Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Diversity in Higher Education

For decades now conservatives have sought to argue against "diversity" claims in higher education. It turns out all along that they should have been defending actual diversity against the faux diversity of those contemporary proponents of diversity that actually seeks to culminate in monoculture. That is, contemporary mainstream arguments for diversity seek to make every institution of higher education to be completely identical - populated by tolerant liberal individualists. The argument for diversity masks an agenda that seeks homogeneity.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico gets to the heart of this claim in his argument on the "Catholic identity crisis" at top Catholic institutions of higher education. These institutions have the opportunity - and the history and some remnant of culture - to afford actual diversity in higher education.

Rev. Sirico forcefully concludes: "We have come to the point that the most significant contribution Georgetown or Notre Dame could make to society’s diversity would be to become, once again, Catholic — and not be embarrassed about it. The Church in general and the Jesuits in particular have in their own history heroic examples of martyrs refusing to submit to secular authority and dying for the faith (such as Edmund Campion, S.J., at the hands of Elizabeth I). The least these campus authorities can do is not take active measures to undermine their own identity."

Now, he notes that the distinctively Catholic position makes it fall into what is now an increasingly politically incorrect or what is deemed by many to be an insufficiently-progressed view toward many hot-button issues. Nominal Catholics, he writes, "are embarrassed by the distinctiveness of their more faithful brethren who observe fast days, don’t approve of abortion, think marriage is what their grandparents thought it was, and hold conservative views on the other hot-button issues that Catholics in public life frequently get asked about by reporters." For a wide swath of not-so-committed Catholics - not to mention those outside the fold - these particular issues, mostly connected to issues of sexuality, comprise the narrow core of what it means to be Catholic.

A significant challenge faced by those who would argue on behalf of a far more robust and distinctive Catholic identity (to start with, at schools like Georgetown and Notre Dame) is to show how these "hot-button" issues are part of a more comprehensive web of Catholic belief. There is a danger that, in defining Catholicism in terms of specific culture war issues, the faith becomes too narrowly focused on sexual matters that many people regard as nothing more than a matter of individual choice. However, when framed in the wider context of the fabric of the society in which we live - the call for responsibility, people of good moral character, generational obligation, a belief in the governance of nature and the need for responsible stewardship of the natural world - suddenly those issues relating to family and sexuality become part of a much larger fabric and are not viewed in isolation, as tends to be the approach by mainstream discussions of the faith. Similarly, Catholic education is not reducible to classes on Catholic doctrine, but involves a very different approach to education overall that avoids the kinds of narrow specialization that dominates most college campuses. For this reason such an education would be based on a very different standard of excellence - centered on the education of the whole person, including not merely an academic training, but the moral character of our students, the kind of character that should be lauded in the wake of the moral turpitude of so many of the graduates of elite schools who were responsible for the financial collapse - than that all-too narrow and divided conception of "excellence" that dominates at the secular schools of the nation.

In sum, leading Catholics must themselves be more clear and more forceful and comprehensive when they address what it is they are defending and what it is they are promoting. Lest it be understood to be the religion of sexual prudery, leading Catholic voices need to do a better job of telling the whole story. It's a great story, and a powerful one, but right now it could use some better storytellers.


Just An Australian said...

It all sounds so good. But it's entirely corrupt from the start, because:

"the call for responsibility,
people of good moral character,
generational obligation,
a belief in the governance of nature
and the need for responsible stewardship of the natural world"

are not, on the whole, properties of the church itself, as seen by it's actions over the last 100 years. Which is how the church as let itself become defined by it's position on a narrow range of issues - "the church of no"

Kevin said...

Just an Australian:
That seems to me to be part of the point Prof. Deneen is making, that "leading Catholics must themselves become more clear and more forceful and comprehensive" in their explanations of what Catholicism means. I don't mean to put words in his mouth, but I imagine Deneen would have some choice words for those within the Church who would represent her message as a series of sexual prohibitions.

The truth is that those who formally represent the Church (university presidents and bishops alike) have done a terrible job of representing her teachings. This argument may never convince an unbeliever, but the "properties of the church itself, as seen by it's actions over the last 100 years," for the Catholic, are not necessarily a perfect reflection of the true essence of the Church.

admin said...

Here's an anecdote about Catholic diversity in a contrast of two parishes. When my wife and I first moved to the Main Line area of Pennsylvania so I could attend Villanova law, we initially attended Church at the St.Thomas of Villanova parish, run by the Augustinians at Villanova. There are some great priests there, but the parish life on a whole was become too worldly and absorbed into the wealthy world of Villanova-Radnor township. The Sunday liturgy was horrible, with little respect for the Mass by the parishioners. When my wife enquired about potential opportunities to promote life issues (namely praying rosaries for the unborn), the response was that the parish doesn't involve itself with such contentious issues, and instead as a "stewardship parish" it sought to engage in issues of social justice. Also the parish was highly mired in the contraceptive culture, naturally to its detriment. But what was most striking was how few minorities were in this parish. In other words, to put it bluntly, just how white the parish was, especially for one that prided its celebrations of diversity.

Five miles to the east on the same Route 30, there is a small parish we now attend just inside the city limits of Philly. In looking for a beautiful and respectful liturgy, we found Our Lady of Lourdes. There, whether it is the Latin version of the Novous Ordo, or the English translation, there is always respect. It is run by Mercedarian Friars, where the pastor is orthodox and adheres fully and faithfully to the Teachings of the Church. Orthopraxis and orthodoxy rule this church. And in direct contrast with the congregation at Villanova, we see substantial ethnic and class diversity, yet no need to celebrate it. Black, white (Italian, Irish, Anglo), Hispanic, and Indian (from the sub-Continent), extremely rich, middle class, and quite poor, all there to worship Christ. Never once have I seen the pastor, or his priests pull a punch in the pulpit, on issues of contraception, abortion, or even war. Nor do they relent in criticizing Obama and his policies, and yet, I still see the same minorities Sunday after Sunday.

I'm not saying that homogeneous parishes are per se problematic, just that ones attached to Universities, who are trying to be "respectable" by paying lip-service to the world are drowning in it.

Dad29 said...

Sorta like "The Idea of a University" in breadth and scope?

Just An Australian said...


I agree that's what Prof said. But I don't think it goes far enough. "Explanations"? Words are not enough. Action is required from the church heirarchy. When the church does everything it can do to protect it's asset base from payouts to those abused by priests, when it works hard to prohibit practical disease prevention in the 3rd world, when it continues to build assets off the poor, when it toadies up to the rich and powerful - what will words do?

Now you may respond that I have unfairly characterised the church there- perhaps I have. But that's not the point: these are widely held views.

Where's worship and respect for Jesus here? Would Jesus teach the church to even have posessions when there's still poor in the world? It reminds me of a (non-catholic) church I went to. They got out the Bible - lots of ceremony, kissed it's beautiful gilden cover, proclaimed it's great importance to their lives. Then they read 3 verses and put it away, and the sermon never quoted scripture at all????

Lester Hunt said...

I certainly agree with you on the need for more real diversity. One thing I disagree with is your characterization of our beloved colleagues as "tolerant liberal individualists." They are far from being truly tolerant and, though they behave in ways that can very loosely describe as "individualistic," their opinions are anything but. They are collectivists, not individualists.

Anonymous said...

"Practical disease prevention in the 3rd world"

You mean like fighting AIDS by telling folks not to have sex with someone they're not married to?

Of course not. You mean substituting latex for virtue.

Anonymous said...

Professor Deneen is touching upon the latent totalitarianism -- well, maybe it's not so latent -- of the academic Left. The Left is allergic to culture precisely because culture makes heavy demands, moral and otherwise, upon us; it isn't reducible to a taste in cooking and fancy clothes. So the Left preaches "multiculturalism," which means, in practice, no culture at all for the nation, and the reduction of subcultures to pale and indifferent shadows. If the Left REALLY believed in culture, they'd WANT Catholics to be more Catholic, Jews to be more Jewish, and so forth -- as I, who believe in culture, want the Amish to retain their heritage, want Jews to learn Hebrew, and want kids in South Carolina to know who Francis Marion was.

We have the same dynamic working at my school, Providence College. The Left here wants us to be more "diverse" in our offerings (read: to ditch our Western Civilization program) so that we will be just like Anycollege, USA.
Yet how little actually unites the Left here has been borne home to me by a faculty seminar I've taken part in; apart from the Catholics, the seminar participants had nothing (other than a few predictable political opinions) to unite them, nothing which they could celebrate together. Indeed the very idea of a common celebration struck them as odd, even suspicious...

massminuteman said...

The problem fatal to this argument is that there is such a thing as academic obsolescence.

The Academy has obligation to protect ideas and intellectuals that are wrongly dealt with- censored or maligned- and to remember and promote those of relevance that are ignored. But this obligation does not extend to those ideas and intellectuals which are refuted, have broken down over contradictions, or have lost their relevance to the social project.

Catholicism and various orthodox religion became socially and theologically mainstreamed during the 1960s and 1970s. At which point the protective obligation of the Academy diminished.

Frankly, it has had moved on to prioritizing protection of other groups and ideas. If American Catholicism is losing its adherents because they freely decide that it is refuted on particulars, the Academy's proper role is only to ensure that the debate is well argued and the evidence presented complete and accurate.

If you think that e.g. Georgetown University is not merely haven for Academy but is also rightly still Monastery- i.e. preserver of an unchanging Truth within Time in the form of lives lived- in significant respects, that is the argument that should be made. I think the case for that is substantially more convincing and more given to integrity than dodgy gamings of the diversity criterion.