- The Boutique and the GalleryAn Apologia for a Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Academy
Many times now I have witnessed the scene of parents carting suitcases and small refrigerators up the steps of residence halls, offloading from their cars the accumulated detritus of their adolescents’ young lives. The busyness and stresses of the moving-in period belie, of course, the deeper feelings of both parents and children, especially families for whom the experience of freshman year at college is new. Yet even for parents who themselves underwent this ritual many years earlier, and whose older sons and daughters have already passed through their college years, the experience of bringing a child to college is significant: it is the passing of trust for their child’s development to the people the child will encounter there.1
Lost, often, in arcane discussions about mission in higher education or in explorations of the objects of intellectual inquiry is the recollection of how the very enterprise of tertiary education—like all levels of education, really—depends upon acts of trust. In 1871, the future president James A. Garfield suggested that the ideal college was the sainted Mark Hopkins of Williams College on one end of a log and a student on the other. Such an image illustrates how the very decision, by either a parent or a student, to learn from [End Page 74] someone else involves trusting him or her to tell the truth. Professors are naturally in a position of power for their students trust them (if even for a short time) with contributing to their development as thinkers. Even amidst the prevalence of an instrumental approach to higher education—an approach shared by many parents, students, and even faculty and administrators, which sees education as merely a means to the end of good employment or social advancement—there is nonetheless a confluence of acts of trust in the one who is to direct the intellectual development of students. The implicit message is this: “Think the way I lead you to think, and you will get what you are after.”
Of course it is the second part of that compound sentence that is the issue of debate among many in academia today. What, exactly, are we after? And what ought we to be after? There are really two distinct issues, but in colleges and universities where intellectual work is the engine that fuels both student diligence and capital campaigns, these two issues come together. The first issue is one that preoccupied the earliest thinkers in the West: namely, the question about knowledge itself—what it is, what it strives for, what it can be used for. The second issue has to do with what we want to hand on—the Latins used the verb tradere and its cognate nouns: traditio (a handing on), tradita/traditus/traditum (the feminine/masculine/ neuter “something handed on”). Assuming we know what we’re doing when we use our knowledge, what then ought we to hand on to our students? What things ought we to hand on, and what practices ought we to teach them in order that they might continue the work we ourselves have inherited?
I propose two images, each of which represents a way in which thinkers today conceive of knowledge, and each of which carries implications for the way thinkers hand on what they are doing to students. [End Page 75]
The first image is that of the boutique—or better, the cluster of boutiques one might find at a mall or a downtown shopping district. Let us assume that each boutique is run by an expert, a connoisseur (if you will) of the precise items of the boutique’s specialty. In a typical boutique, say, “English romanticism,” a procurement associate (let us call her a “faculty member”) is responsible for working with various vendors—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats are a few of the more prominent brands—to develop new product lines. Here she develops a new psychoanalytic look at Coleridge; there she offers a postcolonial critique of Frankenstein’s monster. Her work is an exercise of both skill and creativity; not only must...