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I am too old to want to spend the evening of my career trying to shore up a crumbling wall, when those who are in authority at the college are unwilling to listen to our pleas. No, I’d prefer to be in on building something exciting for the Church and for sheer ordinary humanity…

providence collegeSometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion. If it isn’t quite yet like meeting Saint Francis on the road, it is like meeting a bluff and jovial fellow who has just come from a conversation with that great little man of God.

I’ve had such an encounter, at Thomas More College, in New Hampshire.

Where shall I begin? I was at the noon Mass in the college chapel. You must know that everybody except for a couple of students who happen to be helping out in the cafeteria that day can attend Mass because there are no classes scheduled for that period. Call it a Sabbath rest, right in the middle of work, so that the work will savor of the Sabbath, when the usual practice in our lives is to begrudge God a little bit of our precious time and turn the Sabbath into a vigil for Monday. Cheerful faces, and plenty of them—and I waved to the daughter of dear friends of ours, who was sitting on the other side of the chapel. It’s always moving for me to see professors and students together at Mass, but here they really were together in a way that I’ve never otherwise seen; not separated by five rows of empty pews, but next to one another, male and female, tall and small, of all ages.

When we came back from the altar at Communion, a young bearded fellow stood up to the side, with another lad and four lasses, directing them in a sung prayer to Saint Michael, singing the verse at first in unison, then in harmony, then in harmony while two of the sopranos sang a descant. It was elegant and beautiful and devout, without the least trace of the “show”; all subordinated to the Mass and to prayer. I was later told that the director is a freshman, that he himself composed the music, and that one of the first things he did at Thomas More College was to establish that small chorus.

Now, I have been teaching college students for more than thirty years, and have never been near to such an act of devotion. But then—in ordinary times, people who have the talent compose music, plenty of them, and people, both men and women, sing. “Singing is what the lover does,” said Saint Augustine, so you shouldn’t expect much singing from young people who have been scalded and scorched by the Lonely Revolution; but from blessedly bright and cheerful boys and girls who have retained their innocence, you would be foolish not to expect singing. And not to expect other ordinary things, too.

I sat at table for lunch, with three or four students, among whom was the young lady I have known since she was a little girl with curly hair. One of them smiled as she put before me a copy of Dante—would I sign it for her? We all talked and laughed for about an hour. A young man whose people come from South America talked with me about Portuguese, and the conversation then ranged all over the place, as happens when somebody with real intellectual objects of devotion, and their little brothers called hobbies, meets somebody else of the same sort. Good Lord! I enjoyed that conversation as well as the best of such that I’ve ever had with college professors. Among them, you must often hedge and keep your thoughts to yourself, lest you be accused of breaking The Unwritten Law and having your head nailed to the floor.

Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be like sitting on a Rembrandt while holding forth about President Trump and Hillary Clinton? And what finally is the tremendous utility of giving yourself over to the study omayfliesay-flies, those shadows passing on the wall of the cave?

You will say that anyone can experience that joy, anywhere. True in a way; you can experience it in a dank cave, but I wouldn’t recommend the attempt. But when people are not in college to have their souls be born in wonder, and when professors themselves scoff at truth and beauty, believing the former to apply only to what can be quantified, and the latter to be a pleasant fiction at best, what assistance can you expect from the surroundings? And we are not gods.

I sat for an hour with happy and talkative students, combing through the allusions and the strange repetitions of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”—not the most auspicious text for cheerful and enthusiastic conversation, and yet that is what we enjoyed. Nobody had a cell phone in his lap. Nobody gave me the sense that reading Eliot took time away from the really important things in life, whatever they are. I sat for another hour with a different group of happy students (including a lad and lass who will be married in a couple of weeks; they have been an “item” since they were sophomores, God bless them), reading a passage from the ninth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in Latin, and feeling out its intricate contours by recalling other passages in the text, or other instances of the use of this or that important word. Class was supposed to last for an hour also, but there was no clock in that comfortable room in the library, and I did not know what time it was. When I finally asked, the students laughed and said that it was already past six o’clock, well into the supper hour.

They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears.

I have countless memories of fine students at Providence College, some of whom are now my close friends; and to my colleagues in Western Civilization—of whom many have retired and some have passed away—I owe a debt I can never repay, for their friendship and support and instruction. But I am too old to want to spend the evening of my career trying to shore up a crumbling wall, when those who are in authority at the college are unwilling to listen to our pleas, or even to meet with us so that we can make the pleas in person, but instead pass out lemonade to the professors with the sledge hammers.

No, I’d prefer to be in on building something exciting for the Church and for sheer ordinary humanity: The Center for Cultural Renewal, at Thomas More College. More on that to come.

Meanwhile, my family and I wish to extend our warmest thanks to President William Fahey and the good men and women of Thomas More. A window shuts, and a door opens—or rather the very roof is blown off, and I see again, in their silent and ordinary beauty, the stars.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (May 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Dear Professor Esolen:

    I had a feeling that you would land on your feet, and so you have.

    Good for you and your family, as well as for the folks at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

    If summer ever arrives in the Northeast, you might want to journey (if you haven’t already done so a dozen times) north from Merrimack to the White Mountains, where in the past two decades I have found stimulation, invigoration, beauty, and inspiration in an age that has afforded me little of such. Get some breakfast at the Tiltn’ Diner, in Tilton, New Hampshire, an eatery with a delightful Fifties theme. In the foyer of the restaurant, pick up a free copy of “The Weirs Times,” a local weekly newspaper that, in addition to providing the folklore and natural history of the Lakes Region and the White Mountains, also reminds us of why, long ago, the motto of New Hampshire was “Live Free or Die.”

    As you’re no doubt all too aware, “l’affaire Esolen” has left a bad taste in the mouths of those comparative few who honor an ideal of higher education no longer shared by “higher education” itself (yes: the scare quotes are necessary). Your readers and supporters, astute but outnumbered, require no rehearsal from me or anyone else of the implications of your recent struggle at and with Providence College. In November 2016, when the controversy reached its peak, I think, I wrote a letter to your boss at Providence College, Father Shanley, defending your position as well as criticizing the inexorable trend of the institution. It’s unlikely that Father Shanley read the letter, as he was probably deluged by messages critical of his administration, the college, and most of its faculty and students. But I put in my two cents worth, and left no doubt where I stand in relation to the miasma that the university has become.

    I hope that my letter didn’t embarrass you.

    I can’t help observing that your life and mine parallel chronologically. Chances are we attended graduate school in the same span (the mid-eighties). After passing my comprehensive and oral examinations in political science (a dreary business, that), I found myself utterly alone and demoralized. As relatively naive as I was, I nonetheless sensed something sinister, or disturbing, in the profession, and I ran like hell.

    I was right, of course, But being right hasn’t helped me. On the contrary, the life of a commando scholar and nomad has brought me penury, isolation, and torment. I’ve remained faithful to the books and the ideas in them, but no one’s applauding.

    And things are a thousand times worse now than they were in the spring of 1988.

    I differ with you in several ways, some of substance but mostly of temperament and style. Chief among them is your preservation of a high regard for some of the students whom you taught at Providence College. I trust you, Professor Esolen. You’re a man of your word, I have no doubt. But on this point of the students in the universities and colleges all across the country, I cannot share your hope. I know them. I know their parents and grandparents. I know their neighbors. I know their schoolteachers and guidance counselors and librarians and coaches. I know their professors and graduate assistants. I know their dance instructors. I know what they are — all of them, every last philistine, barbarian, and homunculus.

    I cannot bring myself to idealize or romanticize them. They’re bores, boors, and old fogies — and neither class (or caste) nor background changes that. There are exceptions, of course; fulminate against me for generalizing, if you must. But those exceptions, assuming you’re correct, scarcely register.

    I have not always felt this way, Professor. Indeed, as a teaching fellow and later as an adjunct professor, I received stratospherically high student evaluations of my performance in the classroom. Indeed, typical of students’ responses to my efforts at the lectern was the declaration of one young lady: “Mr. Meridian Man, you really try. You really work in there. You want us to learn. Those others don’t care. But you do.”

    But that was when the world was new.

    What learned men, men of letters, or belletrists now face in the classroom is something so obnoxious, so vicious, so reductionist, so simplistic, so stupid, so cliche, and so BORING that the phenomenon represents a new and irreversible turn in the conduct of education and society.

    It’s all over. I’ll take my books to a solitary encampment in the far mountains, and there, in rustic and austere conditions, I commune with serious people, nature, and my God, if he’s listening.

    Godspeed, Professor Esolen.

    Sincerely yours,

    Meridian Man
    North Grafton, MA
    Choteau, MT
    Scottsbluff, NE
    Laramie, WY

  2. “What is nobler than to mold the character of the young? I consider that he who knows how to form the youthful mind is truly greater than all painters, sculptors and all other of that sort” (St. John Chrysostom)
    Thank you Mr. Esolen for forming the character of the young.
    “..cheerful boys and girls who have retained their innocence..” Someone said that Innocence is the best weapon for anything. That’s why one with bleeding heart may have this very strong urge to slain all the dragons that help most of the young to lose that blamelessness in this culture of death we live in.
    If someone went far above and looked with a spiritual eye at the whole America with focus on higher education, he would see that beautiful country covered with darkness…with a few Beacons of Light, and one of them would be Thomas More College.

  3. Well, that was very inspiring and memorable, Professor Esolen. However, I wonder if you would investigate and report on what accounts for the sort of young people you meet at Thomas More. What could be more important for the Church than understanding how to form such persons? You are our man on the scene. If only you would look into this.

    Never having laid eyes on the students or the campus, I would venture from a distance of nearly 3,000 miles (Portland, Oregon) that it was homeschooling in one form or another. Am I wrong? Secondly, I would guess that most of them underwent what I would call the baptism of the imagination, particularly through their parents reading to them from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Yet, do these guesses correspond with the facts?

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