Remarks from the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., on the occasion of its final meeting before dividing into two new colleges

May 26, 2011

Several years ago, a book was assembled in which poets were asked to contribute the poem that made them fall in love with poetry.[1] This is the poem submitted by Lisle Mueller, our Pulitzer Prize-winning neighbor from Andersonville. It is by Carl Sandburg from his 1916 collection “Chicago Poems” and is entitled “Limited.”
 

I AM riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
 of the nation.

Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
 go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.

(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
 and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall
 pass to ashes.)

I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he
 answers: "Omaha."

I thought I’d open with something light. Thankfully, there’s more here than simply the question “Where are we going?”

I thank you for inviting me today to your spring meeting. I’m grateful for the opportunity to say a few words as the year comes toward its close. I’m not here to talk about handbook revisions, tenure policies, or any other of a series of interesting, important but undoubtedly specific matters of policy and good governance. Today, I want to draw back the telescope and see the breadth of the academic enterprise, and perhaps reflect together for a moment on the promise and possibility of the humanities and social sciences.

I apologize to the departments that will comprise the new College of Science and Health. I have something I would like to say to you as well, but perhaps you will invite me to your first meeting in the fall. What you are doing is exciting—for yourselves, to be sure, and also for DePaul, but especially for the students who will be the primary beneficiaries. That’s as it should be. Today, however, I speak to the humanities, the social sciences, the nine interdisciplinary programs comprising them, and your well-regarded School of Public Service. That is, I wish to speak to the world I discovered and came to love through that stereopticon called the “core curriculum.”

You are, of course, a collection of departments, with numerous students majoring in your disciplines and [with] important research and professional activity being conducted. You are deeply involved in your professional fields. Your departments are well-regarded by your peers elsewhere in academe. Yet it was through the core curriculum that I, like most undergraduates, came to know your disciplines. It was there that I first read Thucydides and (not all of) Gibbon; Plato’s “Dialogues” and Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”; Aquinas’ systems and proofs; Durkheim’s “Division of Labor in Society”; Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”; Darwin and Engels; Chaucer and Moliere; Sophocles and Ibsen; Dickinson, Joyce and Austen; “The Bard,” of course, but also Kant and Rousseau; “Common Sense” and “The Federalist Papers”; and Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Kafka and Merleau-Ponty. (Can you hear my philosophy minor?)

I learned more than events. I was shown how an agrarian society gave way to a feudal society. I was shown how an industrial one gave way to something more ill defined as “post-industrial.” I was shown great migrations, terrible wars and economic catastrophe, and saw how shifting ideas about the proper social order are so fragilely constructed and connected to economic and political security.

I was shown a great arc laid over American history as democratic ideals enshrined in constitutional language were steadily claimed by those outside its realpolitik. From the [time of the] slave-holding Founding Fathers through [the] Black Power [movement], feminism, gay rights, immigrant rights and emerging concepts of gender, we read DuBois, Stanton, Wolff, Freidan, Carmichael, King, Malcolm and Sontag.

We read Supreme Court decisions, there too finding the great arc of social change playing out for better and for worse, in fits and starts, [in] setbacks and moments of satisfying justice.

I am the son of an artist, and yet art suddenly popped off the walls when I understood its own changing conceptions of its purpose, sometimes mirroring and other times eschewing great social movements.

I’ve read all my life for pleasure, and yet here I was shown how so much of my beloved literature dramatized the sweeping issues of the social order. I was introduced to so many authors whose prose would inform my life, and who would become “new favorites.”

My own sureties were pulled from under me as I was forced to defend my ideas in writing or in class—an experience as humbling and frustrating as it was thrilling. I still remember a particularly heated debate when the class forgot it was debating Crito’s great question and simply lost itself in the ferocity of whether injustice can be used to counter injustice. I remember passionate arguments about American intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the events that politically engaged me and others of my age cohort.

And of course, all the incessant writing—for my university believed in writing across the curriculum. The required course in rhetoric and public speaking. The required foreign language classes, which (I sheepishly confess) I never really took until I moved to Panama and actually needed to communicate.

God bless the committees who designed that labyrinth called the “core curriculum,” along whose paths I encountered the history of human accomplishment and thought. To this day, I have gaping holes in my knowledge of philosophy, for I took ancient and medieval philosophy and then skipped right to existentialism and phenomenology—probably for the classic pedagogical reason that the courses fit into a time slot between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. I have gaping holes in my knowledge of sociology, anthropology, history, art history and literature, and I must admit to never having taken a geography course. Certainly, the reading lists have changed. If I repeated this education today, my early loves would almost certainly have included more writers who were women and from a far broader array of world cultures. And yet, if I’ve tried to fill in the gaps over the years, I’ve never felt the need to accuse or forgive my faculty for what they failed to show me. I look back to my four undergraduate years with nothing but gratitude for the faculty who assigned great authors and original sources, who daily introduced me to a complex and newly wonderful world, and who led me to my own intellectual passion.

For it was in the core curriculum’s three required courses in religious studies that I first learned religion had an intellectual tradition. That the Catholicism I had learned as a child (and begun to suspect as unhelpful to my newly adult life) had far more to offer than I had ever been told. To read the Desert Fathers, to read Augustine, to find Teilhard de Chardin and C.S. Lewis, to discover Dorothy Day, to see real doubt, searching and faith. It was in graduate school, of course, that I would read theology, encounter a world that spoke directly to my questions, one that would rip away—rather painfully—my early conceptions of God and ultimately offer something far more satisfying. But it was as an undergraduate that I discovered this intellectual world existed and that I wanted more of it. And so ensued four years of graduate theological study—all because of a faculty who showed me a rich intellectual world for which I was surprised to find an inner hunger.

God bless the core curriculum. My classmates and I were certainly blessed by it in a hundred ways, not least of which [was] by giving us great and lingering questions. What constitutes the good life? What constitutes a just social order? What constitutes right and wrong?

Carl Sandburg plays with his readers when he viscerally describes the passing shortness of life, asks where we are going and bluntly short-circuits the great human question with “Omaha.” But in so doing, of course, Sandburg hands the reader the question: “Where are we going?” I know no surer place to think through the question—whether for ourselves as individuals discovering meaning and purpose in our lives, or whether it is meant for us as a collective, trying to find our way to a social good—than in the full embrace of the humanities and the social sciences.

I know these months of deliberation have been hard on you. And I know the actual decision of some of your traditional departments to form another college has been hard for those who remain behind. But allow me today to propose that there are more fruitful conceptualizations of this moment than “remaining behind.”

LA&S has spawned many new colleges, from the College of Computing and Digital Media and the College of Communication to this new entity called the College of Science and Health. You even provided a port in the storm for the School of Education at one time, and then sent them back on their way. Conceptions of “what you once were” have changed a number of times over the years. It’s “what you are” that matters, and “what you might be” that matters most.

As the academic year ends, I ask you to spend the summer reflecting on the life-changing power of the humanities and social sciences. Consider yourselves not an abandoned lover but a new college, for you similarly have the opportunity to invent yourself anew. Use the summer to think freely and inventively upon that. Return in September, ready for a conversation on how the humanities and social sciences might be even more strongly given to the next generation. How might they enter into the great questions of meaning and purpose? How might they see worlds and cultures clash and change? How might they come to understand the many political, economic and social events that shape the world as they know it? How might they discover the power of literature and the arts? How might they enter the intellectual world as participants through rhetoric and writing, reflection and discourse? How can the joys we’ve discovered also be theirs?

And remember this: You, more than any other set of disciplines, bring us into the mystery, complexity and joys of what it means to be human. That alone privileges this wonderful college, and allows it to dare use the Latin phrase Primus Inter Pares: “First among equals.” There will be ten colleges at DePaul when you return, but yours will retain that quiet whisper of privilege based solely on the shared conviction that no one can truly call themselves “educated” unless they have been steeped in your disciplines.

And so, I come today not to bury LA&S, but to praise it—to stand in honor and profound respect before the extraordinary calling that is yours. DePaul University will be great if you, as a college, are great. And so you are. No internal reorganization can change that. Perhaps your more nimble size may even help you to achieve ambitions that are more cumbersome for a larger unit.

Seamus Heaney once honored his childhood next-door neighbor with one of my favorite lines in poetry. He described
 
… our blind neighbour
Who played the piano all day in her bedroom.
Her notes came out to us like hoisted water
Ravelling off a bucket at the wellhead
Where next thing we’d be listening, hushed and awkward.

That blind-from-birth, sweet-voiced, withdrawn musician
Was like a silver vein in heavy clay.
Night water glittering in the light of day.
But also just our neighbour, Rosie Keenan.
She touched our cheeks. She let us touch her braille
In books like books wallpaper patterns come in.
Her hands were active and her eyes were full
Of open darkness and a watery shine.

She knew us by our voices. She'd say she ‘saw’
Whoever or whatever. Being with her
Was intimate and helpful, like a cure
You didn’t notice happening. …
[2]
 
It’s lovely praise, and it’s the experience of the humanities, social sciences and all your interdisciplinary assemblages at their best—a cure you didn’t notice happening.

 

Thank you for giving your lives to this vocation. I look forward to supporting this college next year and for all the years I’m privileged to work alongside you, [because] my commitment to the humanities and social sciences is a deeply personal one—rooted in those faculty who once showed me a wider world and welcomed me to join them in what has become a lifelong intellectual odyssey. May God bless those students fortunate enough to study in your classrooms. May God bless each of you, and through you, may God bless this wonderful college.​ 


[1] Ciuraru, Carmela, ed. “First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them.” Scribner, 2000. 

[2] Heaney, Seamus. “At the Wellhead.” From “The Spirit Level,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.​
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