I’ll come to my friend’s correspondence in a moment. First, a disclaimer. I have had some dealings with Providence College myself. My wife taught there for a few years in the late 1990s. I also spoke there once. My subject was the folly of multiculturalism, something I have written about frequently. Imagine my surprise when one of my wife’s colleagues took to the student newspaper in the days following my talk to say (I paraphrase from memory) that, listening to me, one could see the smoke rising from the chimneys at Auschwitz, i.e., he accused me of being a Nazi. I do not remember the details of my talk. Since it was about multiculturalism, I am sure I noted the fact that some cultures are better than others and I might well have quoted (with enthusiastic approval if I did) William Henry’s observation, in his book In Defense of Elitism, that “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.” I am very fond of Henry’s native proboscis image, not least because, like Saul Bellow’s question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”, it is so reliably productive of rage among pampered left-wing academics.
One of the things that amused me about Providence College was the spectacle of preening self-importance among the faculty set against its numbing intellectual mediocrity. There were a few exceptions—a tiny handful, now mostly retired—but most of them came, did the absolute minimum to acquire tenure, and slipped back into a state of querulous intellectual semi-somnambulism. At least one faculty member listed her letter-to-the-editor of the local newspaper under “Publications” on her CV. Perusing the catalogue back then, I realized that I had published more than the entire English faculty. Not, of course, that publishing is everything, or even of the first importance for those dedicated to imparting the riches of our cultural legacy to their eager charges.
Which brings me back to my friend’s correspondence. I said the correspondence was with “Providence College.” That is a metonymical way of saying that he wrote to the president, Father Brian Shanley, who deputed the task of replying to Dr. Vance Morgan (they love the title “Dr.” at Providence College), a professor of philosophy and head of the DWC program. One of the selling points for Providence College was supposed to be its 2-year “Development of Western Civilization” program, which was advertised as introducing students to the riches of our tradition from Homer and the Bible down to modern times. The program had both an honors and demotic version, but both, according to my wife, who team-taught in both, were sadly superficial: Aeschylus, this Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30-10:30, next week, Augustine and the Middle Ages: that sort of thing. But at least they meant well.
Until recently. What prompted my friend’s letter was an essay in the Providence College magazine called “‘Tackling’ Western Civilization, and Creating Global Citizens in the Process” by Dr. Jennifer G. Illuzzi, an assistant professor of history at PC. The college must have been proud of the essay, for not only did they publish it in an official campus publication, they also put it on the cover. So what does Dr. Illuzzi, who teaches in the newly refurbished DWC program, advocate? Her title gives a good hint: she wants to “tackle,” i.e., “seize and knock to the ground” the civilization she has been entrusted to impart, and in doing so to create that oxymoronic creature a “global citizen.” (A “citizen,” as the word implies, is someone with special allegiance to a particular civitas, not a rootless cosmopolite.)
In the old days, DWC might have skipped lightly over its subjects, content to know that students had at least heard of Descartes and the Thirty Years War. The new program apparently dispenses with all that “from Plato-to-NATO” stuff. Dr. Illuzzi and her colleagues are focusing instead on “two brand new colloquia: one focuses on Workplace Culture and Womanhood, and the other on Race, Marginality, and Theologies of Liberation.”
Really, you can’t make it up.