Faculty at universities nowadays come and go fairly regularly, so it is a rare professorial announcement that shakes a school.
Recently, Patrick Deneen, a former columnist for this paper and professor of government, announced his departure from Georgetown for the University of Notre Dame. Seeking a place that more fully embraces the Catholic identity of its founding and the Western philosophical and literary canon, Deneen has, through his actions, put the question of this university’s character squarely into focus.
At one end is the vision of the traditional Catholic college, which puts special emphasis on Church teaching and classical education. At the other is a machine where departments and committees and working groups independently spin as little cogs in a great apparatus that clanks along, all the while doing groundbreaking research and perfecting the manufacture of various widgets. Any honest appraisal of Georgetown would place her more in the latter category, and there are certainly tangible benefits in being a forward-thinking research university. Federal funding flows freely, research teams discover the cure for some malady and the prestige of the place grows in direct proportion to the advancements it can offer to modern life. What dies, however, is the soul of the college.
I confess I am not a dispassionate observer in this contest. I admire and am involved in the work of the Tocqueville Forum, and regard professor Deneen as an incisive mind and a consummate gentleman. A university is bigger than any single individual, but he represents something that is dear to Georgetown, and which she is in danger of losing.
Deneen’s business — and the business of all great teachers — is to challenge students to think about the world and to get in tune with what is timelessly true. Skills for the workforce will be developed in the workforce; the life of the mind is the university’s charge. Ideally, college graduates would come out broadly educated, able to understand the centuries of thought that have delved into the question of what it is to be human.
Professor Deneen and others like him have long fought to revive humane letters, and to help undergraduates find this common humanity. It is often glimpsed in Plato and St. Thomas, Bonaventure and Tully. How many students, though, have read any part of the Summa and could give a reasonable account of Thomistic prudence? Forgetting that, who could name the century in which the man lived and wrote?
What we need now more than ever are living, breathing teachers who can vivify these authors and ideas and explain why they are so important.
Perhaps more alarming, though, is Deneen’s explicit grievance at the lack of Catholicism at this place. We are Georgetown, the nation’s oldest and preeminent Roman Catholic college, founded by no less than the first Catholic bishop in the United States. We are the touchstone of Catholic education in this country. If Georgetown loses the faith, who indeed is left to defend it?
In a word, it is a tragedy that brilliant Catholic academics who wish to integrate their religious convictions into their vocation no longer feel welcome in Washington. We will never go back to being a small religious school. To have the space compressed, however, for those who would defend the old ways, and to squeeze them out slowly is the best example of eradicating intellectual diversity from a place that ostensibly prizes free discourse and thought.
We are not yet a trade school — though we move precipitously closer — and there is unlikely to be a university-wide move towards refocusing on the humanities. Deneen’s departure is emblematic of the fact that classical learning no longer feels able even to compete. The loss of the one end upsets the equilibrium of the university and makes it poorer overall, and those who would disparage Deneen and his philosophy end up losing the only thing that keeps them in grounded perspective.
We cannot be better off without the Patrick Deneens of the world to question and probe our deepest convictions, and when we lose the animating force that makes this school distinct, only hollow men await.
Stephen Wu is a junior in the College.