The outrage is almost even: shock, on the one hand, that a university can house enough cruelty and malignity to smear lavatory walls with swastikas; alarm, on the other, at how it took a strike by members of the University of Missouri football team to provoke the institution’s leadership into serious measures against such racist nastiness.
The discovery that undergraduate football players had enough power to force Missouri system president Tim Wolfe to resign last month over his alleged failure to take concerns about racism seriously is unsettling. The scandal has exposed two problems: first, education does not necessarily make people rational or moral; second, in some US universities sport makes so much money and generates so much publicity that the priorities of the pitch can cause a putsch.
When the news breaks, my graduate students at the University of Notre Dame want to drop discussion of global historiography and talk about what they call “issues”: restoring humane, civilised and academic values where they have lapsed and safeguarding them where they still flourish.
“Notre Dame can lead by example,” says Ted, an ebullient and idealistic Midwesterner who likes responsibility, “because everyone here invests a lot of emotion in the tradition, prospects and revenues of our football team. And we have a great reputation for the humanities in our core curriculum and ethics in professional training.”
I ask the class whether the curriculum is the key to making students good. The question resonates because current debate on curricular reform at Notre Dame queries the role of compulsory courses in philosophy and theology, among other subjects.
“Sure. You bet.” The fast, feisty, twangy New York City voice belongs to Concha, who is outspoken about everything. “You can’t study philosophy or history without confronting the problems of how to make life better.”
Elijah, who is thoughtful, quiet and black, points out that a lot of distinguished philosophers and historians were Nazis. He gives me a hard stare. “It’s great, sure,” he adds, “that we have a lot of ethics courses for students in law, business and pre-med; but when I was a business major I kind of ignored that stuff. Whatever I know about morals I learned from experience or fiction or the movies or home or church, not from the classroom.”
Tom speaks up. He’s edging towards a vocation for the priesthood. “It’s got more to do with the atmosphere in class than with the courses,” he suggests. “I don’t think we’d ever have the kind of dumb cruelty that we’ve just seen in Missouri, because here we’re surrounded by pastoral care, by shared dorm life, by the family feel of the place, by a strong sense of belonging to each other. Big, secular, state universities can’t create that atmosphere, because there are a lot of people who don’t have a chance to get to be part of the place. If you’ve never lived in a dorm, or you commute a long way to school, or if you’re in an introspective community, like a fraternity house, it’s hard to get connected. Here we eat together, pray together, talk together out of class. Undergrads have small classes where they can get to know each other across the gaps between races and classes.”
“But that doesn’t seem to stop us from having these distressing cases where girls complain about sexual aggressiveness or insensitivity.” Sophie comes from an all-female college and can be relied on to champion her sex. “Are you so sure,” she adds, “that we couldn’t experience a race-hate incident?”
No one has a glib or easy answer, but we all swap reassuring anecdotes of campus kindness and camaraderie. Ted voices the consensus: “If bad stuff did happen here, I guess we wouldn’t leave it to the football team to sort it out. We’d rely on the university to take it seriously and handle it fearlessly.”
But Ben, the only student in the class who isn’t a Catholic, wants to know whether that’s because our top brass can be trusted to calculate the advantage of the university, or whether the spirituality of the place really guides policy. The question causes some uneasiness among the students, because the university has just suspended its longstanding policy – rooted in the Catholic social tradition – of using only unionised contractors; we can now place orders for sports gear with competitive Chinese manufacturers. Of course, to go on insisting on unionisation on moral grounds is to fight a losing battle in today’s world. As the Notre Dame administrators point out, no university followed our initiative, so the amount of real good it achieved was small and the money we save can go to good causes.
Still, I take the opportunity to ask the students: “So do sport and money rule here, as in Missouri, only less so?” They realise I am being provocative and resist the temptation to respond. But Tom sums up: “We can’t devise a formula that guarantees goodness. But we have to keep focused on the effort. Universities that just teach content without context will end up with Missouri’s problems. A university has to enlighten as well as instruct, and work on students’ highest aspirations, not just the institution’s bottom line.”
“Heal, enlighten, unify” is the formula that John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, urges on us: I can think of worse ingredients for a core curriculum.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.