In this latest installment of Public Discourse‘s interview series, Managing Editor Elayne Allen interviews Thomas Hibbs, the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy and Dean Emeritus at Baylor University. They discuss Hibbs’s career in higher education—teaching, administration, programming, researching—and his views on trends and challenges that face the university today.
Elayne Allen: Thanks so much for interviewing with Public Discourse! You’ve had quite a winding academic and intellectual career. It has spanned administration (as Baylor University’s dean of the Honors College, then the University of Dallas’s president), academic programming (Baylor in Washington), teaching, academic publications, and popular writing. Now, you’re back to teaching as Baylor’s Rayzor Professor of Philosophy.
A lot of our readers occupy roles that combine both administrative and intellectual responsibilities, whether in academia, think tanks, policy institutes—or homeschooling! First, can you tell me what first sparked your interest in pursuing an academic career? And can you talk about your years in administration: did you find that your management responsibilities conflicted with your ability to think and write deeply, and pursue inquiry? Or does running an honors college or university invite its own kind of intellectual challenges—challenges that afford insights unavailable in a purely professorial role?
Thomas Hibbs: Thanks, Elayne. I’m gratified that your Baylor Honors College education has led you to such heights of fame and fortune at Public Discourse. Seriously, it is great to see you in this position.
The discovery of an academic calling was not at all something I could have anticipated before college. In high school, it wasn’t even clear to me that I would go to college. I am a cradle Catholic, born in D.C. and raised in the Maryland suburbs, where I attended DeMatha, an all-boys Catholic high school. I wasn’t serious about school or faith, or anything really. I was blessed with some great teachers, two of whom were also very successful football and basketball coaches. I did end up attending the University of Maryland, a very large and at that time pretty stridently secular school. I had three atheists as teachers in my first two years. They were exactly what I needed. They woke me up and made me question what I believed and why. Although I started out as a business major, I quickly gravitated to philosophy and literature, almost as much for the small class size, where conversation was encouraged, as for the subject matter. I remember thinking at one point, “Wouldn’t it be great if someone would pay me to read, and teach, and write!”
The chief administrative challenges—and they are quite interesting—have to do with institution building. I think that Yuval Levin’s book, A Time To Build, has it exactly right. Now is the time for Americans to invest in the building of local institutions, to restore their formative character and to resist the temptation to turn them into opportunities for performative advancement of ideology, of whatever political stripe. The continuity between administration and teaching for me has always had to do with the question of the moral, intellectual, and spiritual development of young people. Finding creative ways—whether in collaborative ventures between residential and academic life or in novel curricular experiments—to meet students where they are and draw them into the most important questions is a source of endless fascination for me. Years ago, I began teaching a course on nihilism in philosophy and film because I was trying to find a way to get my students to reflect on the nihilism lurking just beneath the surface of some of their most common assumptions. I’m currently fascinated by student interest in issues of justice. I recently filmed a mini-course for Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire on the topic of justice. I am following that with a book, also under contract with Word on Fire, that seeks to bring classical insights about justice to bear on contemporary questions.
It’s always a good time to be a teacher but I can’t recall a moment in my lifetime when the calling of the teacher was more significant than it is at this very moment.
EA: You’ve spent most (if not all) of your career at a wide variety of faith-based universities. It seems that the more a university seeks prestige, acclaim, and accolades, the harder it is to remain firmly grounded in the Christian faith’s startling teachings and demands. By contrast, other institutions that prioritize their religious identity with a strong theological core, prayer and worship requirements, and faithful student bodies don’t seem to win national acclaim or climb rankings.
Why does there seem to be an inverse correlation between faith commitment and elite status? Is there an inherent tension between institutional achievement and maintaining the rigors of faith? Can colleges have it both ways, and if so, how?
TH: We all know that the history of higher education in America, particularly among elite institutions, has been one of secularization. Intentional cultivation of the religious identity is necessary to counter these seemingly natural tendencies. Yet, it’s also striking to me that, no matter the school, social media posts on rankings get a huge number of hits. Schools need to decide internally which metrics matter to them and how those metrics reflect and are integrated into the academic and religious mission of the institution.
Even for institutions that do not seek prestige, all sorts of external demands come from the dependence on government funding. The exponential growth in central administration in universities has a good deal to do with the need to keep up with compliance in a variety of areas. I have thought for years that schools are increasingly finding themselves in a bad marriage with the government from which they cannot afford the divorce.
Universities are also seeing a huge growth in mental health services—and faith-based institutions are no exception here. As I mentioned above, I am fascinated by questions, studies, and innovative programming having to do with character and intellectual development of young people. The question of resilience is paramount. Some of the most promising programs involve collaboration between student, spiritual, and academic life. The right kinds of friendship are fostered in certain kinds of communities. The physical configuration of a campus can assist or hinder here. The ideal situation is one in which chapels, classrooms, faculty offices, and student living and dining are physically integrated.
Even where such high-level integration is not possible, creative projects are possible. Some of these are in entirely secular schools. As a long-time advocate for faith-based schools, I am both humbled and inspired by the remarkable success of the vibrant Catholic student center at Texas A&M, which produces an astonishing number of Catholic vocations.
EA: There’s been a lot of recent buzz in higher education discourse about the University of Austin—a new university that is “fully committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse” and “the fearless pursuit of truth.” Its Board of Advisors includes a wide range of thinkers: Sohrab Amari, Caitlin Flanagan, Andrew Sullivan, Deirdre McCloskey, for example. Having taught in great books and liberal arts settings, what do you make of an institution essentially founded on unfettered pursuit of truth? Is it really possible for a university to entirely dispense with priors outside of open inquiry, free conscience, and civility?
TH: The initial interest says a good deal about the general loss of faith in universities as institutions fostering serious debate about serious matters. Whether this venture can succeed remains to be seen. I will be watching closely. America has historically been a place where innovative educational models have flourished, sometimes against all odds. Indeed, one of the great features of American education has been its institutional diversity—from community colleges to large state universities, from liberal arts colleges to research universities, and from Jewish to Catholic to colleges founded by a wide array of religious denominations. As the founders of UATX have noted, in recent decades America has seen a contraction in the number of new colleges and universities.
The big names have also helped the school garner a great deal of media attention, but what is unclear to me is the extent to which they will be actively involved in the running of the institution, the teaching of classes, or the day-to-day mentoring of students. Moreover, sometimes folks accustomed to resisting conventional practices are not as successful at the tedious work of institution building, especially when that requires consensus with other quite independent spirits. Disagreement is essential to rational discourse in the classroom, but in administration it needs to be conjoined with an equally strong commitment to the common good of the institution.
An interesting point of comparison with UATX is Zaytuna, a recently founded Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, CA. It offers both an immersive education in the Islamic heritage, including Arabic, and in Western learning, including contemporary questions and traditions other than Islam. It thus seeks to train its students to engage rival positions in a civil and rational way. It may be the case that, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues, the only way to carry on sustained debate is from within and between rival traditions, assuming, that is, that members of a particular tradition are genuinely interested in engaging perspectives quite different from their own.
EA: You do a decent amount of popular writing and media. Some prominent themes of your writing are movies and pop culture—and great texts. For example, you seamlessly place Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in conversation with the classic detective TV series Columbo, using both to more deeply consider the nature of crime and how our popular notions of it might be lacking.
Do you think it’s important for liberally educated thinkers to occasionally leave the ivory tower and engage with more general audiences? Does Hollywood today offer viable entry points for discussion of philosophical questions? Or is contemporary popular culture, because of its superficiality and seemingly iron political commitments, sealed off from deeper inquiry?
TH: Speaking to a wider audience for me began as an experiment in trying to get my students to make connections between academic matters and the interests they have outside of class. The book on film and nihilism, mentioned before, became the basis of a class. The book led to opportunities to review films for NRO and to write for magazines and newspapers.
I enjoy moving back and forth between scholarly and more popular writing. The former takes patience and extended diligence. It is targeted to a fairly small community, one that helps shape the next generation of teachers. Popular writing requires a different kind of discipline. Limiting oneself to 700 words and working hard to translate insights from great authors into a contemporary idiom without dumbing down important issues presents its own challenges. It’s also nice know that there is a wider audience of readers hungry for more than what they get from media today.
EA: I saw that you have a book on Catholic aesthetics with University of Notre Dame Press under contract. Can you tell me more about what your book will focus on? What else are you looking forward to working on in your years ahead as a professor?
TH: In addition to the book on aesthetics which is an attempt to apply the writings on art of Jacques Maritain to a set of twentieth-century painters and poets, I have the book on justice as solidarity that is aimed at young adults. I am also writing a series of essays on the Islamic and Jewish philosophical influences on the Summa Contra Gentiles, a text of Aquinas on which I wrote my first book years ago.
I am certain that my interest in writing in many genres and cultivating a wide set of interests goes back to my most influential teachers, the high school teachers I mentioned above who were also great coaches, and especially the great Ralph McInerny, with whom I had the privilege of studying at Notre Dame and who did more things well and with greater warmth and wit than just about any human being I’ve ever known.