A Utopian Formation

Jerry Harp
May 9, 2014
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One day this winter, we had a dusting of snow that shut down the campus for the afternoon. Here in Oregon not much snow is required to bring the city to a halt. Because I spent my early years driving in the Midwest, I felt no great urgency to get home, so I stayed on campus a few extra hours. On my way to the library, I ran into someone I’d never seen before; he had a very striking face, leathery and weather-beaten. I thought it might be a prospective student—every year we bring in many students of non-traditional age.

It turned out that he was traveling across the country visiting college campuses, something that he had done all over the globe. He said he’s a descendent of the great 16th-century traveler and social thinker Raphael Hythloday, a contemporary of Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, and Thomas More.

I was quite taken with this loquacious man, and invited him to the student union for lunch. On the way there, we ran into my colleague Giles, who joined us.

After we exchanged some further pleasantries and settled into our meals, our new friend started commenting on the state of American higher education, in particular the growing divide between a wealthy upper class of itinerant administrators who seldom stay at a given institution for more than three or four years before they depart, sought out by the hiring firms that secured their jobs to begin with and on whose radar they’ve remained as they continue their climb to more and elite schools and higher positions of power at increasingly lucrative rates of pay while the professoriate flounders, propped up by a growing underclass of adjuncts whose work keeps their institutions running. Meanwhile, these administrators leave behind them programs, practices, reforms, and vision statements that have less to do with the long-term health of the college than with the padding of resumes allowing them to move on to the next, higher-paying position. In this way, the upper class of administrators does not so much guide and nurture higher education as it feeds off its dying corpse; and they’ll keep feeding until the body is bled dry.

“Some of this has gone on,” he triumphantly concluded, “right here at your very own college.”

I could tell that Giles was chomping at the bit to speak. Now he could take no more; he jumped in to assert that our school would never allow such a thing. But our friend would have none of it; he merely waved Giles’s objection away and went on to tell about his own college experience, at a seminary run by Benedictine monks, which he considered an ideal place to obtain one’s undergraduate formation.

“The church bell rang every morning from 5:00 until 5:15. At one point, when I decided to rise early to attend the monastery’s morning prayer, I discovered that the bell was rung by a novice, standing with the rope in one hand while he read the book that he held in the other. Another bell, which rang the quarter hour, was on an automatic timer.

“Although we students didn’t generally rise with the monks, we participated in our own liturgical life: morning and evening prayer as well as daily Mass. We were encouraged to attend all of these services, though attendance was not strictly enforced, thus allowing for individual differences in each student’s spirituality and development. We were also free to attend the monastery services whenever we preferred to do so. Throughout the day there was also time for private prayer and meditation. The blessed sacrament chapel was always available, just to the side of the main chapel, and the ample woods of campus allowed plenty of space for walks and silent meditation.

“Each student chose a major and as many minors as one was inclined to muster, though everyone had at least to minor in philosophy. After a year of the history of philosophy, which took us from Thales to the logical positivists, we followed the classic order: logic, philosophy of human nature, ethics, and metaphysics. One could major in philosophy, though there were nine other possible majors: biology, chemistry, classics, English, French, German, history, psychology, and Spanish. I myself majored in English, where I learned more about contemporary philosophy because one of our professors taught us about Derrida and other deconstructionists. I had enough hours in philosophy for a double major, though the college limited us to a single specialization. I also had minors in Spanish and religious studies, the latter of which was available only as a minor because for those who went on to pursue priesthood, there would be plenty of time for further study in the school of theology. The combination has been ideal for my life’s pursuits, though I sometimes lament that I didn’t study more languages, especially Latin and Greek, both of which I picked up on my own, but only in bits and pieces.

“The monks and our professors were great exemplars of intellectual life. One of the monks knew 18 languages and had two PhDs, one in spiritual theology and the other in Middle Eastern studies. One professor of philosophy spoke publishable prose in his lectures though he never used notes. I could go on and on about the people I knew there, but I don’t want to gush.

“Most graduates of the college went on to careers other than priesthood, as was the case with me. According to what I hear from classmates, it was a great preparation for graduate school as well as various professions.

“Everyone engaged in some kind of service work—visiting local nursing homes, tutoring children in nearby schools, delivering food boxes to families in need. I was part of a crew that went out Saturday mornings to cut wood to deliver to people who used it for cooking and heating. I loved tramping through the woods and splitting logs for a few hours before sitting down to a good lunch.

“Because the president of the college was always a monk, there was very little turnover in administration. A monk might serve as president-rector of the college and the school of theology for ten or even twenty years, and then another monk would take over. There were two divisional deans, usually members of the lay faculty, who would serve for three-year terms, with a chance of renewal for those who didn’t mind the work.

“All of the resident assistants were professed monks, so they tended to stay around. It was a kind of pastoral work that many of them liked and were good at.

“It was,” he said, “an ideal education.”

I allowed that it was no doubt an ideal education for him, but I pointed out that such an idea hardly seemed to be a practical solution to today’s crisis in higher education, for one thing because not everyone is interested in priesthood. I asked how enrollment was doing at his alma mater these days.

He regretted to report that his college had had to close. The monastery still ran a school of theology, which was flourishing, but they decided years ago that the independent undergraduate seminary is a thing of the past.

I had a few other thoughts about why it was best that this college no longer existed, but the day was growing late, and our friend said he had to get going. The three of us stopped off at the chapel, recited a few Psalms together, and said goodbye. I can only hope that one day we’ll have the chance to continue our conversation.

Come to think of it, I never did catch his name.

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