A Lesson for Aspiring Academics: On Alice von Hildebrand’s Happy Failure

 
 

In her memoirs of teaching at Hunter College for nearly forty years, Alice von Hildebrand shows aspiring academics the importance of perseverance, courage, and love in the face of hostility toward one’s moral and religious views.

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Fall is in full swing, which means that most graduate students are beginning to feel trepidation and excitement about the end of the term. But another concern tempts the socially conservative or religiously orthodox among them: in coming years, will there be any place for them in their chosen profession?

We live in a time when aspiring academics are often seen by their peers as benighted—or even willfully unjust—for espousing orthodox Christian faith or conservative morals. For those inclined to worry about their professional future, Alice von Hildebrand’s account of teaching for nearly forty years at Hunter College offers inspiration. Her Memoirs of a Happy Failure are a study in the virtues now required of these academics: perseverance, courage, and love in the face of hostility toward one’s moral and religious views.

The book is not exactly bedside reading. Hildebrand tells one sobering tale after another of life as a Catholic, female academic in a philosophy department riddled with moral relativism and blatant sexism. She ended up at a secular college, for example, because many Catholic ones refused to hire a woman philosopher. But at Hunter, things were no better: male colleagues made lewd jokes at her expense, or condescendingly called her “the nice French lady” to students.

Yet Hildebrand suspects that her Catholicism provoked this treatment more than her gender. Again and again, her colleagues—self-professed relativists, communists, and atheists—charged her with trying to “spread Catholicism” in the classroom, to poison philosophy with religion. When, in 1954, the department canceled her tenure-track appointment and changed it to a simple one-year appointment (though she had already taught at Hunter for six years), the chair told Hildebrand that her colleagues hoped she would leave the school altogether. “I shall be very honest with you,” he told her. “Your colleagues do not want you.” The reason? They (and he) thought she would be “‘more effective and happier in a Catholic institution’” because “‘her teaching [was] strongly marked by her Catholic background.’”

But as the book shows, there is only one real charge that Hildebrand’s colleagues could raise against her: that she defended the objectivity of truth. And in that effort, she tells us, she always began with the greatest thinkers who did not know Christ: Plato and Aristotle.

This stance nearly cost Hildebrand her job. Repeatedly, the department gave open tenure-track positions to less-qualified applicants who were more sympathetic to the department’s prevailing orthodoxies. When the department finally, grudgingly, gave her an open position, the road forward was paved with special obstacles. A letter of recommendation from a famous philosopher mysteriously disappeared from her file. Much more striking, seventeen people—two deans and the chairs of all fifteen departments at Hunter—showed up at her final interview. They interrogated her on the nature of truth and the usual charge of spreading her religion. She won tenure by only one vote, cast out of sympathy for her struggle to stay at the college. She later found out that her experience had been exceptional: no other tenure candidate faced the same gauntlet.

It is clear that Hildebrand’s beliefs cost her other comforts at Hunter. For years, she received the lowest possible salary for instructors. To earn enough money to live, she had to teach heavy course loads almost every semester. The department regularly assigned her to evening session courses. This meant she returned home from teaching (rather than working in a private office, another privilege denied her for many years) late almost every night.

Still, bright moments shine in Hildebrand’s narrative. Her classes, even on less popular topics, were always full. Her challenge to moral relativism in the classroom inspired many students to convert to Catholicism or to return to the Church. Even when she was exhausted from mononucleosis—a chronic illness she has endured throughout her life—and from her myriad duties of teaching, advising, and writing, she helped students grapple with personal struggles: mental illness, a troubled home life, and more. She gave hope and encouragement to students with nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

Hildebrand also found strength and happiness in her marriage to Dietrich, the renowned Catholic philosopher. For years before they married, she helped him translate his work and shared his ideas with her students. Despite a large age gap, she recalls, they seemed made for each other: “There was such a perfect understanding between us religiously, spiritually, philosophically, and artistically. We shared the very same outlook, the same ideals, and the same way of life. He had, in a very real way, made me who I had become.”

Hildebrand’s uphill battle at Hunter invites readers to wonder why she didn’t leave. Though she doesn’t answer that question directly, she would probably say she couldn’t have left—and not just because finding another job, especially as a woman philosopher, would’ve been hard. The book is permeated with a sense of divinely given purpose: God gave her great gifts, great responsibility, and hard crosses, and she has tried to say yes to all of them.

At least two features of her story will resonate with young academics who share Hildebrand’s religious orthodoxy and social conservatism. Like Hildebrand—indeed, like serious and dedicated teachers since Socrates—they face the ancient charge of spreading dangerous ideas and corrupting the youth. They won’t all be accused of religious proselytizing, but they might hear something worse: that only bigotry—sheer animus and irrationality—could possibly motivate their moral and political views.

Second, following Hildebrand, these rising scholars will also have to debate the nature of truth, especially the truth about the human person. But the grounds of that debate, in some academic circles and in the broader culture, seem to have shifted since Hildebrand’s time at Hunter. On questions of human nature and happiness, future academics will not need to dispute the objectivity of truth but its scope. Against a narrower vision of moral truth that prizes autonomy, freedom, and equality as the most basic goods of human life, and orders politics to maximizing them, these scholars will have to defend a more robust, capacious vision, which values these things not in themselves, but insofar as they help us realize more substantive goods like friendship, knowledge, religion, and even marriage. On this latter view, the truth about the human good entails norms for our relationships—whether with friends, family members, dates, or spouses—that autonomy, freedom, and equality alone can’t spell out.

These academics will disagree with their colleagues, then, not on whether any truth is objective. They will diverge from them instead on which truths govern morality and politics. And it is perhaps this current unity on the existence of some moral truths that makes disagreement on their content so divisive, so heated. Proponents of the narrower view believe that they hold the moral high ground: views that dissent from theirs aren’t just intellectual errors, but grave injustices.

Faced with this new censoriousness, religiously orthodox or socially conservative academics will doubtless feel pressure to compromise. Hildebrand writes of more than one colleague who kept quiet about his religious beliefs for fear of getting her treatment. But by stark contrast, her persistent, public defense of truth’s objectivity, and her reasoned response to name-calling, models integrity and goodwill for her successors. How good it would be if, years from now, they could echo her concluding words:

While I am convinced that I could have done lots of things better and that I made plenty of mistakes in my classroom, “my approach to teaching” has been an uncompromising devotion to truth, a passionate desire to share with others what I myself have received, and an absolute refusal to compromise for the sake of worldly advantages. I could not join the bandwagon of those who reflect the “spirit of the times” or “what the age demands.”

 

It is true that this systematic refusal “to play the game” . . . explains the fact that I was a professional failure. But if the “successful” professors only knew the joy I have experienced in the classroom, if they could only suspect how rich and fruitful my teaching has been, how many dear friends I have made, they would perhaps see that I have chosen the better part.

By all appearances, those who share Hildebrand’s worldview and vocation have an even harder battle ahead of them than she did. The charges against them are worse, the stakes are higher, and the prospects, at least for now, look dimmer. But Hildebrand—who experienced job insecurity, poverty, and social ostracism for the sake of her fidelity to the truth (and to the Person she believes is Truth itself)—remains a model. Her Memoirs point to what really matters in any vocation, especially in academia: not only moral integrity, but above all love and service to others, including and especially those who dislike or disagree with us.

Gabrielle Girgis is a third-year graduate student in political theory at Princeton University.

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