Putting the 'PC' in Providence College

The other day, I wrote about Harry Stein’s new comic novel Will Tripp: Pissed Off Attorney at Law. It’s an hilarious send-up of the rancid PC establishment that rules the roost at most American colleges and universities. It is, like David Lodge’s Small World or Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, intended as a species of satire. But as I noted in an update to that piece, the absurdist realities of contemporary academia make it very difficult to distinguish reliably between satire and the reality being satirized. Give it a try: Which of the following biographical sketches is satire, which is business as usual?

1. Feminist the First is an “American writer, academic and social activist. Influential in the self-esteem movement in the 1980s. Grabler has penned a number of best sellers, including I Am My Own Father, Mother and Best Friend, Narcissism is Not a Four-Letter Word, and The Romance of Self Adoration. . . . In her recent academic work, she has helped popularize the once widely derided idea that all living things, including single-cell organisms and crops, experience violence as pain. Author of Pain and Anguish, considered the definitive text on the subject, she holds the Phillip J. Donohue Chair for Advanced Oppression Studies at Chester College.”

2. Feminist the Second is being honored for “her many years of dedication to furthering the causes of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) communities. Since 1965, when she picketed the White House for Gay rights, and published an article in Sexology Magazine, [her] writings have inspired and fueled second wave feminism, women’s spirituality movements and lesbian activism. . . . Selected works include but are not limited to: A Simple Revolution, Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, Another Mother Tongue, Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, and Love Belongs to Those Who Do the Feeling.”

Stumped? Really, you should read Harry’s novel to find out, but I won’t keep you in suspense. The author of The Romance of Self-Adoration is true-to-life but fictional while the “spiritualist” who wrote Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World is the real, so-to-speak, McCoy: Professor Judy Grahn, Ph.D. in “Integral Studies, California Institute of Integral Studies,” and “Executive Core Faculty Member” at Sofia University in (but of course) California. (It gets better: Professor Grahn’s dissertation, I learned from the web site, is called Are Goddesses Metaformic Constructs? An Application Of Metaformic Theory To Menarche Celebrations And Goddess Rituals Of Kerala And Contiguous States In South India.)

I revisit this doleful subject by way of prelude to another installment in one of the longest running frauds on the American spirit and pocketbook ever devised, the institution of liberal arts education in its contemproary deformation. As regular readers know, this is a subject I have written about frequently, in these columns, in The New Criterion, and in my books Tenured Radicals and The Rape of the Masters. Like Macbeth, I have “supped full with horrors.”

There are always new and more outlandish Judy Grahns, of course, and they are reliable sources of pitiable comedy. But in a way what’s more alarming than the lunatic fringes of academia are the supposedly sunlit uplands, those institutions, second- and third-tier as well as the Ivies and their Williams-Middlebury-Wesleyan sort of competition, that we’ve entrusted with passing the baton of civilization to the next generation.

I thought about this yesterday when a friend sent me some correspondence he’d had with Providence College, a second-tier liberal arts college in Providence, Rhode Island, that is run by the Dominicans, the order of St. Thomas Aquinas.  My friend’s daughter had recently graduated from PC. She profited from her time there and even found her vocation as a Dominican nun there.

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.

And what do students get of Western civilization for their $44,193.00 per annum?  They get Dr. Illuzzi and her colleagues “tackling,” i.e., disparaging, Western civilization.  “We are trying,” Dr. Illuzzi writes:

[T]o unearth some of the more problematic foundations of Western Civilization (particularly the pieces rooted in sexism and racism [but of course!]) and to understand how those pieces can be removed, and institutions rebuilt or reshaped on firmer foundations that take into account a wider variety of human diversity and difference.

In discussing the issue of women and work in the United States, we’ve traced the roots of Western gender assumptions back to the 12th and 13th centuries and analyzed how these historical notions WILL [?] affect each and every one of our students when they hit the workplace in two short years.

Dr. Illuzzi goes on in this vein for a few more paragraphs, cheerfully boasting that “We are doing something rare here.” In fact, this travesty of a Western civilization program is echoed in programs throughout the country. Really, it is an anti-Western civilization program. Instead of attempting to teach students about the moral, political, literary, and philosophical foundations of our civilization, it is part of a concerted effort to undermine their confidence in that tradition.

Responding to my friend’s letter to President Shanley, Dr. Morgan leapt to Dr. Illuzzi’s defense: “she is widely recognized [?] as an expert in her field of research scholarship,” he insisted, noting also that:

Providence College is fortunate to include her as part of its teaching faculty. When "All Things Considered" on NPR needed an scholar last fall to comment on current cases of children being taken by authorities from Roma (gypsy) families in Greece and Ireland, they interviewed Dr. Illuzzi. In addition to her excellent scholarship, Jennifer is an inspiring teacher who is loved by her students and a tireless worker behind the scenes on committees and as a valued member of my DWC Advisory Group.

Doubtless she is kind to her pets, too. As for being “widely recognized,” Assistant Professor Jennifer Illuzzi is, as far as I can determine, the author of one brief book, Gypsies in Germany and Italy, 1861-1914: Lives Outside the Law. According to Amazon, it was published just last month and ranks number 3,244,782. What is the book about? Here is part of the publisher’s description: “Illuzzi offers a new framework for addressing the pressing contemporary question of Roma discrimination, rooting it not in the exception of fascism, but liberal notions of equality before the law.” Left-wing academics just hate the idea of equality before the law, because it makes the substantive equality they crave so much more difficult to achieve.

Dr. Morgan objected that he had “seldom read such an uncharitable ad hominem attack” as my friend’s letter. I regret his narrow acquaintance with polemical literature, but must point out that there was nothing ad hominem about my friend’s letter to the president.  Rather, he criticized Dr. Illuzzi's ideas and her “sophomoric prose.” Res ipsa loquitur:

We hope [Dr. Illuzzi wrote] to help our students understand the structures of racism and sexism as they experience and see them each day, both here at PC and in the wider world they are about to enter. Race, like gender, is still a relevant category for every one of our students, and it is important to explore with them knowledge of their own rootedness in structures of racism and sexism, and to know that they can choose to challenge and realign those structures.

What do you think? I’d say “sophomoric” was generous.

My friend touches on the larger point in his response to Dr. Morgan:

[I]nstead of educating undergraduate students who arrive in college with little (if any) knowledge of the foundations of Western Civilization, the courses will not waste any time in teaching them but will jump straight into “unearthing" its “problematic foundations.”  Even before students are able to acquire a modicum of familiarity with the works that provided those foundations, they are prompted to criticize them. And it is a very specific kind of criticism that is imposed on those classics and on those unknowing students: the contemporary ideologies of feminism and racism. Instead of enabling students to understand, for instance, how Cathedral schools from the 9th through the 11th century paved the way for the great philosophical achievements of Scholasticism in the 13th century, or the great culture that gave us Gothic Cathedrals, the Summas, medieval polyphony and the great literature of the 13th and 14th centuries, they will be summoned to identify, in those works, what comfortable 21st century academics of a certain inclination have placed on top of their agenda, namely sex and race. Instead of letting the works speak for themselves so that the students can learn from them, those works will be submitted to the ideological cookie-cutter of racism and sexism, stripping them of their essence as classics and leaving only the ugly, imaginary charge with which they were condemned before being read.

In a very puerile if telling metaphor, Ms. Illuzzi declares that the explicit goal of the courses is to “remove those pieces,” as if Western Civilization were a big jig-saw puzzle with faulty parts. And then she wants to “rebuild and reshape” the foundations of Western Civilization. We certainly cannot accuse her of having small goals. But rebuilding and reshaping are activities pursued in the realm of political action, not college education, at least not in a college that intends to remain Catholic and Dominican.

What is significant about this episode is not Providence College or Dr. Illuzzi. They are merely symptoms, instances of an epidemic affecting American higher education tout court.  The disease has many facets. Morally and politically, it involves a stunning loss of confidence in the achievements of the West. We send our children to a liberal arts college for a few reasons, one of which is the grubby practical matter of getting a credential: you give us $250,000, we give you a piece of paper that is (for most) a sine qua non for tenure in the middle class. At least, it has been a conditio sine qua non for the keys to that economic and social promised land. Whether it will continue to afford such entry is very much up for grabs. That, indeed, is one reason Glenn Reynolds’s prediction of a “higher education bubble” is so pertinent.

We also value a liberal arts education, or at least we say we value it, because of the liberating promise implicit in the name: by leading us out of our private selves (that “leading out” is the true meaning of education), a liberal arts education frees us to confront the most thoughtful alternatives to the question “How should I live my life?”

Dr. Morgan was exercised that my friend should have written to criticize his colleague and the Western civilization program at Providence College. I think his missive was a public service. For it not only calls attention to the poverty of what passes as a program in Western civilization at many colleges today, it also prompts us to ask anew a question most parents are too timid to press: To whom is a college faculty accountable? To the extent that it holds itself accountable to its pedagogic duties, it is accountable to itself. To the extent that it repudiates those duties, it is accountable to the society in which it functions and from which it enjoys its freedoms, privileges, and perquisites. Faculties take it amiss when critics appeal over their heads to alumni, trustees, or parents. But ultimately teachers still stand in loco parentis, if not on everyday moral issues (except regarding racism, sexism, “homophobia,” and the like: they are plenty moralistic about all that) then at least with respect to the content of the education they provide. Many parents are alarmed, rightly so, at the spectacle of their children going off to college one year and coming back the next having jettisoned every moral, religious, social, and political scruple that they had been brought up to believe. Why should parents fund the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians? Why should alumni generously support an alma mater whose political and educational principles nourish a worldview that is not simply different from but diametrically opposed to the one they endorse? Why should trustees preside over an institution whose faculty systematically repudiates the pedagogical mission they, as trustees, have committed themselves to uphold? These are questions that should be asked early and asked often. I’m glad that my friend attempted to start such a conversation at Providence College, though given the president’s decision to out-source a response, I suspect it will fall on deaf ears.