforts that he believes would be required to maintain the Catholic character of Catholic institutions of higher education such as Georgetown.

Required to maintian Catholic character? At places like Georgetown? April fool's joke, right?

I'm forever blown away at how seemingly intelligent people can delude themselves, while the pot slowly boils. The I realize maybe the joke is on rubes like me: in truth everyone with half a brain is winking and snickering and pretending in just to keep the gravy train going. Sort of like workers in the old Soviet Union, we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.

It's like a secret handshake: Catholic schools pretend they are still Catholic, and the bishops pretend to not notice. Deal. The show must go on.

Patrick Deneen said...

mdavid - That was my gentle phrasing, not Reverend Micamble's. He is well aware of the woeful state of affairs at most of our so-called Catholic universities. His sense of urgency is born of the concern that things may already be too far gone, but if there is anything to be defended, it must be done so vigorously and immediately.

As for Georgetown, here are some of the closing sentences from an "Open Letter" he addressed to the President of Notre Dame in protest of the decision to reverse the prohibition of campus performances of "The Vagina Monologues":

"Careful readers of works like George Marsden's "The Soul of the
American University" know that similar decisions to yours which conformed religious schools to their secular peers inexorably led them down a dangerous path to the full surrender of their religious mission and identity. Regrettably places like Georgetown University are well advanced on this course. Don't let us merely follow them."

The text of this courageous letter can be found here:

Anonymous said...

Your colleague at Georgetown, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, said it in his essay, "Religion and the Environmental Crisis" --"We are living in the first period of human history in the West in which except for a few small islands here and there of Orthodox or Catholic or Anglican monasticism and a few people who try to practice austerity, asceticism is considered to be a vice, not a virtue. It is not taught in our schools as a virtue; it is taught as a vice, preventing us from realizing ourselves, as if our 'selves' were simply an extension of our physicality... Where, in the current educational system of the West, is attention being paid to these traditional virtues? Even from a purely empirical, scientific point of view, these virtues must be seen as being of great value, seeing that they have made it possible for human beings to live for thousands of years in the world without destroying the natural environment as we are currently doing. These traditional virtues that allowed countless generations to live in equilibrium with the world around them were at the same time conceived as ways of perfecting the soul, as steps in the perfection of human existence..."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a more open celebration of Catholicity as something inherently competitive in the marketplace for "excellence" rather than something coercively subtracted from academic liberties? A prize like the Nobel with a PBS documentary attached to it funded by the wealthier of our Catholic brethren? Awarded each year to a star of a domestic or international Catholic institution? (Not necessarily an academic, there's big things happening in the applied sciences fields too, in local politics, healthcare, NGOs etc)

The Pope's theme with his denunciation of the dictatorship of relativism is that we're letting ourselves be cheated out of our natural-law birthright. If we truely were in possession of liberty, ideas would be exchanged freely in a win-win way, where the truth of a novel hypothesis could be applied to defend and promote ancient wisdom under attack.

Consider usury (usurping ownership of money-on-deposit to earn interest illicitly). Our current financial crisis would be well served by a cool head who could explain the logic of usurping funds to inflate the supply of money to the economy as credit. But most "experts" prevaricate over which flavor of a political command economy (Moaist-Marxist or Central Bank Monetarist) they advocate based on a erroneous labor theory of value. Where are the Catholic-educated enterpreneurs who could critique the institutional usury from Fr. Demspey's perspective? Or critique the top-down-imposition theory of "money" creation from Menger's personalist phenomenological reading of the history of the concept of "value"?

They're in small private think tanks where they are permitted to debate philosophy of action, human psychology, global economies and natural societies and religion in an intelligent fashion, as at Acton or Mises. They're not to be found in the indoctrination factories of most modern American Universities, Catholic or not...

We have a real pearl of great price buried in a field... hopefully the Pope's provocative addresses such as at Regensburg will act like a metal detector and alert us to the treasure at our finger tips, something the world is desperately yearning for... and we haven't much time to plough the field over before collectivist revolt at the earth dearth (their famine caused by our greed) could sweep away the jewel from our grasp in the political upheaval of a global recession...

I remain hopeful ...

the Pope's Palm Sunday homily made reference to the "corrupt law" in a manner akin to the arguments of de Soto on the breaches to fiduciary trust that have corrupted international free trade in his book "MONEY, BANK CREDIT, AND ECONOMIC CYCLES"

Perhaps an approach using the natural law that remedies the rampant malappropriation of the earth's resources will finally earn enough respect for life, that hearts and minds may be changed on abortion?
I pray it be so and that Catholic Universities are at the vanguard...