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UD's Tri-Focal Character: Thoughts from an Academic Alamo


A speech delivered at the King/Haggar Awards ceremony,

February 17, 1989,

by Dr. John Alvis the year after he had received

the King Award, as was and remains the custom.

Date published: Jan. 9, 2020


This time last year I indulged myself in an extravagance comparing our situation as a faculty at a beleaguered University of Dallas with the plight of the 200 men surrounded by Santa Anna at the Alamo. Of course, the comparison won't stand scrutiny: We do not quite number 200. Moreover, Crockett, Bowie, Travis et alii  faced perhaps 4,000 of Santa Anna's regulars, whereas the barbarians gathering against us will come to many more. Even so, if for 15 minutes I might draw out the suspense proper to this occasion I should like to explain why I'll not give over the comparison altogether, extravagant though it may be. Now, while you speculate on this year's winner of the King Award and while 20 likely candidates perspire through subvocal rehearsals of their ad lib witticisms, I'll enjoy at least the comfort of speaking from a prepared text as I enumerate the cloud of foes who assail us, and then suggest a way we might oppose them.

The first sentence of our official statement of purpose declares that we find our aim in seeking truth and virtue. That statement constitutes our version of Colonel Travis's drawing a line in the dust with his sabre. Let us suppose that by remaining at a school which announces such an aim we have stepped over such a line and pledged ourselves, as far as it lies with us to do so, to seek truth and especially that truth which nurtures virtue. What adversaries rise upon the horizon to dispute with us over that undertaking?

To teach anyone anything at all you must first capture the person's attention. All educators in our day compete with powerful rivals intent on captivating young people's senses in order to sell them something or entertain them or, usually both at once. I've read that students can today expect to spend about 12,000 hours in classrooms as compared to about 20,000 hours viewing television. Every educator faces the problem of making himself sufficiently engaging to get students away from TV programs and into their seats. Yet not all college teachers face this common adversary on the same footing. It has to be acknowledged that when one declares for truth and virtue one confronts some odds that don't pertain to educators who promise no more than to transmit a certain amount of information. For how does one learn about virtue anyway? One engages in close conversations with others who have read the same stories or arguments.

For instance, you come to take the measure of Achilles or Macbeth partly by judging these characters against standards you bring to the reading of their stories partly by refining, altering, and even reversing those preconceived standards in consideration of new measures forced upon you by the story itself. But you won't deepen, alter, or refine your sense of life without practicing the arts of argumentation, writing, and conversation. And it may very well be that what young people are now most habituated to — television, very loudly amplified music, and very emphatic modes of speech — are to careful reading and quiet conversation obstacles so massive that a student requires about four years to develop powers sufficient to begin to surmount them. Then, just at that fourth year, the student leaves us.

And if some young student should prove so hardy as to take up studies promising chiefly pursuit of truth and virtue, they must contend with dozens of voices warning the course he has taken is folly. Most of these voices mean to offer friendly advice. They come from parents who want their child to get on, or from old high-school classmates who attending a different sort of college tell their friend that their own professors emphasize the need to specialize early so as not to be left behind. Allow me cite another disagreeable statistic: As contrasted with surveys of the mid-’60s which reported idealistic motives voiced by college-aged people and their parents, recently the same questionnaires were answered with demands for a clear payoff in terms of high-paying jobs. No wonder, since over four years even an inexpensive school like ours costs parents about what most of them paid for their homes. We have already arrived at the dilemma of offering a liberal education at a price that only the illiberally educated can afford. So both in the effort to recruit and in the effort to retain we teachers of truth and virtue must contend with parents understandably anxious over their investment, and we are hard put to assure students under pressure to prove their economic value that indeed virtue will pay for itself.

The odds I've been enumerating although not insurmountable are surely no help, but the next impediment I'll cite — the besieger's reserves so to say — poses a more unsettling prospect. This obstacle to the teaching of truth and virtue I would identify with the decay of the nation's founding principle. In a democratic country such as ours where everything depends on public opinion the idea that stands at the hub of opinion determines the entire public life. That idea in America has always been some version of the ideal of equality. Until fairly recently we lived under a version which emphasized equal opportunity. The goal of equal opportunity keeps good company with an education that aims at virtue because removing arbitrary inequalities such as education brings out of the shadow allowing proper inequalities in moral and intellectual attainments to stand out clearly. You can then honor people who excel in courage, or intelligence, or self-control, or justice, and despise those who don't. But you notice that even to say such a thing today sounds offensive. That's because the version of equality which dominates legislation, education, and public opinion at this moment rests on two principles, both hostile to the older notion of equal opportunity. First, equality of result has replaced the ideal of every person's having an equal chance. Second, relativism supplants belief in an unchanging human nature which earlier had been the basis for equality. Relativism teaches that people's qualities are relative to their opinions, and that their opinions, in turn, are relative to their conditions. We are all the unwitting captives of our situation and, hence, no opinion of human excellence rises above any other, except that opinion which affirms tolerance superior to intolerance. But since reality is so constituted that institutions must act by some policy and cannot be all things to all men at every moment, they must follow some preferences. What preferences? Those which are enforced by national law at any given moment. Do these have a tendency? Yes. Public conduct, including, or especially, education, takes its bearing today from federal regulatory agencies and their counterparts within the staffs of similar agencies inside the schools. That tendency consists in publicizing efforts to secure the equality of condition of those groups most recently successful in claiming to have suffered disadvantages. Claims are usually voiced as complaints about disrespect and are settled by cash payments.

On two fronts the transition from an ideal of equal opportunity to that of equal results measured in money exerts pressure upon our small garrison of truth and virtue seekers. From one side we hear that "pluralism" — today's euphemism for a relativistic viewpoint — ought to be preferred over a search for the truth that can only turn out to be illusory. From the other side, we see abundant evidence that the measure of human dignity is held to be power to acquire and enjoy material satisfactions. If you want a vivid portrayal of how the two sides combine to debase public standards of justice, read Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. In Wolfe's novel you'll perceive that public opinion still determines everything, only now opinion results from staged demonstrations arranged for tabloids and TV stations by professional managers of those particular interest groups which the media this month targets for affirmative action. If relativism provides the ground for equalizing conditions, affirmative action provides the executive force, and local power brokers designate the beneficiaries.

Attaching to this prevailing version of equality are certain consequences now shaping college studies. For example, scope rather than hierarchy governs the curriculum. Because truth is a notion relative to situation and tolerance the supreme human attainment, projects of cultural sampling tend to drive core curricula, insofar as there is a core. Yet exposure to various cultures does not rank them, as it might, for instance if the various cultures were judged by their varying capacities for cultivating virtues deemed eternally proper to human beings. This doesn't mean that some cultures don't come in for special highlighting. Although a student may now graduate from 60% of our institutions of higher learning without taking a course in Western civilization and 70% without taking an American civilization course, many schools now require courses in some "Third World" culture. The idea is simply to extend the sentiments of affirmative action to curriculum planning. The effect of all of this, if not its guiding intent, is to unsettle such standards of moral and religious judgment as the student may bring from home and in their place set moral relativism and vague inclinations to seek out and champion hitherto undiscovered pockets of the oppressed. Coupled with cosmopolitanism and pity one finds resentment directed against Americans, or Europeans, or white men, or the West, or capitalists, or even toward human beings at large if animal oppression provides the issue! Viewed in this context and focusing as it does on a body of literature, science, and art predominately the creation of white, Western males, UD's curriculum appears aggressively reactionary and unsympathetic to the worldwide diversity of cultures. Our program arouses at once intellectual enmity and moral indignation and, if current pressures continue, may soon find itself at odds with the regulatory agencies and therefore, ultimately, at odds with the law. Although so far no legislative act expressly forbids the teaching of truth and virtue, you will recognize from the foregoing description how the weight of official opinion inclines against a position which upholds belief in God, natural law, and an absolute morality.

So, beset on every side as we are and with our very status before the law almost placed on a doubtful footing, what do we do? "Stay the course," President Sassen has recommended. I'm elated to find myself altogether of his mind on this. But how do we stay the course? What provides the most reliable educational means to truth and virtue?

I had thought until recently that some approximation of a "Great Books" program has been and should continue to be our paramount purpose. Recent conversations have caused me not to discard but somewhat to qualify this view. I think the qualification improves upon the "Great Books" notion but I'm not certain of this, and in any event let me put the idea before you.

Having recently taught at a college which, so to say, holds to the motto, "Great Books or else!" I can report to you the difference, as I see it, between a pure program in the Great Books and our own qualified version thereof. It's not a difference in the works studied but in the outlook which directs study. I could put the difference this way: in a true Great Books program one comes to each new author as if one expected to learn from that author the essential truth. There are absolutely no preconceptions of wherein lies the absolute truth. Hence you read Aristotle's Ethics say,  with the thought that he may have the last word to say on virtue and thereafter you read books said to contradict the Ethics, say, Hobbes' Leviathan, with the thought that these books may have bested Aristotle and that one of these authors may have spoken that last word. The Bible is another such book, no less but no more, for one may conclude that Aristotle gives a better account of virtue than the Bible. Such issues are explicitly raised and no possible answer is declared out of court from the start. The reasoning back of this attitude is that serious authors will not be read as seriously as they deserve if one comes to the reading with one's mind made up.

The attitude I've just described seems to me essential to pursuing a Great Books program, yet I don't see how a curriculum proclaiming to be Catholic could espouse such unqualified open-mindedness. On the most essential issues, those of human and divine character and of human destiny, surely a Catholic school must hold that somehow one begins and ends with the authorized Catholic teaching. One begins with Catholicism and ends with Catholicism whatever the gradualism fairness requires during the interval between beginning and end. To speak practically, a Catholic profession decided in advance of the argument means that first, one does not take up Aristotle's Ethics with the thought that he may speak the last, nor even the decisive word on the subject, and that, second, one expects in due course, sooner or later, to adjust Aristotle's teaching in the light of a fuller truth apprehended through Catholic doctrine.

You may well ask "Why then study Aristotle at all?" A good question that deserves honest confrontation, especially since the general form of the question might be to state thus: Isn't a properly Catholic curriculum one in which non-Catholic pronouncements, if read at all, are ranged under the sole authoritative statement, which must be the Catholic statement? This would seem to require discovering the authoritative Catholic thinkers within any field and installing these in their proper position of preeminence by suitable indications in the syllabus. Or if that should be found inconvenient and one feels constrained to read non-Catholic authors, one might do so under the guidance of a teacher whose role it would be to adjust the matter at hand by bringing to bear on it the light of Catholic doctrine. The Catholic teacher would correct the book the student has in his hands.

I'm not sure how one would devise tests to certify genuine Catholic teachers, but supposing one could, would it be wise to do so? Let us advert to the analogy we've pursued this evening. The garrison led by Travis besides a few bonafide Texans dedicated to pure Texan principles, contained an assortment of fortune seekers, professional soldiers, at least one slave, several characters inclining toward crime if not downright outlaws, and an unseemly number of Tennesseans. Similarly we make a faculty out of a few and devout Catholics combined no doubt with some mere fideists, some Catholic positivists, then a collection of Protestants, First Church of Athens Christians, Neo-Latin Averroists, virtual agnostics, and scanty but conspicuous squads of Straussians. Travis could ill afford to reduce his rifles by filtering out true Texans, yet apart from this survival consideration we may discover a proper Catholic reason for preferring UD's mixed battalion to a faculty which in its every member could produce unimpeachable Catholic credentials. And by a reason properly Catholic I don't mean something vague like the desirability of a healthy diversity. I mean rather that a faculty properly mixed may better contribute to a mature reflection upon the faith than one uniformly preferring Catholicism. It's incumbent upon me to explain. 

Perhaps you share my understanding that the Catholic intellectual tradition distinguishes itself from the thinking of most other Christian churches by its emphasis upon the continuity of the order of nature with the order of grace. Catholicism insists that Grace perfects nature in accord with principles consistent with nature, in accord, that is, with principles that nature itself, if fully instructed, could herself well-understand — as though nature could discern its incompleteness and the general direction in which completeness might be sought but not the plan nor the means which would bring that completion actually to be. Both the plan and the means are known as God's grace and by God's grace. But to grasp the extent of that graciousness it may be one must come to understand what grace operates upon and what rudimentary goodness it brings to full fruition. So, in brief, one must thoroughly understand the natural to arrive at an understanding of the supernatural as distinct from merely faith in the supernatural. It may be that some thinkers whose horizons are wholly confined to the natural understanding of that realm are better than their Catholic counterparts, who know more in terms of ultimate finality but know less well what lies this side of the ultimate disposition. If that is so, then non-Catholics may have something important to teach Catholics. And we may even say they can teach Catholics something important about Catholicism. For if one seeks to understand what it means to say that grace perfects nature one improves one's understanding in the degree that one better understands nature just as certainly as one improves one's understanding in the degree that one better understands the agency of grace. For that reason, then, precisely as Catholics we may do better to maintain a faculty and a curriculum somewhat keyed to great authors pagan and secular, as well as to authors Catholic, than to prefer teachers and authors less than the best just because they are Catholic, or worse, pretend teachers of books of a second order are great when in fact they are only Catholic. For similar reasons we should not suppose that our teachers though they profess Catholicism are as custodians of Great Books wiser than the books in their custody. True they know something beyond the non-Catholic, but they may also have forgotten or never have known what can be seen by nature's light and in that degree of ignorance will fail to grasp truth essential to the faith. 

What principles, then, do in fact qualify UD's devotion to a Great Books program? If we look beyond curriculum to the spirit which by animating the faculty gives purpose to that curriculum we see, instead of the simple openness, characteristic of the Great Books regime three aims: first, GSM and Constantin alike impart a respect for American liberty that would serve to distinguish the school from almost every other college in the country, for everywhere else patriotism is held to be a condition that precedes, or even requires correction by higher education. GSM joins Constantin in seeking to explore the consequences of the Church's teaching that private property including private ownership of capital, are inalienable rights. Thus Catholic teaching cannot embrace Marxism and must study labor and production by reference to the standard of a free economy. So GSM as well as the liberal studies program of the college by teaching the principles of American freedom lays the foundation for fulfilling the Church's requirements of social justice. Pope John Paul writes of the need to acknowledge rights pertaining to man's nature, rights which devolve, not from changeable legislation produced by nations, but from God's eternal law. The United States is the first regime in history to base itself expressly on "the laws of nature and nature's God." We may be justified in the conclusion that dedication to the sort of constitutional government our country provides is necessary to further the Pope's call for a worldwide recognition of the natural rights of man.

Now if you consult either our actual practice or our purpose statement you'll find that preserving the Western tradition of thought is another of our aims. In effect this points us to the Great Books since the tradition is transmitted through certain definitive works of the mind which we are obliged to call Books even though we all know that the Cathedrals, Raphael's paintings in the Vatican Stanze, or Newton's formulation of the laws of motion all belong to this routine of study. Although we offer something in addition to Books, we acknowledge that this tradition is essential to our composite. Why? I would suppose because we understand that study in the classics offers our best access to the timeless standards of nature which determine virtue, and the knowledge of which constitutes the better part of wisdom. For this reason all subjects tend back toward the old books. I know a professor in the GSM who teaches management principles not only out of Machiavelli but also out of Aristotle and Xenophon. This emphasis upon learning the truths regarding nature from established authors might be called philosophy, if we understand philosophy as the effort to replace mere opinion regarding the physical world, human nature, and God with knowledge thereof.

Finally, to the first emphasis, American, and to a second, philosophic, UD adds a third aim, expressly Christian. For we try to understand not just nature on its own terms but how nature yearns for its proper fulfillment. That fulfillment comes through God's will known through revelation, and the moving power which brings nature to completion is his act of favoring grace. We seem then to be in the position of one who from calculating the base and slope of a pyramid sees, though dimly, its apex hidden in a cloud.

Or, in a final effort to convey these three in one focus that seems to me the genius of our school, let me resort to an analogy closer to our experience. Surely our Texas forebearers would sharpen their marksmanship with the following exercise. Imagine a fair-sized jug suitable for holding corn mash; imagine it fitted out with a hollow ear for its handle. Your Texan, I am supposing, would select three of his jugs and line them up so precisely that he could see one narrow eye made by the three handles perfectly aligned. Then from a certain distance he would fire a musket ball so accurately through the center of the first jug handle that it would thread through the second and even on through the third. Now someone might try to shame us with Odysseus who shot his arrow through 12 axe blades. Yet we do not require supernatural capacity, only heroic, and for heroic aim the test of three will suffice. On the other hand, we don't allow just ordinary superb shooting. Any mere Tennesssean could put a slug through one handle. To apply our analogy any mere Notre Dame or Georgetown instructor can profess Catholicism, any mere St. John's tutor can read Great Books, and I suppose somewhere you could find a school in which intellectuals profess American patriotism. But these are just three different versions of the one-jug marksman. At UD we keep trying to produce the three-jug supra-sharpshooter: the intellectual who can discern natural standards with such clarity as to be able to first give an account of such standards; second, to perceive how America's constitution realizes the portion of these standards which apply to life in civil society; and third, to grasp how Catholicism relies on these same excellences of nature while perfecting them.

We may someday produce out of our students such a marksman. But whether we do or not, the effort itself is sufficient reward because in such an effort we continue to learn as we teach. Seeking contentment in the glamour of losing battles may strike you — it does me — as silly romanticism. We fight to win. But some losing battles are worth the fighting if they witness to a purpose which might inspire better-equipped armies to fight in the same cause and which, by bringing the margin of high-heartedness to their stronger forces, might enable those who come after to prevail. This may occur even if one buys no time nor significantly wears down the enemy in the losing fight. It happened once before. Remember the Alamo?

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Dec 4, 2023

Ashton Ellis, PhD, comes to the University of Dallas after nearly 10 years in fundraising at Hillsdale College.

Nov 20, 2023

Thanks to a Braniff student, the language of the Gospels comes alive every Monday in Anselm 224.

Nov 1, 2023

It took the Center for Thomas More Studies 20 years to complete the “Essential Works of Thomas More.” Now, the conference is researching More’s oeuvre piece by piece.

View full archive