Last year, I began a doctoral program in English literature at Notre Dame. This was my first experience as part of a religious academic institution, and, as a Catholic, I was very much looking forward to an environment that encourages faith in the classroom. I quickly noticed that a crucifix hangs in every classroom—indeed, every room in every university building. This reminded me of my childhood growing up in Italy in the 2000s, where the presence of crucifixes in classrooms was expected, albeit already contested. At Notre Dame, most crucifixes hang behind the instructor’s seat, towering above him or her; a few, for unknown reasons, rest somewhat sadly on tables, having lost their visible position of honor on the wall.
Regardless of where they were, the crucifixes provoked division in Notre Dame classrooms and lecture halls. For the Christians in my department, the crucifix was a reminder that Christ is present in our work, that we toiled for his glory and not for ours, and that he guided us daily in the classroom. For some, however, the crucifix meant something altogether different: it was a symbol of oppression, a reminder of the unfortunate reality that they decided to attend a Catholic institution. For others, it was a symbol of the ethos of Notre Dame, an encouragement to be nice, to seek some undefined “common good” in their research, but nothing more substantial than that, and certainly not a symbol of the truth of the Christian faith. Perhaps the most frustrating response was one of restrained mockery: an instructor or student would say something mildly profane, and then grotesquely gesture to the cross with a mock apology. Worse yet, once, a class discussion morphed into a distressing commentary on why the crucifix was funny, that Christ had a six-pack, that Catholics are cannibals, and so on.
More often, though, the general attitude was not one of mockery, but of apathy. Christ crucified was treated as neither folly nor a stumbling block; he was just ignored. But what difference would it make to academic work if we paid attention to the crucifix in a spirit of neither mockery nor anger, but as an invitation to deeper learning and reflection? The consequence would be twofold: support for a truth-seeking approach to research, and an openness to authentic debate in the classroom.
The former is easily explained. Research should not have as its motivation the self-aggrandizement of the individual scholar, but rather the search for truth for the benefit of humanity. A lofty goal, indeed, but one without which academic research becomes solipsistic and joyless. This, however, poses a grave problem for literary scholars today, when academia is so saturated with the ambition of original, innovative research, and—the bane of all academics—the demand for public engagement. Making original claims is not an unworthy goal in itself. However, originality too often becomes combative in practice, as it seeks to prove one of the following: either that previous research was significantly misguided and naive, or that it was severely insufficient and therefore demands exploring new territories.
Both claims are part of a current move in academia and public schooling alike that tugs at and ultimately tries to unravel our sense of canonicity. That is, it tugs at the idea that there are key texts and key thinkers that have shaped Western civilization, texts that are worth reading—whether we agree with their aims or not—because we cannot understand our history without them.
The best scholars I have encountered are those who value their integrity and search for truth over originality, and who will not engage in intellectual pyrotechnics for the sake of it. Tied to this is the increasing pressure to engage with the public, to make scholarship relevant and accessible to a wider audience in an attempt to ensure its very survival. This often means that the flashiest, most controversial or exaggerated claims make it into public-facing academia. In theory, public academia could do a lot of good; in practice, it too often becomes about the academic drawing attention to himself. In other words, it becomes all about profit and little about truth. What the cross in the classroom should signify is a contrast to this cultural moment: a willingness to suffer for the truth. It is easy for the scholar to twist arguments to impress or incite, but it is much harder to endure the pressure of seeking, comprehending, and communicating truth—even, or perhaps most especially—when it is uncomfortable.
The latter characteristic, that is, the resistance to debate, is one that is less obvious. But the three different universities where I studied English did not encourage it as much as I had hoped. Disagreements lead us to a better understanding of the subject matter. Examining an issue from another’s perspective casts our own views in a new light, revealing unexamined assumptions or unfounded assertions, and hopefully sharpening our own thinking. There is a reason why the turning of our minds to truth, the painful process of periagoge that Plato discusses in book VII of the Republic, can sound so similar to conversion. Both demand that we humbly accept the discomfort of breaking and remaking our entrenched beliefs. Christ did, after all, come to bring a sword, not peace. When he called his disciples to leave their families and follow him, he was asking them to bear witness to the faith by effectively saying to those closest to them, “You are wrong, and I cannot continue to live pretending to adhere to a worldview that I think a lie.” The disciples were called to witness to their convictions with courage, even to the point of death, because the highest good is not the avoidance of nuisance, discomfort, or even suffering. Instead, the crucifix continues to teach us that the search for truth is the highest good, however much discomfort that search may involve. Whether in the university classroom, or in our local community, we have a moral imperative to answer the call to suffering in our conversion to living in the truth.
Even more importantly, correcting others through civil debate should be, at its core, an act of love—even when it is corrective. I confess I find it rather difficult to think of the good of my peers when contradicting them, especially if they have just made a sly remark about my faith. Nonetheless, I should think of it as an act of love rather than a vindication of my own beliefs. Indeed, any satisfaction I derive from pointing out their errors should come from a place of love. Loving your neighbor means wishing your neighbor to no longer be in error; just as Christ opened his disciples’ hearts to God’s truth by challenging their assumptions and pre-existing beliefs, so should we, as scholars, imitate Christ in correcting each other. If we love someone, we must be willing to correct his errors. We should fiercely debate, that debate may refine our intellects and help us fiercely seek truth.
But if we do not pay attention to the cross, what do we find instead? Very intelligent people who, though comfortably confrontational on paper, simply reinforce each other’s opinions and avoid diverging from accepted discourse for fear of judgment. Though I know of instructors who encourage rigorous debate in all their classes, they are few. An engagement with more combative modes of discussion would benefit all students, but reviving the tradition of authentic debate would mean we can no longer simply ignore the crosses in our classrooms as though they are cellophane.
It has now been a year since I started this article. I wrote the first iteration during my inaugural semester as a doctoral student. By the time this final version reaches you, the reader, I will have officially withdrawn from my doctoral program. This was a much-agonized decision, but one that I do not regret. Notre Dame was not a good environment for me or my growing family. As well as the issues I have mentioned, like the absence of rigorous debate in the classroom, there was real confusion about what it means for a university to be authentically Catholic in its support of parents, especially mothers. Graduate school is demanding as it is; but for parents, and especially for mothers, who often bear the additional responsibility of nursing their infants, it is particularly so. Properly supporting mothers who are struggling to earn their degrees should be a priority, as it would indicate that the university values suffering in an effort to uphold the truths of our faith.
Now, I must make it clear: there were some good people in my department. Despite the fact that I was the only mother among the doctoral students in my department, my director of graduate studies and my advisor both did their best to help me during my pregnancy, and would have been prepared to support me in my maternity leave after having my baby. But others were not so fortunate. By contrast, I was aware of another department, where female graduate students having children is more common than in English, that made very few accommodations for them. I know of several who have had to take on a full load of classes with a newborn during their “maternity leave,” unable to find out from the graduate school what exactly the maternity accommodation entitled them to. It is puzzling to me that this should happen, when Notre Dame’s own Church Life Journal has published two thought-provoking articles in the last year about what we can do to help young scholars, especially women, who decide to have children (see Does Higher Ed Throw Women Under the Bus? and The Intellectual Life of Doctoral Student Mothers). This kind of confusion of values is not likely to be fixed until Notre Dame’s administration decides what it means for a university to be Catholic. The sacrifices involved with being a student mother will not seem worthwhile until Notre Dame values truth over consensus, debate over comfort.
I may have stepped away from academia, but I still love learning. In fact, I have stepped away from it precisely so that I can have a more fulfilling intellectual life, albeit not as part of an institution. However, not everyone’s path is like mine. Some will choose to complete their doctoral programs, no matter how dire the situation has become in most humanities departments. Some are still doing undergraduate work and, while they may not be interested in graduate school, they still want to see their degree through. Some have already embarked on academic careers and feel they have invested too much to leave now. If you fall into one of these categories, I implore you: make use of classroom discussions and disagreements to practice the virtues of charity and humility.
If you believe that Christ died on the cross for your salvation, work hard to grow in courage: the courage to endure a moment of discomfort, to disturb the peace in order to assert the truth. Do not fall into the trap of thinking agreeableness is the supreme virtue. Do not allow the crucifix in the classroom to become a cellophane cross.
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