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“To Take the Risks of Love:” An Interview with R.R. Reno - December 2017

posted Dec 29, 2017, 4:53 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review   [ updated Dec 29, 2017, 4:53 PM ]

Dr. Reno is the editor of First Things, America’s largest journal of Religion and public life. He holds a Doctorate in Religious Ethics from Yale University, and was for 20 years a professor of Theology and Ethics at Creighton University.  This interview was conducted on September 21st, in connection with Dr. Reno’s lecture, A Christian Interpretation of the Age of Trump.”  It has been edited for length.

Claude Hanley: What would be, in your estimation, the place of the university in American life now, and what should its task be?

R.R. Reno: Well, the purpose of the university is to provide a community of learning, it’s a place for the formation of a secular society that is committed to the life of the mind, and then obviously most students go on to professional work.  Most don’t become professors, but the educational experience serves as a leaven in society at large. I think especially on Josef Pieper’s wonderful short book Leisure, The Basis of Culture.  The American idea of the four-year liberal arts degree is of a time in your life when you’re not actually pursuing professional activities, but leaves you with something that’s closer to contemplative. Pieper argued that is actually necessary to have culture.

Now our view about the role of the university in the public square is shaped by the fact that after World War II, with the GI Bill, there was a big upsurge in college enrollments. And for the men that were coming back from World War II, the university became a kind of place where they looked at questions about what kind of society they were going to have. Consequently, we have this false view that the university is this kind of crucial place where the future of our society is debated and formed and shaped. I think that that’s distorted. It’s obviously true for some of our universities, but we overemphasize that because of the 50’s and 60’s, when we saw this sort of new, emerging middle class, different people from ethnic backgrounds being integrated into America’s leadership. Universities were the focal point for that process.  So universities would ideally be more nourishing, and less political than they are today.

CH: How do the humanities disciplines contribute to that mission?

RRR: Well, I’d put it more broadly, as the liberal arts. I mean, studying astrophysics doesn’t serve any practical purpose. It’s not clear studying evolutionary biology serves a practical purpose either.  Fossil records, all these sorts of things, contribute to our knowledge of the natural world, which we can perhaps use technically at some point.  Mathematicians also, they’re famous for coming up with things that have no relevance whatsoever, and then a hundred years later, people discover practical uses for their mathematical models. But it’s the wonder and joy of knowing that precedes their practical usefulness. And that’s a liberal education; it’s for its own sake, and not for some other end. That strikes me as what is so important about a liberal arts education.  We are made to know, and it is an intrinsic good to know truth.  Not every project can offer that; the liberal arts humanize us, and they make use more fully human.

CH: How does that humanization translate to society and to politics?

RRR: Whether it’s Shakespeare or astrophysics, you go out into the public square, if you’re liberally educated, and you’re less likely to be swept up in a thousand ideologies of the time. It gives you a kind of independence of mind.  I think it’s important, in any society, that you have people who have this independence of mind. John Henry Newman referred to education leads to an enlargement of mind.  You become more capacious…capable of grappling with a full range of experience. I don’t want to privilege the humanities in this regard.  I started out in physics as an undergraduate. My sister’s a physics professor at the University of Iowa. You have to specialize, you can’t know everything. It’s not like you’re swallowing all this food until your gut gets full and distended. It’s not just the amount of facts.  Instead, it’s developing a kind of mental plasticity, and flexibility, and a capacity that prompts you to think about things in such ways.

CH: It’s said that there is a lack of intellectual diversity, of that independence of thought in universities today. The same people are promoting the same kinds of ideas that are getting preeminence. Do you think that’s a valid criticism of the American university?

RRR: I don’t like to use this new term diversity here. We should have diversity of some things and we should have unity of other things. So, I think it’s not a cure-all. But there is a problem, it seems, where there isn’t independence of thought, there’s too much group think. And I don’t think it’s a matter of, as people often say, “Well, it’s because all the professors are liberals.” Now, I went to a small liberal arts college, not unlike Holy Cross.  The professors were ninety percent registered Democrats, they were certainly liberals.  But it didn’t feel like an environment that was closed or limited. To be capacious, to encourage adventure, to have the security as a faculty member to accept the fact that sometimes your students will go in a different direction -- These are qualities that I think that one hopes for in a faculty, but I see less of them today. It could be that the problem is not lack of diversity, but a kind of careerism on the part of faculty.  Or perhaps people want a cheap emotional payoff of feeling that their work has a great moral and political significance.  As a result, there’s a kind of works-righteousness around our salvation, at least our secular salvation by making sure that our  classes teach the right political lessons. I think we need to dig more deeply.  It’s not just a lack of diversity. That’s a symptom, not a cause.

CH: So, to continue this theme, one of the main challenges now is academic freedom and freedom of speech. I think of the events at Middlebury last year, and similar controversies.  What do you think at least some of the underlying issues are that cause this sort of tension?

RRR: Our society is very divided. Grownups don’t tell young people what life is for, and they’ve rebelled.   Everything is open, you choose your own values, et cetera et cetera.  I think it’s quite natural that students want to find some consensus and stability. The radical schools that want to shut down who they perceive to be bad people, I think are misguided.  But that may not be an altogether unhealthy desire, that they need right and wrong. So, I think we’re seeing these perverse dysfunctions in education because we the grownups have created that need.  It’s being filled by some sort of ideological, imposed consensus, rather than a real, genuine consensus.

CH: And this critique reaches back to the same idea, that we’ve lost the ability to pursue the human good?

RRR: Right. If we’re concerned about academic freedom and free speech (and we should be concerned about these things), we need to be clear about what the education at the institution is for, and why shouting people down harms the proper end of education. We’re a community of inquiry.  In a community of inquiry, if people can’t speak, in that sense there’s an imposed consensus, and there’s not a lot of inquiry any more. I’ve talked with young people, and they’ve told me that they find more and more, that it’s just wise not to say what’s on their minds. It’s too dangerous. Well, how can you make progress in the pursuit of truth if you can’t articulate what you think the truth is, and hear what others have to say in response? The problem with shutting down speakers is that it impedes us in achieving the end of education, which is to refine our ideas and make them more in accord with the truth. So I don’t think that academic freedom is an end in itself, it needs to be the means to the end -- having a healthy medium of inquiry. I don’t think that Holy Cross should invite a creationist to give lectures. It just doesn’t help advance the pursuit of truth.  You and I can come up with examples where “no, that’s not going to help.” The problem again is that then the sort of ideological frame of mind comes into play.  It’s a crazy view that the political opinions of half the country are taboo. How could any reasonable person think that? It’s irrational.

CH:  So we have to balance academic freedom with a duty to truth.  What duty to truth does a Catholic university in particular have, and how should it be balanced against academic freedom?

RRR: I think that a Catholic university has an absolute duty to teach what the Catholic Church teaches. A Catholic university that does not teach that which the Church teaches is not betraying its Catholic identity; it’s betraying its identity as a University. The purpose of a university is to encourage people to pursue the truth, and also to transmit the truth. And we believe, as Catholics, that what the Church teaches truths that are indispensable, not just for our salvation but also for our fuller understanding of the human condition. There’s a question of priorities. It’s not the job of the Catholic university to represent all possible views of what it means to be human; It is absolutely the responsibility to propose to students, and to the world, that the Church teaches what it means to be human. That entails defining priorities: hiring priorities, what kind of courses to acquire, etc. It’s not a violation of academic freedom to say that Catholic theology is required, but a Jewish Studies professor’s course is not required. It’s not a violation of academic freedom; that’s the institution establishing its priorities.   Nor is it a violation of academic freedom for the university not to invite speakers who hold positions contrary to what the Church teaches. Now there could be student groups or others who want to invite those people.  Then the university has to make a judgement about whether it harms the mission of the university, which is to transmit and encourage students to pursue the truth. In many cases, Catholic universities have confidence in their own students. If it is doing what it should be, which is to ensure Catholic teaching is clearly taught, it can tolerate dissent quite easily.

CH: How does that concern influence the other disciplines, outside of philosophy and theology?

RRR: It applies across the board. For instance, one problem we have is that in the sciences, there’s often a materialistic metaphysics that’s operating very close to the surface: that our brains are our minds, and we’re just neurons firing. A university should guard against teaching this. It’s scientism, it’s not science. The same goes for economics.  Economics is a powerful and important discipline that teaches us to think in a critical way about markets.  It models the human behavior in terms of maximizing authority, where that’s understood as maximizing one’s material interest. That’s fine for modelling, but it easily can lead to a generalization that humans are nothing more than utility maximizing achievements. That’s not true for the human person either. So in many different disciplines, there needs to be reflection on how we as an institution can present our view of the human person. Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech dealt with that.

CH: Are there any particular reforms you think should be made, or is it more a change in attitude toward the project of the University?

RRR: I think Catholic universities really need to get a grip on the hiring of faculty. We’ve spent too many decades now trying to imitate secular higher education. We need to return to the wisdom of our own tradition, and recognize that the metaphysical poverty of our time is quite acute, and we need to focus on hiring people, not the people who all agree, that’s absurd, you’re never going to find that [laughs], that’s the whole idea. You can’t even find Thomists who agree. It’s not a question of agreement, it’s a question of whether or not there are faculty members who believe that there’s truth, and that truth transcends a particular discipline. In Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech, he looked back with nostalgia on his years at Regensburg, when faculty members often would gather together and try to talk about the big questions, transcending the specialized knowledge that they had in philosophy or theology or science or literature or history. One has to grope towards these larger theories together, and we have to hire professors who are committed to try to do that together. That’s what it means to be liberal, not having a collection of specialists.  And I think because the Catholic Church opposes a compromise of truth about the human person, both as to our manifold destiny in God, as well as to our natural duties and responsibilities, and because it presents a comprehensive vision of the human person, we in particular have an inheritance that allows us to recognize the poverty of our present age. We should address that poverty by building institutions that pursue a larger vision.

FR: But that would entail first recognizing our inheritance.

RRR: Right.  Catholic universities have a natural excellence of the life of the mind. Most of what goes on at Catholic universities functions in the area of the natural virtues -- intellectual integrity, intellectual honesty and intellectual zeal. This is encouraged and elevated by the supernatural virtue of faith, but these are natural virtues. It’s possible that we can draw upon educational models and experiences at secular universities. It’s not that we only have to hire people with degrees from Catholic universities, etc., etc. But it does require a kind of recognition that higher education in the United States is not in good shape. We see this from this dysfunctional campus environments. And because it’s not in good shape, consequently we should not just be imitating what other, elite, universities are doing.  We should be returning to our sources and asking ourselves, “What is it that the Catholic tradition proposes as a vision of the Truth?”

FR: In conclusion, what piece of advice would you give undergraduates about how to take their four years of undergraduate education?

RRR: Don’t worry about what comes next. Bill Deresiewicz, who wrote a book called Excellent Sheep about today’s college students, said that there are two religions that dominate higher education today. One is a religion of political correctness, and the other is a religion of success. Both of those religions actually feed on each other, because political correctness is a way of baptizing a person to success. So I would say that success is a far more powerful god than political correctness. So beware of that idol. Study the things you love.  One of the great poverties of our age is that it really is a loveless age. People don’t feel that they even have permission to take the risks of love. If you love physics, study physics. If you love theology, study theology. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do for a living right now.  In the United States, we have society set up for people to do well. We don’t have a society set up for people to cultivate the life of the mind. Cultivate it now, and it will carry you through many of life’s difficulties and setbacks, which are inevitable even if you are successful.