A real college at last

Picture the scene. It’s a big seminar room in an old colonial house. The four walls are set in with book shelves, floor to ceiling, nine feet high. The books in this room are mainly works of theology and philosophy, from which I have pulled out Newman’s 400-page long Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. It has a Library of Congress tag on the spine, so that when I return it, as I will, one of the students doing work-study will put it back in its place.

Otherwise there are no metal detectors, no opening of a vein, no computer lists. In the same room, I had just spent three hours, first teaching Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel, Quo Vadis?, about the early Church’s encounter with the Rome of Nero, and then, in another class, Pascal’s Pensee Pensées.

When I say that I was teaching, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I was doing exactly the same sort of thing I would have done where I used to teach or, Lord forbid, in any of the several thousand places where most other professors teach. My problem is not to get the students to talk, but to keep them from overdoing it, and when I arrive before class, I meet young people joking, laughing, girls and boys teasing one another, planning a big dinner, asking somebody for a ride to work, and doing any of the hundred things that people do when they actually belong to a community, a big family.

But this time I return to the room and it’s quiet, a little solemn. Opposite the far end of the seminar table there are three rows of chairs, filled with students. They are there to watch a presentation by their classmate, a young lady who is seated at the other end of the table, alone.

I and two of my colleagues sit several feet away from her, at the middle of the table, facing away from the audience. The young lady is about to present her Junior Paper, and to be grilled by the professors. Her subject is Dante and the ways of perfection for the human soul.

We always begin with a prayer, chosen and read by the student. After the reading of the paper, which takes about 10 minutes, each of the three professors chosen ask questions about the subject and about anything related to it. Why did the pagan Virgil also pass through the final purgative fire? What knowledge was granted to Dante at the end of his pilgrimage? Was his “dark night of the soul” his accusation by the mouth of Beatrice, and his losing consciousness? Why choose Father Garrigou-Lagrange as someone who could illustrate what is going on in The Divine Comedy when he does not himself even mention the work in his treatment of the three stages of the spiritual life? What was Dante’s relation to the mystical writers of the Christian tradition, going back at least to the pseudo-Dionysius, to Bonaventure and beyond? The questions are such as would stagger many a graduate student. Ours responds with thoughtfulness and good cheer, admitting however what she does not know, without pretense.

After an hour it is done, and the students are dismissed. The presenter is asked to remain outside of the room in the lobby. The rest, her friends and supporters, assemble in a kind of receiving line outside in the dark, waiting. We three discuss what we have seen and heard. Then we leave the room and give the basic result to the student: pass or fail. We shake her hand and congratulate her. Then we also wait while she gathers herself and leaves the building.

The tradition is that if the professors leave first, the student has failed—and that apparently has happened, though it is very rare. If the student leaves first, he or she has passed. She leaves—and shouts and whoops of joy greet her as she goes to meet them and receive their laughter and embraces. It is a real community.

That’s just one scene of many that I have witnessed at Thomas More College. I knew that I was going to be teaching at a college that was genuinely Catholic. What I did not know, though I suspected it, was that I was going to experience day after day what a genuine college is. I use the words advisedly. Go to any college website and you will be greeted with chatter about the “Podunk State community” or the “Saint Nevermore family” and suchlike. It is all advertising. Most of it is nonsense, and half of what is not nonsense is a downright lie. You are one of 30,000 students in Ann Arbor. There is no community. You are one of 5,000 at Saint Nevermore, but the students and professors are united by a shared tradition Nevermore, and worship together Nevermore, and behold the same objects of truth, goodness, and beauty Nevermore. There is no community.

Will there ever be one again? Can there be one, if what people have in common is only a fungal spread of the politically correct? If professors themselves can hardly come up with a good reason why we should all read Pascal or Dante? If what unites them is only the thousand acres granted by the state a hundred years ago, and moral exhaustion? Quoth the raven—forget about it.

So, I should like to say to my readers: Unless you have a pragmatic reason to go to Podunk State or Saint Nevermore, such as that there’s a centrifuge at Podunk, or a medical school at Nevermore, perhaps you ought to think not only of what makes a college Catholic, but of what makes it a college at all. We human beings thrive in genuine communities, and we wither when we do not have them. Corn syrup is not honey. Sawdust is not bread. Grape Kool-Aid is not wine. Spam is not filet mignon. Go for the real thing. It may help lead you to the Real One, too.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.