In the last several years I’ve been invited to a few dozen colleges and churches around the country, usually to speak about Dante. It’s no surprise, I guess, that a translator of the Divine Comedy should receive such invitations. What is surprising, though, and what confounds the secularist who derives his news from Mother Times and similarly reliable sources, is the happy variety of such schools, and their deep and unfashionable commitment to teaching the classics of western learning.
I’d like, besides, to declare up front that most of them have one need in common, a need that I encourage all Catholics and Christians who love our heritage to help to meet. They need money; and it is a cruel irony that in a recession largely fueled by government mismanagement of the money market, such small private and faithfully Christian schools as Thomas More College in New Hampshire, or Patrick Henry College near the nation’s capital, or Christendom College in the Shenandoah Mountains, will be first to feel the tightening noose. So now — I’ll not wait to the end of the essay — I call upon all Catholics disgusted by Notre Madame’s flirtations with the culture of death, or by Georgetown’s apostatic concealment of the name of Jesus, to scatter their seed in better soil. Those well-established Catholic schools need no more money from us, but others do, and desperately.
To lend my plea some additional force, behold here a few things I’ve found that my small Dante-loving schools have in common.
First, and most important: They are colleges. I don’t mean that they are merely institutions of higher larnin’. I mean that they enjoy an enviable collegiality among the students, and between the students and the faculty. Many of the schools, like Christendom or Thomas Aquinas College, are small enough that everyone knows everyone else — and their families, too. It is hard to imagine how dynamic and attractive and downright comical a community of smart and generally clean-living young people can be. I got no sleep at all the first night I stayed at Thomas Aquinas, because the boys in the nearby dorm were out on the patio, singing, fencing with wooden swords, and — one of them — taking a partly clothed bath in a metal basin in the open air. They weren’t rowdy; they were only young, and having innocent fun.
When I had lunch at Christendom College, I was amazed to see everyone, faculty and staff and students, in one big room, eating the same food from the cafeteria, and listening to the same school announcements — as if (and I know I am going out on a limb here) they really were members of the same Church engaged in a common intellectual and personal exercise, and not members of separate species going each his own way to a white-collar job and the grave. I had thought, visiting Christendom, that I’d see what a genuinely faithful Catholic college looked like. I did see that; and also saw, for the first time in my life, what a college of any sort looked like.
It’s no exaggeration; I could multiply instances of this sort of warm and intellectually stimulating collegiality. At Biola University — an evangelical college, literally the Bible Institute of Los Angeles — the Torrey Honors Institute’s students plumb the depths of classical Latin and Greek, patristics, and the theology and poetry of the Middle Ages. So I was invited to speak about Dante, and to lead a class; but my invitation came not from the director of the Honors program. It came from the students themselves. The students arranged for a flight for me and my son. The students put us up in a home on campus. The students booked a rental car for us. The students printed out our itineraries. The students found for us the directions to points of interest nearby, and to the local Catholic church. The students took us from and to the airport, and saw that my expenses were reimbursed. And why not? It’s their program, after all.
The second thing I’ve noticed is the intellectual fire among the young people. How could it be otherwise, when talented minds are confronted with Dante, Shakespeare, Aquinas, Dostoyevsky? The first time I spoke at Patrick Henry College — on a medieval Catholic Corpus Christi play — half the student body turned out (the other half were rehearsing for a play). Those young men and women kept me and my wife in the lecture room until near midnight, politely but eagerly asking questions of a caliber that one would not expect from the faculties at Soak-your-equity U. “Dr. Esolen, what you say about the role of popular celebration in reestablishing a Christian culture — can you connect it with the theology of Aleksandr Schmemann?” “Dr. Esolen, have you read De Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence? Isn’t Josef Pieper coming out of that same tradition?” Those questions — about an Eastern Orthodox theologian, and a French Catholic priest of the 18th century — were typical for the evening, and came from Protestants all, and all of them more truly daring than any cramped secularist can ever be.
It’s no isolated occurrence, that. At Thomas Aquinas, one young man — well known to every student in the school as the most passionate lover of the Divine Comedy among them — sat in the front row, waiting to ask the question about Beatrice, a question that brought the house down, because everyone knew it was coming. That fellow went on to write a publishable thesis on the relationship between eros and “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” and I became one of the readers of the thesis, 3,000 miles away. At Faulkner University — another Protestant college whose students are reading more of ancient and medieval Catholic literature than will those at nominally Catholic schools like Georgetown — students are graded daily by the quality of the questions they submit for discussion in their free-wheeling seminars.
In the heavily philo-Catholic honors program at nominally Baptist Baylor, students take part in what I can only call a storm of charity and soldiership: charity toward all true Christians fighting with them the good fight against the default nihilism of our time. You may doubt whether students at Villanova or Gonzaga could tell you exactly why such village atheists as Richard Dawkins should read their Summa Contra Gentiles, but the young men and women who took me and my son to breakfast at Baylor would give you an earful. Indeed, the provost of Baylor’s honors college, Catholic philosopher Thomas Hibbs, said to me that during his tenure there he had hired 167 committedly Christian professors. I doubt you could find that many at the five oldest Catholic colleges in the country put together.
One last thing I’ll mention, common to such schools and programs. The students understand that they are not like other students. They are the new counterculture, or rather I’d say they are the vanguard of the restoration of a lost culture, among the ruins. Grove City College, a Protestant school, will take no money from the federal government (nor will Christendom College). So Grove City has a great measure of — what did people use to call it? Ah yes, freedom. The school sets aside exactly the same number of places for young men as for young women, filling their dormitories to capacity (and earning for themselves the accusation that they therefore discriminate). Chapel attendance, at least some of the time, is required, and perhaps not coincidentally, the school enjoys many — what is it, then, when young men and women flirt innocently and then fall in love? — ah yes, marriages. The same is true of Christendom College, and more: One in ten of their graduates discerns a vocation to the priesthood. At Patrick Henry, I asked one of the students — for students there do the groundskeeping and the cooking (as at Thomas Aquinas) and serve as the security officers — what would happen if someone brought a keg of beer onto campus. They looked at one another quizzically. “We don’t know!” they said. “Nobody has ever tried it!”
At Princeton, of all places, students inspired by Rev. C. J. McCloskey and the redoubtable Catholic philosopher Robert George established the Anscombe Society, with membership 200 strong, for the promotion of traditional sexual morality. When I visited the University of Dallas, I was among a packed house to watch, not the latest dreary body-part monologues, but a roaring comedy by Chesterton. In a space of two days I spoke, along with several other professors, on Chestertonian challenges to the modern view of the family; but what I most clearly remember was a bright young lady, knitting, rebuking me for going along with the consensus that Dora in David Copperfield was simply a foolish woman. That young lady understood Dickens’s intents better than I did, because she had firmly set herself against the asexual clichés of our time. She understood forthright femininity better than I did, too.
What I want to say, to sum up the matter of an article that could be much longer, is this. The cracks in the blacktop are showing, and green shoots are poking up through them — but not where we found them perhaps a hundred years ago. The tree that seemed dead is sprouting buds — but not on the old limbs. It is time, alumni of the old limbs, to consider pruning. To whom do we owe our allegiance at last? Is it to our almae matres, or to Holy Mother, the Church? If to the latter, then I think we know what we should do. The small and doggedly faithful Catholic schools need our support. Notre Madame will be with us a century from now. Let us make sure that Christendom College, Thomas More College, Thomas Aquinas College, and all the other faithful shoots of the true vine will be with us, too.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a senior editor for Touchstone magazine. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery).