Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quigley on Georgetown, 1967

The Hebrews and the Greeks, who are our cultural parents, and our own western civilization descended from these two, have always agreed that the only sin, or at least the greatest sin, is pride, a particularly aggressive type of self-deception. And anyone who is concerned with the health of individuals knows well that neuroses and psychoses are basically simply forms of self-deception, combined with an obstinate refusal to face the facts of the situation.

This kind of illness is prevalent in all American higher education and in all the sub-divisions of it, existing, indeed, in a more obsessive and virulent form in the aspirant "Great Universities" than in the so-called "Great Universities" themselves. It is to be found in its acute form in Catholic education, in Jesuit education, and at Georgetown.

Of course, that is not what we are being told. Today, in education, as in government and in everything else, the propagandists flood us daily with rosy reports on how well things are going. Larger and larger expenditures of manpower, money and facilities (such as floor-space) are devoted to telling the world about the wonderful job being done in every organization worthy of the name from the Johnson Administration down (or up) to Georgetown University. Fewer and fewer people are convinced, or even listening, but in the process the money and facilities (if not the manpower) which could have been used on the goals of the organization are wasted on propaganda about what a wonderful job is being done, when any sensible person with half an eye can see that, every year, a poorer job is being done in the midst of self-deceptive clouds of expensive propaganda.

But beneath these clouds, ominous cracklings can be heard, even at Georgetown. If they come from within the University, they are drowned out with another flood of words, denials, excited pointings to a more hopeful, if remote, future, or by the creation of some new organizational gimmick, a committee or a new "Assistant Something-or-Other," to deal with the problem.

If, on the other hand, these criticisms come from outside the University, they are ignored or attributed to jealousy, sour grapes, or to some other unflattering personal motivation of the critic. When these criticisms come, as they often do, from some departing member of the faculty, they are greeted by reflections on his personal competence or emotional stability, both of which had been highly esteemed as long as he remained here. As a result, most departing faculty, to avoid such personal denigration, depart quietly, but they depart. Their reasons for leaving are then attributed to the higher pay to be obtained elsewhere, an explanation which fits in well with the Big Lie at GU, that all its problems would be solved if the University only had more money. Anyone who knows anything about the situation knows perfectly well three things: that Georgetown's problems would not be solved by more money and have not been, but, on the contrary, have grown steadily worse as the supply of money has increased; that resigning faculty have been leaving because they were discontented; and that the chief cause of that discontent has not been inadequate pay, but the generally chaotic and misguided Administration of the University....

Professor Carroll Quigley
"Is Georgetown University Committing Suicide?"
The Hoya
April 28, 1967

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seven Years

Seven years ago today, my teacher and friend, Wilson Carey McWilliams, passed away. I miss his gentle wisdom and bear hugs; his gravelly voice and uproarious stories; his invitations to sip bourbon as the sun descends toward ground.

We need his voice more than ever. Here is an excerpt from an essay entitled "Religion, Morality, and Public Life," re-published in the recent collection of Carey's essays The Democratic Soul. The essay was written in 1999, but still rings as true today as when it was written over a decade ago.


In contemporary practice, the moral picture is not entirely bleak. Despite much uneasiness and more posturing, there have been gains in the relations between the races and the genders, and many old abuses are now subject to sanction. And religion, if it needs saying, provides support for the decencies and for some sense of obligation. But the temple, if standing, is in need of repair, especially since so many of the institutional pillars of the Framers' moral design have been unsettled or pulled down.

That states and local governments are now held to the essentially secular standards of national law would inspire some sympathy among the Framers, although the Supreme Court's insistence on the "wall of separation"—rendered almost go labyrinthine by the Court's opinions--goes far beyond the understanding and practice of the founding generation.

It is a matter for greater concern that the institutions of civil society have been so thoroughly penetrated and reshaped—and often shattered—by economics, technology, and the "hidden curriculum" of the media. In the new order of things, indignity is commonplace: the media confront us with superstars, just as the market disproportionately rewards elites; by comparison, the intermediate dignities offered by local communities seem tawdry. This perception is strengthened by the fact that localities--and with them, a good many personal relationships--increasingly are exposed to mobility and change, transient connections to which we are apt to limit our liability.

Despite general prosperity, economics adds desperations, weakening our already slender resources of trust and moral community. Inequality is escalating, with the middle class recently losing ground to both rich and poor. The vogue of "outsourcing" and "downsizing" makes jobs feel insecure, even in good times. Responding in kind, Kristin Downey Grimsley reports, employees are becoming less loyal to the firm or to their fellows, resulting in a workplace that may be "leaner," but is surely "meaner."

It is hardly surprising, consequently, that so many Americans are hesitant or half-hearted about commitments, or that they seek solace in immediate or short-term gratifications, inclinations evident even in the seats of power. It is also understandable that we are tempted to treat market forces as if they were autonomous and irresistible, partly because doing so saves us from the burden of responsibility, allowing us a more or less guiltless pursuit of interests and enjoyments. But conceding sovereignty to the market leaves us only the consumer's passive freedom to make choices, rather than having a say in defining what is choice-worthy. All of these retreats from society, politics, and faith diminish us, so that more and more Americans seem to be looking, sometimes furiously and sometimes wistfully, for what is missing.


Recquiscat in pace, my friend.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In the National Cathedral

On Sunday I was the invited speaker at the magnificent National Cathedral in a series devoted to the exploration of political themes. The subject was "The State of Political Language." The event was recorded, and is available here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Our Libertarian Future

I was invited by the good people at "Minding the Campus" to write a response to the recently released 2011 American Freshman Survey. My brief essay is now available on their website. My main point:

What the data also demonstrates is [not only an increase in libertarian toleration, but] a keen and intense emphasis on the self. Today's students simultaneously urge toleration toward others, but also expect to be left alone. Their overarching emphasis upon individual achievement--particularly in the area of career advancement--suggests that the message of "toleration" and "diversity" seamlessly co-exists with a self-centered focus on material success and personal lifestyle autonomy. At risk is a cultivated belief in civic membership, a sense of shared fate and even forms of self-sacrifice.

One telling aspect of the survey has, to my knowledge, received no attention: while 72.3% state that the "chief benefit of college is to increase one's earning power," only 2% of current college graduates are enrolled in an ROTC or other military program. While likely career choices are fragmented among many possible choices (with the largest numbers of responses clustering around the choices of engineer, physician and business, together totaling 28%), only 1.5% responded that they foresaw a military career; 0.9% intended to enter government or public policy; and .1% stated an intention to become a member of the clergy. As many respondents indicated a likely future of unemployment (1.5%) as those willing to serve in the military!


Several disquieting questions should come to mind: what kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be? What kinds of parents and what kinds of neighbors? They will likely be willing to leave other people alone--but will they care about others? Will they love? Will they serve? Will they sacrifice? According Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart, it is the upper classes (which will be composed by the students in this survey) that have largely abandoned any idea of trusteeship and moral and civic responsibility toward those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes. The survey suggests that this divide will only deepen in coming years.

I fear that we are not ushering in a utopia of toleration and sensitivity, but one of indifference and self-absorption. Today's young people have deeply absorbed the lessons that have been taught them by their elders. Do we truly think a civilization can persist when it teaches its young that the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and that the means to happiness is earning the most money?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Religious Liberty?

Vast and even incalculable quantities of ink have already been spilled over the issue of the HHS mandate that religious organizations purchase contraception as part of their compliance with the Obama health care plan. It would seem that little remains to be said.

I have read and pondered this issue as it has unfolded. I have signed a document, with many other scholars, objecting to the recent "compromise" on the grounds that it does not resolve the basic issue of forcing a religious institution to provide a service that is incompatible with its doctrine and belief. I am largely in agreement that this issue represents a profound and disturbing encroachment upon the internal ordering of religious organizations.

However, I am disquieted by the way in which the issue has largely been framed - not only by the Left, but perhaps more by the Right. The Right has sought to defend "religious liberty" on the grounds that the HHS mandate would represent an abrogation of the First Amendment's right to "free exercise" and that it would violate the "conscience" of religious adherents. By these appeals to the "rights" of religious organizations to hold certain religious beliefs - whatever those may be - and by an appeal to "conscience" informing that belief - no matter what it may hold - critics of the HHS policy have framed their response in the dominant privatistic language of liberalism. Their defense rests on the inscrutability and sanctity of private religious belief. It borrows strongly from sources of private religious devotion that lays no claim to public witness, in keeping with liberalism's dominant mode of allowing acceptable religious practice so long as it remains outside the public square. The appeal to conscience, while lodged at the level of institutional belief, subjects itself easily to the same claim by adherents within that religious order who might similarly object to a religious mandate (e.g., the prohibition on artificial birth control) on grounds of "conscience" to aspects of that belief (think Martin Luther. Or Andrew Sullivan.). The public response of critics of the mandate essentially cede to liberalism most of the ground that they would need to mount a serious case against the individualizing, relativizing and subjective claims that lie at the heart of the mandate and, more broadly, liberalism itself.

More than a few commentators have noted that this issue seems particularly oriented toward and at the Catholic Church. While some wags have questioned why other religious traditions don't seem to have a problem with other aspects of the mandate (e.g., Christian Scientists haven't risen up in objection to coverage of blood transfusions), frank speech requires acknowledgement of a more fundamental truth: from its earliest articulation, liberalism has set its sights on the rout of Catholic Christendom. Liberalism was fundamentally animated by a deep philosophical and theological objection to Catholicism - and, until recent times, vice-versa. Debate over the HHS mandate should be understood in its broadest context: the longstanding effort to wholly remake society in the image and likeness of liberal philosophy. That philosophy holds at its core that humans are by nature free, autonomous and independent, bound only by positive law that seeks to regulate physical behavior that results in physical harm to others (and, increasingly, selves). Liberal people should not be bound by any limitation upon their natural freedom that does not cause harm (mainly physical harm) to another human; otherwise, the State should be indifferent ("neutral") to any claims regarding the nature of the "the Good." Liberalism seeks to secure legal structures governing "Right" - procedures ensuring fairness with an aim to protecting (and expanding) the sphere of individual liberty while balancing claims regarding the "harms" of some individual practices (e.g., liberalism seeks to limit some harmful activities of the market at the edges while leaving its basic structure intact).

Liberalism understood from the outset that it could not abide any religious tradition that sought to influence the order of society based upon its conception of "the Good." "Private" belief could be tolerated: such belief would extend only to the immediate adherents of that faith; its adherents had to personally choose their allegiance to that faith; and any faith commitment would be the result of voluntarist choice and thus, a chosen self-limitation on the part of the faithful. Famously in his "Letter Concerning Toleration," John Locke refused to extend toleration practically to only one faith - Catholicism. His claim was that toleration could not be extended to any faith that acknowledged a "foreign potentate," which, for all practical purposes, meant the Pope. But, it requires a peculiar set of assumptions to conclude that the Pope is a "foreign potentate" - while the Pope does not claim political rule over Catholics, the Pope is the final arbiter of doctrine that is to govern not only the private behavior of Catholics, but their role and witness in the world. It is no coincidence that many of the cases involving "religious liberty" now involve Catholics, inasmuch as Catholics have erected worldly institutions in the effort to live out the witness of their faith - schools, universities, hospitals, charities, and the like. The Catholic faith is, by definition, not "private"; it involves a conception of the human Good that in turn requires efforts to instantiate that understanding in the world. As such, Catholics represent a threat to the liberal order, which demands that people check their faith at the door and acknowledge only one sovereign in the realm of proscribing public behavior - the State.

Catholics begin with a fundamentally different understanding of the human person than liberalism. We are not by nature "free and independent"; we are, rather, members of the Body of Christ. In the natural law understanding, we are by nature "political and social animals" (so states Aquinas, following and amending Aristotle), requiring law, culture and religion for our flourishing and right ordering. The law does not simply seek to regulate and prevent bodies from committing harm; rather, the law necessarily derives from, and seeks to advance, a positive vision of human good and human flourishing. The law reinforces the Divine law, seeking the restraint not only of practices that will harm others, but which will tend toward a condition of sin and self-destruction. Even where the law is "silent," we are not at leave simply to act as we wish; rather, we are admonished to live in accordance with and by the practice of virtue necessary to human flourishing. A polity based upon securing "the Right" is radically insufficient; rather, the polity is understood to be a reinforcement of efforts to orient people toward "the Good." While the Church and State necessarily operate in different spheres, the State's activities are oriented by the vision "the Good" articulated by Church and God's word.

Critics of the HHS mandate have framed their responses to the mandate within liberal terms. This is doubtless a requirement and necessity in contemporary liberal society - to gain a hearing at the table of public opinion, and especially the Courts, arguments must be framed in dominantly liberal terms. Thus, critics of the Mandate have sought to craft their response by claiming that the Church's internal beliefs will be violated by the Mandate, that the Mandate represents an encroachment upon "conscience." Critics of the Mandate thus downplay and even ignore the content of the belief in question; they rally around the protections of conscience, claiming a sphere toward which the State should manifest indifference, in which they should not meddle. The nature of the belief is largely irrelevant for the sake of the claim. Many of the Mandate's critics (especially non-Catholics) claim that they regard the Church's view on birth-control to be somewhat batty, but that fact is irrelevant to the Constitutional issue protecting private institutional conscience and free-exercise. Catholic critics don't depart much, at all, from this same argument.*

Catholic as well as non-Catholic defenders have largely sought to hold at arms length any claims about the rightness or truth of the Church's teachings on birth control: these are to be treated as belief within a "black box" that should be ignored by liberal society. As long as those crazy beliefs don't harm individuals within or beyond the faith tradition, then they should be accorded respect and indifference by the State. The Church seeks the leave of the State on the only terms recognizable by the liberal state: we have a certain set of private beliefs that aren't harming anyone. Leave us alone, and we'll be quiet.

However, everyone is aware, even if dimly, of the real issue, though few explicitly raise the matter. The Church does not seek to propound its teachings as a matter of internal belief solely for its faith adherents: it claims that its teachings are true as a matter of human good. The teachings regarding birth control are not simply a peculiar faith tradition that is thought to apply to adherents of Catholicism; it is a teaching that Catholicism hopes and intends to be adopted by all people, regardless of their faith tradition. The strictures concerning birth control are not propounded as a "faith-based" peculiarity applicable only to Catholics, like Jewish dietary laws, but as a considered position concerning the Church's deepest understanding of the human good - one that can be, and has been, framed in terms that are intended to be accessible and persuasive to non-Catholics. Among other reasons offered, the adoption of a birth control concerns a practice that Catholicism has understood to entail profound social consequences that, when widely practiced, leads to profoundly damaging social practices.

The Church's argument - made at a time when it was believed by many that the Church had no choice but to update itself to be relevant to changing times - was articulated forcefully by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," and is addressed not only to Catholics, but to "all men of good will." As nicely summarized recently by Brendan Patrick Dougherty and Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry, Humanae Vitae articulated four discrete areas of social and political concern that they believed would become manifest widespread use of birth control:

1. General lowering of moral standards

2. A rise in infidelity, and illegitimacy

3. The reduction of women to objects used to satisfy men

4. Government coercion in reproductive matters

The first three - unarguably evident in our time - concern the social implications of transforming sexuality from its intimate and natural link to reproduction to a "recreational," hedonic activity. The Church understood that the cumulative decisions of individuals - not intended to "harm" anyone - would nevertheless lead to manifest and extensive social ills. Liberalism begins and ends with the view that individual choice is paramount, and social costs can and should be redressed by government alone, leaving as much latitude possible to individual satisfaction of desire; Catholicism (echoing Aristotle) holds that society is an intricately woven fabric in which autonomous actions aimed at the satisfaction of individual desire will often prove destructive of that fabric. The Church holds this to be the case in all realms of human activitiy - sexual as well as economic, a point that is too often missed by American Catholics who allow their partisan identities to define their understanding of their faith (are those who oppose abortion and pornography any less "Social Justice Catholics"?). Liberalism holds that the State must be indifferent to the personal choices of individuals; Catholicism holds certain choices not only to be inherently wrong (even if they do not result in the immediate and evident harm of others), but, over time and cumulatively, socially destructive.

The last area of concern is perhaps even more difficult to grasp in an intuitive fashion than the first three. The last claims that the widespread adoption of birth control will eventually entail government coercion in support of its use. The Church understood - long before this tendency became evident - that liberalism was finally incapable of "indifference" toward the choices of individuals, particularly when those choices involved the limitation of individual autonomy, and particularly when any such limitation occurred in the context not of organizations that stressed individual choice, but rather asserted the preeminence of conceptions of the Good that commended practices of self-limitation. In short, liberalism would finally reveal its "partiality" toward autonomy by forcing institutions with an opposing worldview to conform to liberalism's assumptions. Liberalism would seek actively to "liberate" individuals from oppressive structures, even at the point of requiring such liberalism at the point of a legal mandate and even a gun.

The response of American Catholics to the HHS mandate has (perhaps necessarily) been framed in dominantly liberal terms that give it a chance of receiving a hearing in today's public sphere and within its Courts. But it should be acknowledged (as the response to the "Compromise" reveals) that the Church will ultimately lose the argument simply due to the fact that the way it is framed already represents a capitulation to liberal premises. Doubtless, an argument that stated more explicitly the Church's opposition to birth control would be even more quickly dismissed (but, first, caricatured and mocked) than the current invocation of "religious freedom." But, the real debate is not over religious freedom, in fact: it is over the very nature of humanity and the way in which we order our polities and societies. Catholicism is one of the few remaining voices of principle and depth that can articulate an forceful and learned alternative to today's dominant liberal worldview. That it truncates those arguments for the sake of prudential engagement in a contemporary skirmish should not shroud the nature of the deeper conflict. That conflict will continue apace, and Catholics do themselves no favors if they do not understand the true nature of the battle, and the fact that current arguments aid and abet their opponent.


*See, for instance, an interview in today's Washington Post with William Thierfelder, President of Belmont Abbey College, in which he states "We’re not trying to tell anybody else how to live their lives. I, personally, I would hope people don’t seek abortions, but we’re not saying that. We’re being asked to violate our religious beliefs in our Catholic home." If this is the case, then my response is similar to Flannery O'Connor's retort to the fashionable notion that transubstantiation was only a metaphor: "What's the point?"

Saturday, January 7, 2012

University, Community, Universe

What follows are the remarks I delivered at the University of Notre Dame as a participant on a panel on "Education and Scale" at the annual conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture in November 2011.

The University as a Community within the Universe:
Getting the Relationship Right

Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University

This panel is entitled “Education in the Mass Age: Why Scale Matters.” If I know my compatriots well – given our shared work on a website called “Front Porch Republic,” whose motto reads “Place. Limits. Liberty.” – they will rightly argue that scale matters, and that in our age of globalization, expansion, homogenization, and consolidation, that we need to think small and insist upon the local. I want today to agree with them in part, but I want to suggest that we should be conscious of another and equally important argument in our age of secularized horizons: namely, that the gargantuanism and trends toward unification of the globe are finally too small, too narrowing, too “local.” I want to remind us today that we should be equally concerned not only with defending the local against the big, but to be wary of confusing the “big” with something bigger still, something truly universal, something not limited merely to the globe and to the human will and human action to fill that globe, but something that transcends what we today confuse as the “universal.” So, I want to suggest that a defense of the local needs to be linked with an argument in defense of the truly big, the truly comprehensive, the truly universal, that which goes beyond the saeculum in our narrow and constrained understanding of today.

Today we tend to pose the aims of smaller and arguably more local institutions – those we typically call “colleges,” particularly liberal arts colleges – against the aims of larger institutions called “universities,” by which we might typically mean “research universities.” The words we designate for the distinction between these two institutions reflect this difference of emphasis and self-understanding. The word college comes from “collegium,” meaning "community, society, guild," or literally an "association of collegae.” A college thus lays a stress upon the relationships between particular members of the community and seeks to foster an environment of learning in which the close bonds of its members is understood to be an integral part of the formation of students and the means by which faculty come to share a vision of their shared goal as educators. It is certainly this evocation of “college” that is stressed by the Patron Saint of the Front Porch Republic, Wendell Berry, in his arguments that colleges were originally formed in America as places that sought to educate the youth of particular communities in order to send them back into those communities where it was expected that they would contribute to the commonweal of those particular places.

The “university,” however – particularly today – emphasizes instead the relationship of its population to knowledge – and especially the scientific exploration and “creation” of new knowledge – and is organized around the principle of the division of labor and specialization. The members of today’s “university” – focused on the idea of attaining a knowledge of the universe – works toward this goal through specialized research that largely forestalls the creation of a community of scholars and students. Rather, the university, far from creating a “college,” in fact only can be seen to be adequately doing its work if most of its members work in extensive ignorance of the kinds of work being done by colleagues, often even those in the same departments.

The danger that is often highlighted by me and my colleagues on the Front Porch and elsewhere is that this model has become the norm, and that today every “college” is under pressure to remake itself in the image of the University, that every Ph.D. being trained today at Universities brings with him or herself the ideal of the contemporary fragmented university to institutions once designed to foster collegium. We see the acceptance of this norm in the trend today of renaming institutions once called “college” with the name of “university,” such as Bellarmine, Rider, Hollins, Beaver College (Arcadia University), even Globe College is now Globe University.

Against this trend there is a strong inclination to assert a defense of the college – the particular, the local, the community. This is right and meet, but it cedes too much of the ground of “universalism” to the contemporary University, which does not deserve this designation.

In fact, I want to suggest today that we accept too much of the narrative of a secularized conception of the university if we adopt the view that it is the collegium of the local that must be asserted against the globalizing claims of the university. For, when the local is shorn of recourse to a conception of the universal that it becomes susceptible to the attractions and claims of the false universalism, that “university” offered by today’s secular conception of knowledge.

I think this is largely the story of America’s colleges, in fact. That story has been well-told recently by thinkers such as Andrew Delbanco in a series of lectures at Princeton University entitled “Does College Really Matter? A History of Undergraduate Education,” and Anthony Kronman in his book Education’s End. Both describe the set of stages through which America’s institutions of higher education have gone, first from a wide variety of religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges, then to a mix of land-grant and private universities that were increasingly disaffilitating, and today to a system that is dominated by the ideal of the research university and in which most institutions originally founded in a religious tradition have disaffiliated from their Churches. This particular story of disaffiliation – told well by James Burtchaell and George Marsden – should raise a discomfiting question, namely, what caused so many colleges – collegium - to become susceptible to the appeal of the call of the scientific claim to the “universal,” of a truth that could be thought to transcend the limited particularlity of the specific founding traditions of those colleges. While we tend to place the blame on the totalizing claims of the sciences, might we not raise the question whether the blame lies at least in part in the very particularity of the colleges – that is, the congregationalist foundings of many of the American liberal arts colleges that often stressed the truth of the particular community against the threat coming from forces outside those communities? Lacking a connection to, or animating vision of, a true universalism, thousands of colleges abandoned their religious affiliations, a dominant number within a century of their founding. This ought at least make us wonder not only at the power of the secular narrative, but the weakness of a particular theological understanding of “community.”

We might fruitfully compare these two American versions of the “college” – the particular – and the “university,” aiming at universality, with a different set of similar institutions ranging back in time, namely, the Monastery and the medieval University. The monastery placed similar stress upon the local and particular, with monasteries becoming an integral part of the particular places, and building deep relationships with the particular people, in their particular places. But the monasteries also understood themselves to be parts of a universal whole, related in their partiality to the universal Church and devoted to the worship of God. And further, even in the activities that were devoted to particular and seemingly limited ends – particularly the work of hands that might be thought to be deeply embedded in the particularities of local place and practice (“the mechanical arts”), monastic orders understood this work to be infused with a meaning that related it to the whole, to the true universal of God’s divine order. So it states in the Rule of St. Benedict that the monk will “regard all the utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” Even the most mundane tasks and tools were to be understood as part of a divine order, nothing particular shorn or divorced from a relationship to the whole of creation. The “college” was also a university.

Meanwhile, the medieval university was, as today, explicitly devoted to the exploration of the universe, but a universe not limited to that discoverable by the empirical sciences. And, like today, the university was comprised of people from every part of the known world, an association of foreign students gathered together to investigate the nature of the created order and man’s place in it. However, if today the university takes people from communities in order to make them into “citizens of the world” – or citizens of nowhere – in the Middle Ages, the universities attracted foreigners from around the world and formed themselves into what was called “nations” – sovereign entities apart from, and even in deep tension with, their particular cities. If today we might conclude that town-gown relations are sometimes rife with tension, it can barely be compared to the relations between the “nations” of universities and the Nation in which it happened to be located. One famous conflict occurred on St. Scholastica’s Day in 1354 between students and citizens at Oxford when students grew angry at the late night partying of the townspeople and a small conflict turned into pitched battle within the course of several days. On the second day of conflict, “the citizens, aided by some countrymen, defeated the scholars, and ravaged their halls, slaying and wounding. Night interrupted their operations, but on the following day, ‘with hideous noises and clamours they came and invaded the scholars’s houses … and those that resisted them and stood upon their defence they killed or in a grievous sort wounded….. The crowns of some chaplains, that is, all the skin so far as the tonsure went, these diabolical imps flayed off in scorn of their clergy….” (Rait, 125-6). Now that’s a town-gown conflict…

The original meaning of the word “university” was not only invoked to indicate “universality,” but also meant, according to medieval jurists, “all kinds of community or corporation,” (Ridder Symoens, 37), in this case, “a guild in the world of learning …, a union of men living in studium and possessing some common interests to protect and advance” (Rait, 10-11). Thus, the university understood itself to be a particular organization of people – foreigners – who formed a community in the activity of investigating the universal. In order to achieve this, they had to organize themselves as a place distinct and apart from their particular places, as not to be embedded too much in the narrowing view of the city or “nation.” The “nations” of the university formed a community devoted to the universal. This idea of “university” has been replaced instead by a collection of foreigners who do not form a community in the pursuit of knowledge about the worldly, and hence become servants to the worldly and its limited and limiting ambitions.

In this very brief sketch, I think we can more valuably find in the examples of the monastic form of localism within the universal, and the medieval university’s self-understanding as a “nation” apart devoted to the exploration of the truly universal, two complementary understandings of the relationship between the particular and universal, the local and the transcendent, that point to the necessary relationship between the two, and a way of moving us beyond the false contemporary and secularized categories of “college” and “university." We can further see the false dichotomy that sometimes informs contemporary understandings between the "local" and the "universal," albeit as a way of highlighting the limitations of our contemporary conception of the "global."


Occasional or regular readers of these pages will have noticed that the site was down for the past month or so. Without further explanation, the site is back online, with a slick new re-design (feel free to weigh in - as a traditionalist, I am loath to change for the sake of change, but the old design seemed to me to have grown a bit static, and I thought a new year might be the occasion for a new birth of web design).

I will endeavor to post more regularly. Much to discuss. Happy new year to one and all.