Unity versus Diversity

My colleague Alasdair MacIntyre has just published a book entitled God, Philosophy, Universities. It could scarcely be more timely. Most striking, perhaps, is the contrast between the vision of the university – its past, present, and future – that MacIntyre gives us and the assumptions actually guiding our own university.

If any single phrase can sum up the abandonment of the true mission of a university it is “research university.” There is nothing wrong with research, of course, but the way it is presently pursued and funded furthers the fragmentation and balkanization of higher education, first begun with departments that pursued their goals with little or no interest in or knowledge of what was going on elsewhere. We have become the multiversity Clark Kerr described, celebrating diversity from no recognizable point of view.

MacIntyre has been called “a philosopher’s philosopher,” and this was meant as praise, but he is anything but typical of the breed. He has come back by a long serpentine path to the Church and Thomism.

His attitude toward Thomism is somewhat like Groucho’s toward the club that admitted him. It has been said of the Irish that they are an honest race: they never speak well of one another. In that sense, perhaps all philosophers are Irish. MacIntrye certainly is, and Ireland receives what many will find a surprisingly large role in his historical account, but this is chiefly because of Cardinal Newman’s efforts as first rector of the Catholic university that the Irish bishops founded and which occasioned The Idea of a University. Like Newman, MacIntyre emphasizes the unifying role that only theology can play in a true university. Men are made for God; philosophers are men; ergo, etc.

After an incisive sketch of what the university has become, MacIntyre develops a portrait of the nature of a Catholic university by drawing on Ex corde ecclesiae and Fides et Ratio, documents in which he finds an updated version of the Thomism that should be our guide. He faults Aeterni Patris for failing to see the dialectical method that Thomas employed, and there is the familiar dismissal of the manuals produced during the first period of the Thomistic Revival. (I do wish someone would thoroughly explore that topic. There were, after all, manuals and manuals.)

MacIntyre calls his history of the Catholic philosophical tradition selective, and so it is, but brilliantly so. Do not look for an account of a past golden age, though in this age of brass, the medieval university with its lively disputations and dialectical approach, all done under the recognized primacy of theology, certainly glitters.

The book brings us to a paradoxical realization. The Catholic philosopher, as MacIntyre understands him, can find no comfortable place in the present day university, Catholic or secular. MacIntyre himself is proof of this. His understanding of what we ought to be doing is at odds with the assumptions guiding the University of Notre Dame, where the author plies his trade.

Notre Dame is now in the news for all the wrong reasons. The current scandal draws attention to the fact that the university has adopted all the assumptions of the secular research university (see the university web site, for example); whatever lip service is paid to the special nature of a Catholic university, the agenda actually being pursued by Notre Dame is intentionally like those in places wistfully referred to as our “peer institutions.” We are emphatically part of the problem and totally unaware of the corrective role a truly Catholic university could play on the current moonscape of higher education.

When the tumult and the shouting of the current scandal fade away, I would like to see our fellows and trustees trucked off to Land O’Lakes and made to read God, Philosophy, Universities. Twice. They would do well to take the author with them. The current fiasco, which has pitted Notre Dame against the Catholic hierarchy of the United States (and earned them plaudits from the AAUP and the Jesuits at America!) provides a precious opportunity to reflect on what we are doing. We have been on the path to secularization for a long time and in the process forgotten what a university should be, let alone a Catholic university. I do not expect to live long enough to see a serious reform begin.

In the meantime, the Catholic philosopher is as MacIntyre describes him: One who pleads for unity on a campus that celebrates “diversity.” One who, against the grain, recalls fundamental truths about higher education rightly considered.

And in the case of Alasdair MacIntyre himself, a world-class philosopher whose edgy writings have engaged the attention of philosophers all over the globe but who, in the manner of other prophets, goes unheeded on his own campus. In this book, he has performed an enormous service to philosophy and to the Church. Thank you, Alasdair.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

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  • William Dennis

    What is diversity?
    I have not read MacIntyre’s book but it seems to me that diversity today is a euphemism for relatavism. Values once considered absolute are meaningless. No, I am not against diversity if it doesn’t destroy the moral fabric of a society. Present day diversity has turned our university youth into empty souls full of ephemeral concepts of non-reality. Romance and love affairs are gone, only relationships expected to end. Alternate sexual lifesyles are acceptable in the name of diversity.

  • James the Least

    The basic problem, Mr. Dennis, is not that “values” are held to be relative. It is that so-called Catholic universities either conduct themselves as if, or actually believe, that there is no truth to be known, which is the position of modernist non-believers. However, knowledge of the truth is both the proper end of education and of the Catholic Faith. It is therefore an absurd position for a Catholic University to adopt and cannot but lead to apostasy.

  • Andrew

    Welcome the “rise of pragmatism”… being a Catholic philosopher in a large state school, I can vouch that teachers (professors) are not concerned with teaching. As a matter of fact, most professors only spend close to 2 hours a week teaching and are more concerned about keeping their door closed so they can publish another article and fulfill their tenure requirements. I can’t help but think for many, tenure is the end of philosophy, not Truth…how sad.

  • William Dennis

    James, I do agree with you! Relative truth is no truth is at all. Truth is variable according to history and the constructs of the human mind, so say the relatavist. The only Truth is that there is no Truth. This is the philosophy of the post-modernist, which in an of itself is a contradiction. Diversity need not preclude Truth.

  • DJK

    Dear Professor McInerny,

    I am a former student of yours (Dante and Aquinas, spring 2005), and I absolutely loved your course! It was just such courses that convinced me to dig a little deeper and reflect on intellectual inquiry and my Catholic Faith. This fall, after a somewhat serpentine path of my own, I will be coming back to ND to study Patristics. I have never been more excited to learn and to grow in my life. Thank you, Ralph (pace tua dixerim)!

    Sis bono animo!

    Daniel Kettinger

  • Achilles

    student
    The State of the University makes its name an oxymoron. I think of even greater concern and contributing even more evil to society is the state of the public primary and secondary schools who have taken their lead from the corrupt universities. multi culturalism and egalitarianism have taken place of the cardina lvirtues. Public schools explicitly teach the 7 deadly sins. Start with self esteem building- false pride. “values free” education will be the death of western civilization.

  • Thaddeus Kozinski

    Assistant Professor Of Humanities and Tr
    MacIntyre is not only a brilliant Catholic philosopher, but also a most controversial one. The integrity of MacIntyre’s thought is admirable and unique, but often those controversial aspects of this thought, such as his political philosophy, are ignored or dismissed by “conservative” Catholic thinkers. In 2004, he advised Catholics not to vote in the fraud and farce that is American electoral politics. MacIntyre criticizes the nation-state itself, for it is not genuinely political, nor can be.

  • ron adley

    Thank you professor. You certainly make this book sound well worth reading. I appreciate your remarks and will purchase the book!

  • John McCarthy

    Dear Professor McInerny,

    I had the pleasure of taking two or three classes from you at ND in mid 1950’s. How proud and delighted I am to read what you are writing today!

    God bless you and your work….My Best,

    A Former Student of Yours,

    John McCarthy, ND ’58