The Catholic University of America

"Us and Them"
Address by Timothy Noone
At the Catholic University
Freshman Convocation
Sept. 10, 2002

1. President O'Connell, Academic Vice-Presidents, Academic Deans, Faculty, and above all, Students. It is my great pleasure and honor to address you today at this fall's Freshmen Convocation and I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to do so. To you students, I say 'welcome' and we are all pleased that you have chosen to come here to The Catholic University of America in order to pursue your university education, an education that I shall presently discuss.

2. Tomorrow an anniversary will be upon us, a sad and troubling anniversary. The events of Sept. 11th, 2001 affected our common and individual lives in ways that few events have; historically speaking, to find adequate points of comparison, we must look back to such decisive events as the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 or the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet the events of Sept. 11th were in some respects more significant than either of these. True, the Kennedy assassination induced a sense of helplessness and, for the first few hours after the event, panic and despair, while the bombing of Pearl Harbor launched the United States, at long last, into the on-going world conflict, thereby heralding its entry as a primary actor onto the stage of international politics. But in neither of these events, it seems to me, was the consciousness of the average American altered so profoundly and irreversibly in so brief a period of time. Within less than a week, as the principal planners and participants in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon bombings became known, Americans gradually realized what years of anti-American sentiment (some of it understandable) had come to mean: many people, not least of all young people, in the Middle East and elsewhere customarily thought of America and Americans as enemies and a force opposed to them and their ways of life. Out of this seed-bed of hatred and dislike of Americans came the cowardly agents and planners who lay behind the events of Sept. 11th,, 2001.

3. In many ways, we are challenged by such an event to take stock of ourselves and our institutions. We could, of course, simply hunker down and think of the present situation as 'us and them', a mentality evinced by many of those who so intensely dislike us. But to do so would be to fail the best of our institutions and, above all, that one we call a university.

4. What, after all, is a university? Well, to appreciate what a university is we need to understand what it is not and how its appearance at Bologna, Montpelier, Oxford, and Paris circa 1200 is one of the great developments in the history of education in the world. Educational institutions and the concern to make them as good as possible were well known in the ancient world; one has only to read, as most of you soon will, the dialogues of Plato to perceive how fundamentally concerned he was to reform and improve the educational system of his day. Much the same could be said not only of Isocrates and Aristotle among the Greeks, but also Cicero, Seneca, and Quintillian among the Latins. But the institutions of higher education that sit atop their educational systems, both real and ideal, are schools that teach a single subject; schools of philosophy in the case of Plato and Aristotle; schools of law and schools of philosophy in the case of Cicero and Quintillian, even though some acknowledgement of a circle of subjects is found in Isocrates who would have placed rhetoric at the top. This way of thinking informs and is reflective of ancient practices. In the third or fourth century A.D., for example, one passed through the school of the grammaticus and perhaps the rhetor, but then made one's way to Alexandria or Athens where philosophy was the principal subject, or to Rome where law was the object of pursuit.

5. The notion that one school teaching one subject should be at the top of the educational system is just the idea that came to be displaced in the Latin-speaking West with the ideal that would lead to the formation of universities. St. Augustine in his chief work on the subject of education the De doctrina christiana, an oft-neglected educational classic, sketches out an ideal that was not at all descriptive of the pagan school system still in vogue in his day. Though Augustine fervently hopes that there will be Christian schools established someday, he is living in a world where parents had to send their children to pagan schools at every level of instruction, while both parents and adults received their religious training from the local clergy.[1] In this context, Augustine's recommendations are notably broad-minded: he favors allowing young people to study most of the classical curriculum, exempting only astrology, divination, and certain of the fine arts (since these last were often used to portray in appealing ways the pagan deities).[2] The attitude towards all arts and sciences that Augustine encourages Christians to adopt is to welcome truth wherever it may be found (spoiling the Egyptians) - even the views of pagan philosophers if they be true - , but not to seek eternal blessedness in learning nor to believe that learning is the sole goal of human life. [3]

6. The ideal of placing all knowledge together and balancing the truth of one discipline against another so as to see their relative bearing in the broader scheme of things was reinforced by such later authors as Alcuin, Hugh of St. Victor, and, even after the founding of universities, St. Bonaventure. A university is predicated fundamentally on the idea that every subject worthy of systematic investigation is also one worthy of our intellectual attention so that we can grasp the truth that lies within it. We the students of a university - and yes, all of us here are still students, if we are wise - must come to see the truth of each subject as related to the truth of other subjects so as to have some vision of the world as a whole. The range of the subjects contained within a university education is remarkable: not only the liberal arts and theoretical sciences, but also engineering, architecture, music, law (canon and civil), nursing, business, and economics. Yet this panoramic vision of truth is only part of a hierarchic vision of truth, the insight that the subject of one science is ordered to the study of another or derives its principles from another; and that hierarchic vision is, in turn, only preparatory to relating all human knowledge to the contemplation of the highest truths revealed to us in the words of Scripture, themselves the signs of the divine things that are the highest realities.

7. The vision of truth at all of its levels is the inspiration behind the universities and the ultimate reason that one finds universities originally in the Christian culture of the Latin West but elsewhere only by exportation from the West. This vision of truth is what, too, guides us here at The Catholic University of America in forming and teaching our curriculum, the curriculum that you have all now begun to follow. You have begun to study language, English and perhaps a foreign language (Deo nobis favente, lingua Latina), mathematics, natural science, history, philosophy; and quite soon you will progress to such diverse subjects as structural design, educational psychology, macroeconomics, historiography, and musical composition. In passing through (or rather 'running through', to take the expression literally) this curriculum, you will doubtless experience many difficulties and perplexities, perhaps even doubts about whether your own abilities are sufficient to the task or ones about the value of what you are doing; that is all normal and natural. In the process, however, you will gradually begin to understand how complex the world is and how important a thing it is to understand that world to the extent possible. Nor, in the spirit of universality, should you neglect, as all too many students do, the numerous off-campus opportunities afforded us here in Washington: the museums, the libraries, and the concert halls all beckon us to appreciate the truth of artifacts and through them another dimension to the vision of the world around us.

8. What, then, does all of this have to do with the events we shall remember so sadly on the morrow? The university, especially I would say a Catholic university, allows us to understand the world through study and investigation and to open our minds to higher things. Even at the level of natural reason, and without any explicit appeal to creedal formulations and beliefs, the sum of knowledge taught at universities is a boon for humankind. Furthermore, at a methodological level, the university encourages us to study and to appreciate the cultures of other societies so as to see their contribution to humanity, to see the truth found in them. Certainly part of the process of studying cultures involves interaction with the members of those cultures, but interactions occur, too, and must occur for the sake of the advancement of knowledge in practically every area of study. In a word, cultural exchanges are part and parcel of our study, whether our subject is engineering, architecture, social science, language, physical science, fine arts, music, nursing, philosophy, or religion. What the universality and ideal of a university obliges us to do ultimately is to share the vision of the common intellectual good of truth with all those with whom we may come into contact. In a sense, we must carry the university with each of us wherever we may go if we are to realize its full benefit to ourselves and the world around us.

9. This, I would submit, is the task that lies before us here at the outset of the world of the 21st century, a dangerous and challenging time, a time when the pressure of the legitimate need for security might tempt us into looking at the world as 'us and them' in the manner of the Taliban. To educate ourselves as well as possible and to carry that education out into that world, including a conscious appreciation of the vision of truth underlying our university education, is not only to realize the ideal of the university here in America, but also to realize, to a great extent, the original ideal behind the founding of the universities, thereby bringing to fruition one of the unique contributions of our Western culture to world culture. The university and the educational vision it represents is one of the main, perhaps the main, bulwarks against the 'us and them' mentality both here and abroad, because the university reminds us that we are all part of the 'we' of human beings seeking truth and perfection of our common human nature. Only an emphasis on our common human nature and our obligation as human beings to bring that nature to its highest fulfillment can get us past the opposing political views and religious traditions so as to ground genuine dialogue and to pave the road to peace. Thank God that we have one cultural tradition alive and well in the world whose ideal is genuine universality and whose goal is to welcome the whole of the truth wherever it may be found.

10. I should expand upon that last point. Let us return, for a moment, to the early history of the universities to see how they as institutions rose to the occasion of a similiar challenge from two alien, and to some extent, hostile cultures. Medieval culture knew directly very little of the depths of ancient wisdom until the advent of the translations of Aristotle and his commentators during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Whenever you read through the works of Plato and Aristotle required as reading for our philosophy courses at CUA, you shall be acquainted with more of the writings of those great ancient philosophers than such a towering medieval intellectual figure as St. Anselm knew at the end of the eleventh century. But the situation changed rapidly at the outset of the twelfth century. At first, monks such as Peter the Venerable became interested in the Koran, largely to secure the basis for future evangelization; then, Latin philosophers and scientists began to travel to Islamic-controlled Spain and further afield, searching for texts and seeking translators for them; finally, teams of translators were formed in places such as Toledo, Spain and Mantua, Sicily and the texts of Aristotle as well as Avicenna and Averroes, not to mention Moses Maimonides, were rendered into Latin. As a result, the Latin thinkers had to cope, within the space of no more than three generations, with some of the highest products of philosophical thinking in the ancient Greek world as well as their creative and original appropriation by the finest scholars and scientists of the Islamic world. Just to mention a few of the practical items and intellectual disciplines that were passed along in this fashion is astonishing: algebra, optics, the abacus, paper, and navigation by the astrolabe. Were we to imagine that tomorrow morning archeaologists would unearth the writings of some hitherto unknown culture in the Gobi desert and discover that the physics of that ancient culture rivaled and surpassed our own, that their mathematics made ours look like child's play, and that their philosophers had explanations of the origins and nature of the human soul that contained all the doctrines that our philosophers had devised but included much more besides, we could perhaps gain some sense of the shock that the translations caused Latin scholars of the West.

11. What did they do in the light of this simultaneous challenge of their own culture by two greater competing cultures, the ancient Greek and the contemporary Islamic? They could have simply ignored the new writings; they could, and in some quarters initially did, condemn them or at least urge caution in their use. But, in the end, they did neither of these things. Instead, quietly at Oxford and Montpelier, dramatically and after a struggle at Paris (what do you expect? we are talking about France), the medieval universities and the scholars comprising them introduced practically the entirety of the new literature into the university curriculum where successive generations of students and teachers had to face the challenge represented by the new writings and to find a way to synthesize the truths discoverable in the new writings with the earlier intellectual inheritance arising from the Church Fathers and the teachers of the Latin West.

12. What a noble and praiseworthy thing to have done! The whole of high Scholastic learning and the tremendous advances in philosophy, theology, and logic that Scholasticism brought depended on the confidence those medieval scholars placed in the ideal of the university; their commitment to the idea that truth would be found in the new writings and that humanity would ultimately benefit underlies the decision to place the newly translated literature into the heart of the curriculum.

13. If the universities of Oxford, Montpelier, Paris, and Cambridge could cope in this admirable fashion with the intellectual challenge of so large and learned a body of alien material so early in their histories, we, too, I submit, can cope with the shadow cast upon all of us by the events of Sept. 11th. We shall not do so by clinging to all of our convictions held in the pre-Sept. 11th world and refusing to expand our outlook. No, we shall do so by upholding the best in the ideal of the university; opening ourselves up to the whole of truth wherever it may be found and seeking to communicate that truth - especially the truths about human nature - to the wider world. If the medieval men could do so well with the meager technology and means at their disposal, we, both men and women, can and should do at least as well with the vastly superior means at our disposal.

14. I must end, however, on a note of caution. Education is a fine thing, the training and perfection of our intellects. But, as Augustine would teach us, knowledge cannot guarantee right action; knowledge, whether by word or example, may be the best thing that we can share with those outside our religious and cultural traditions, and university education its best instrument for advancement. Yet we must, as religious believers, rely upon and exercise a higher activity. To overcome the evils that beset and will continue to beset us for the foreseeable future, we must turn to prayer. In the end, we must commit and give the best of ourselves: the most careful thought and the most fervent prayer to change the hearts of those who seem unwilling to listen. In this way, we shall live up to the ideal of a university and, above all, The Catholic University of America in a fashion that, perhaps, future generations will have occasion to admire.


[1] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 19??), 259-269 and H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. George Lamb (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), 424-438.

[2] Augustine, De doctrina christiana II c. 25-39.

[3] Augustine, De doctrina christiana II c. 40.