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  • An Academic Conversion Story
  • Philip Gleason

As a graduate student, I would probably have scoffed at the notion that I might become a historian of Catholic higher education. Although I had attended the University of Dayton and was working for my degree at Notre Dame, it never occurred to me that the history of such institutions could be considered a significant field of research. For that reason, I remember being quite surprised—not to say downright incredulous—when my mentor, Father Thomas T. McAvoy, remarked that the founding of the Catholic Educational Association (CEA) was an important event, well worth investigating in detail. James H. Plough's 1967 dissertation on the CEA (unfortunately never published)1 triumphantly vindicated Father McAvoy's opinion. But by the time that excellent study appeared, I was already hooked. What I had previously regarded as drearily unpromising had become an object of scholarly fascination and a field of research concerning which I had a strong proprietary feeling. There is a tolle lege moment—a single precipitating event—in this academic conversion story, but it must be set in a larger socio-religious context.

The precipitating event occurred in 1965, just as American higher education was entering a period of crisis. The spectacular eruption at the University of California, Berkeley, in December 1964 furnished the initial spark. In the following months, the nation's deepening involvement in the Vietnam War, along with heightened militancy among African Americans committed to civil rights, set off a series of "sit-ins" and other demonstrations at one campus after another. Catholic schools were not yet deeply affected by these tremors in the broader culture, but they too were restless, filled with discontent, and subliminally conscious of being on the brink of profound change.

One source of these feelings was the publication in 1955 of Msgr. John Tracy Ellis' scathing review of the sorry record—and present state—of American Catholic intellectual life. Although he dealt with the subject in fairly general terms, Catholic [End Page 79] colleges and universities took their share of hard knocks. Ellis lamented in particular the proliferation of second- or third-rate institutions, especially graduate schools; he hinted broadly that Catholic professors were lazy, and he scored the "self-imposed ghetto mentality" that kept them from taking an active role in the larger academic world. Other commentators elaborated on this dismal assessment, and by the early 1960s Catholic educators were in practically universal agreement that their institutions could never achieve "excellence" without thorough-going reform. All this took place against the background of, and was reinforced by, the winds of change sweeping through the Church from the Second Vatican Council. For Catholic colleges, the most important of these currents was a new spirit of freedom that drew inspiration, not only from Vatican II, but also from African-Americans voicing the call for "freedom now." Major eruptions had not yet broken out in the spring of 1965, but pressure for reform was clearly mounting—building up among faculty members demanding academic freedom and a greater voice in institutional decision making, and also from students clamoring for relaxation of in loco parentis regulation of campus life.

In this context of bubbling unrest, Robert Hassenger, a young sociologist of education then at Mundelein College in Chicago but soon to come to Notre Dame, undertook to put together a volume of essays outlining the overall "shape" of Catholic higher education. At that point, I had done no work on the subject as such, but I had published a couple of articles on the "Catholic intellectualism" issue. Perhaps on that account, Hassenger inquired in the spring of 1965 whether I would be willing to contribute an essay to his planned volume situating higher education in the broader context of American Catholic history. Never suspecting that it would lead to the academic conversion mentioned above, I agreed to do so.

Since I had a sabbatical for the coming academic year, I didn't think it would be too difficult to work up a quick chapter of "historical background" and still have plenty of time for my principal project, the revision of my dissertation for publication. I soon discovered, however, that the secondary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-8224
Print ISSN
0735-8318
Pages
pp. 79-91
Launched on MUSE
2010-11-26
Open Access
No
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