Studying Death

The following column was published in The Observer on Thursday, September 4, 2014.

When students first read how Athens put Socrates to death they either balk at the injustice of the Athenians or at the uncalculating stubbornness of Socrates. Socrates was charged with corrupting Athens’ youth and refused to yield when faced with death. I myself sided with Socrates as my PLS Great Books seminar grappled with the story. My professor helped me to understand the other side: “If your children were abandoning their jobs and educations to follow an old man around, asking bothersome questions to strangers, what would you do? What would Notre Dame do if a professor convinced a bunch of students to stop attending class and, instead, sit out on the quad and talk about being all day?” 

Of course, this is exactly what we were doing in that class, except the course’s department was careful to abide by contemporary academic and University policies. The revolutionary nature of the liberal arts education was masked by regular classroom meetings, hiring according to the standards of other departments, publishing according to common academic expectations and the students partying about as much as any other students (even though these parties often included sophisticated jesting and occasional poetry readings). But the philosopher’s secret can’t be kept forever.

In 1970, three professors at the University of Kansas started the Integrated Humanities Program, known as IHS. Students in the program were not allowed to take notes in class. Instead, they read great literature, learned the state song, and went stargazing with their professors. Students were asked questions that in polite company and contemporary curriculum are either avoided entirely or made so technical and complex as to be rendered practically meaningless. Questions such as: “What is truth? How do we cultivate wonder in our lives? Why are we here?”

The professors learned their lesson: disturbing questions lead to disturbing lives. As the professors cultivated wonder, students began to convert to Catholicism (some say more than 200 students converted), with dozens entering the priesthood or religious life. No longer content with the temporal and changing, students turned to mysticism and contemplation. One should only expect that their parents, having thrown tens of thousands of dollars at the institutional gatekeepers of the middle class, would protest against their children spending the rest of their lives sitting on spiritual quads contemplating “who is?” After decades of cultivating the life of the mind with these disturbing results, the program underwent, as one founding professor put it, a “discreet and slow euthanasia” by university officials.

Thus, we have the odd position of the contemporary university. Should the University pursue the life of the intellect, or should it train us for material prosperity, leaving the more transcendent parts of our humanity untouched? What led the great John Henry Newman to proclaim that a university which “had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away” was better than a “so-called university, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects”? Can we really be fooled into believing, as did the disciples of Socrates and the IHS and Newman and Christ, that one thing is necessary, that to sit and listen at another’s feet is to choose the better part?

Most of us will never know. College leaves little time for the leisure of stargazing. Most of us are anxious and worried about many things, burdened with much serving, studying and extra-curricularing. We find no time to examine what so many claim is “the better part.” Perhaps we are deterred by the threatening danger of the choice. Perhaps it is the dazed madness of those we have seen choose it that deters us. Perhaps it is the small fortune our parents have spent to keep their children safe and employable, which keeps us from pursuing the better part.

But perhaps the greatest deterrent is the realization that, for those who have chosen “the better part,” life is lived as though death has already come, and we are not quite ready for death. Socrates taught his disciples that “true philosophers make dying their profession.” For many, college will be a time to eat, drink and be merry. Many hope this will be just a preparation for future food, drink and merriment. But for those of you so daring as to choose the better part, a daily dying of self will prepare you for death, and death will be your profession.

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