By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It has been many years since I last watched The Mortal Storm, the 1940 movie starring Robert Young and James Stewart as young Germans at the time the Nazis came to power. But I remember certain scenes clearly, especially the depictions of Nazi college students disrupting their classes and accusing their professors of being disloyal to Hitler. I can recall, even as a boy, remarking to myself how defenseless a classroom teacher becomes when young men such as those in this film refuse to abide by the norms of civility and scholarly discourse and resort to angry rhetoric to carry the day.
The scenes were especially effective because, if I remember correctly, the Robert Young character was depicted more as naive than evil, but nevertheless as willing to ignore common sense and his family’s values because of his political enthusiasms.
I have never met any of the young men and women who are rioting on our college campuses against the Trump presidency, so I can’t say if they share any of the redeeming characteristics of the character played by Robert Young. It is easy to get the impression that they are nothing more than a collection of thugs and yahoos. I also do not know how representative they are of the American college students of today. A mob of two or three hundred protesters looks large on the television screen, but is only a fraction of the student body at a university.
That said, if we can judge from the letter we received recently from D.A., a professor at a Catholic university in the Northeast, the problem posed by radicalized students is real. He writes, “The advent of BotNets on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube has made intimidation more widespread and easier than ever before in our history, including at liberal Catholic colleges, where students now employ similar tactics against any of their orthodox and outspoken professors who dare challenge their pop group-think heresies or perversions.”
D.A. continues, “It is no wonder that college administrators capitulate to liberal activist students, canceling invitations sent to moderate or conservative campus speakers, dismissing chancellors, coddling students with SafeSpaces, writing P.C. language policies inspired by Cultural Marxism, and requiring ‘trigger warnings’ for anything offending liberal ideology. Holding the line for classic liberal education, Western Civilization, freedom of speech, and for public religious expression, is as difficult now as it was the last time college administrators folded, back in the 1960s in their confrontations with the Yippies and the SDS.
“Both now and then, professors’ careers were seriously threatened if they offended the sensibilities and ideologies of their intolerant students, most notably as a result of campaigns by campus radicals to incite other students to leave scathing evaluations of traditionalist professors for the purpose of getting them fired. The result has been that nowadays few professors at Catholic colleges begin class with the briefest prayer or Scripture reading, and in no way connect their course content with our Church’s official teachings; this, even where the college’s mission statement prominently promotes developing their students’ faith.
“Should a professor initiate the practice of beginning class with a prayer from the breviary and a reading from the missal, and periodically relating class content to Church teaching, that professor likely will run across what I sometimes do: Protestant students objecting to relating any topic to an authoritative Catholic statement (be it from the Catechism, an encyclical, or a Church doctor’s writing), non-religious students objecting to public prayer, and Catholic students objecting to Scripture reading in any class other than theology. Such objections reveal not merely a non-Catholic attitude, but a decidedly anti-Catholic one.”
D.A. provides us with the explanation he gives to his classes to for his “offensive practices.”
“I tell my class I understand that not all students are believing, practicing Catholics, so they should feel free to remain respectfully silent during prayer, even mentally reciting their own prayers or poetry while I open the class with a prayer. Beyond that, in assignments and during class discussion, I openly invite them to argue against any Church teaching that I am offering to the class. I even invite them to use their electronic devices during class to fact-check me and to raise alternative viewpoints during lectures or discussions.”
D.A. emphasizes that while it is true that “I am exposing them to Catholic spirituality and thought, one hardly could accuse me of narrowly indoctrinating my students or of not welcoming open and diverse dialogue.” Nonetheless, he writes, “One student approached me after class, expressing concern that a paper she intended to write with a pro-life thesis would be met with great hostility by her classmates if it were discussed in class. She said she felt greatly intimidated by her classmates both in the classroom and elsewhere on campus for her traditional views.”
D.A. writes that he was “momentarily shocked at hearing her complaint,” but quickly changed his mind: “Why should I have been surprised, after having watched college protests across our nation for the last few years on television news? Our failure to curb incivility invites more of it.”
What is D.A.’s way of dealing with this challenge?
“I refuse to teach my classes at a Catholic college as if I were teaching in a state college. I intend to play my part in the effort to reestablish a true Catholic identity in Catholic education — or get nixed trying.”
D.A. does not tell us at which Catholic college he teaches. One can see why. He may not feel it is yet the time to climb the barricades in his struggle against the campus leftists. If that is the case, it does not imply that he lacks the courage of his convictions. We have to choose our battles, and they need to be fought judiciously. There are times when it is better to hold one’s fire and wait for the time when there is a reasonable chance of victory.
It is hard to see how getting fired would do anything to help D.A. advance the cause of reestablishing a Catholic identity at his school.
That said, parents with children about to apply to college would be well advised to keep D.A.’s experience in mind. Not every college that calls itself Catholic provides an academic atmosphere that will help our children become mature and committed Catholics. Caveat emptor.
+ + +
Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.