Convocation address of the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
August 30, 2012
I read a beautiful essay this past summer by Jennifer Homans, dance critic for the New Republic, a well-regarded former dancer herself holding a Ph.D. in European history, and recent author of the admiringly reviewed history of ballet, “Apollo’s Angels.”
Her essay in the New York Review of Books, however, had nothing to do with dance. She wrote an astonishing reflection on Tony Judt’s book, “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” and began with the simple sentence: “I was married to Tony Judt.” The essay was intended to explain his final book and in her hands became a lovely testament to the scholar with whom she shared her life.
Judt, as you may know, was a controversial, opinionated man and a frequent essayist on the pages of the New York Review of Books himself. From the time he was first diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more popularly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he was determined to finish the books that were still inside him. He wrote four before his death in 2010, but the last was just released this spring, as was her essay which followed its release.
The category “intellectual historian” for Tony would be misleading, if only because it suggests some critical distance – almost observer status – over the ideas of our time and upon which he, the scholar, pronounced judgment. He certainly pronounced judgment over the ideas of his lifetime, but never from a supposed place of indifference. He cared passionately.
Jennifer noted that his last days were very much a reflection of his entire life. She says,
"Tony had always cared more about ideas than anything—more than friends; more, in some way, than himself. He believed — really believed — that they were bigger than he was… By the time he was talking “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” he had lost his students, his classrooms, his desk, his books; he couldn’t travel or take a walk. The disorientation he felt was primitive and profound. … Which is where the public — his public — came in. … And they — strangers all — helped him, not with praise but by arguing. … Which is why he kept going with Thinking the Twentieth Century; it was part of the fight, from his withering comments on intellectuals who supported the Iraq war right down to his ever-prescient defense of the role of the state in public life. …[E]ven though he was miserable he fought on, saying what he had to say and refining and honing his every word. That was the only kind of public intellectual he knew how to be.”
His final book’s name, “Thinking the Twentieth Century,” is exactly that. Dictated to a younger colleague from Yale, he speaks ardently of the major currents of thought in his lifetime and the ways in which his own life experience led him to value or despise those ideas that so created our present world. The book is simultaneously biography and intellectual history and for that reason alone is a stunning act of intellectual honesty.
• He tells of the Jewish diaspora into which he was born and raised, the world of the Israeli kibbutz in which he spent his summers and the biting disillusionment when he lost faith in Zionism. He felt the loss of his early convictions as keenly as losing a first love.
• Tony was schooled in England, and speaks of his and his colleagues’ early love for the idealism of Marxism, their dalliance with Fascism, and the disappointment that soon ensued in the practice of both.
• He talks about his love for the social democracy of Europe and its social compact - that safety net provided by government to protect people from the worst elements of their economies - which came to characterize the twentieth century and which he considered the twentieth century’s noblest idea.
• He expressed his fears for humanity as – from his new home in the U.S. – he watched the consensus around such a social compact began to unravel during the Reagan and Thatcher years and decried the ways in which he observed that fear came to be used as a political tactic by those who would manipulate democracies.
• He admired the intentions of cultural studies and identity politics even as he bitterly condemned what he believed to be their intellectual paucity and often self-serving aims.
• He condemned academics who would talk only with fellow scholars rather than participating in and contributing their knowledge to the world’s great conversations.
• He condemned those who accepted or, worse, proffered seductively simple answers, knowing well as David Cesarini has noted, “the magnetic power of a totalitarian idea and the capacity of brilliant people for self-delusion.”
Ideas mattered because they weren’t just ideas, they were convictions. They were his convictions. His disillusionments. His critiques. His commitments. Ideas mattered in the world and therefore to him. And THIS is the world into which we introduce students: the world of prevailing ideas and cultural critique. And that’s what we begin again on the opening of DePaul University’s 115th academic year.
In these past six years of our last strategic plan, we:
• Restated our learning goals.
• Hired more faculty.
• Lessened and thereby roughly equalized the teaching load among several colleges.
• Went to a four-day week to support the intellectual work of our faculty.
• Created new academic programs.
• Enriched many other academic programs.
• Built or rebuilt many of our facilities for nearly all of our colleges.
• Improved academic advising.
• Invested in our learning resources, IT and library.
• Invested in numerous initiatives to further enrich the diversity of our academic community.
And we’ve kept students at the center. We’ve loved them. Supported them. Prayed with them. Provided counseling services. Extra-curricular learning. Internships. Social, artistic and cultural opportunities to see the world anew. Opportunities to serve and learn the world in so doing.
And it’s a better university for all that you’ve done.
• The quality of our entering class has never been better.
• The geographic draw from which our entering class now comes has never been broader.
• The volume of intellectual publications and professional and artistic activity of our faculty has never been higher.
• The involvement of our alumni in this campaign and in many other ways is simply unprecedented.
• And, I would argue, the sheer breadth of faculty knowledge and expertise, represented across its now ten colleges and schools, has never been richer.
And yet none of these are the goal themselves. In the end, it’s about preparing smart, aware human beings:
• Able to see the ideas that are shaping the world around them, and shaping their own understandings.
• Able to articulate the great ideas driving wedges between and among nations and peoples.
• Able to develop strong convictions on their own about what constitutes a full life well-lived.
• Able to sort among the many conceptions of what constitutes the most effective social fabric and organization.
• Able to see when great ideas do not live up to their theory, or get hijacked for the selfish purposes of a few.
This coming year, we will celebrate:
• The 40th anniversary of the School for New Learning.
• The 50th anniversary of the School of Education.
• The 100th anniversary of the School of Music.
• The 100th anniversary of the College of Law.
• The 100th anniversary and renaming of the Driehaus College of Business.
We will dedicate a new building for the College of Education.
We will complete a new building for the Theatre School.
We will build important new components of our new College of Science and Health.
We will implement our new alliances with Catholic Theological Union, the Chicago History Museum and Lake View High School.
We will compete in a reconfigured Big East.
We will implement our Sustainability Plan.
Most importantly, on September 14th, we will launch a new strategic plan that sets strong new goals to move us forward.
And that hardly begins the list. There’s so much activity in every corner of our cherished academy, and yet everything we do will be in support of this magnificent intellectual project of contributing to the world’s prevailing ideas, adding to its cultural critique, and introducing a new generation into knowledge and participation of the same.
Last night, a new student came up to me in the student center and asked “Do you work here?” I told him I did, and he asked me if I could point him toward the music school. He’s a freshman voice major, and was trying to find his Discover Chicago class before they left to discover some “Chicago music” in town. I took him outside, introduced him to Belden Avenue, and then walked him to the music school and talked with him on the way. He told me that it often takes him a while to find his way in a new place. His was a geographical-positioning challenge, but I couldn’t avoid smiling as I somewhat poetically extrapolated the situation to the entirety of our students’ education.
All of them place themselves in our hands. All of them in one form or another say, “Help me navigate the world ahead of me. Teach me what I need to know of the world. Teach me to succeed within it.”
It is a magnificent task before us this year: to introduce the students not only to ideas, but to the very idea of trying on ideas for size as personal convictions, lived with the integrity and honesty that would permit one to abandon ideas for better ones in light of the world’s needs and best lights.
May God bless the year ahead of us, and through us, may the lives of our students and the very world they will one day create be blessed because of our work.
Thank you all. God bless you.
 Judt, Tony. Thinking the Twentieth Century. The Penguin Press, 2012.