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Colleges and Universities

The last class of the millennium

This essay is the final chapter from Jesuit Fr. Raymond Schroth’s forthcoming history of Fordham.


In 1962, when the New York province sent Jesuit scholastics who were teaching high school to summer graduate classes at Fordham, I took a course on John Henry Newman from Francis X. Connolly. I did not know then that Connolly had been at Fordham since the 1930s, or that he had been a major figure in the Catholic Renaissance of those years. I did not know that his 1948 anthology textbook, Literature, the Channel of Culture, would, after many of the norms and values it championed had been discarded, stand unused on the library shelf as an artifact, a remnant of a lost vision.

But I did know that inside that handsome gray head and behind that gentle, courtly manner, was a flame lit from the first torch ever lit and passed along at Fordham and that I should experience it before it flickered out.

Connolly’s anthology was, in its own time, an innovation, in that, contrary to the “new criticism,” which emphasized the literal, objective context of the literary text -- poem or story -- over its philosophical or historical contexts, Connolly looked at literature the way Jesuits viewed philosophy, as a guide to life. Without a philosophical and historical frame of reference, says Connolly’s preface, “literary delight may well become a riot of fancy and an invitation to anarchy.” He acknowledges that his selections -- Maritain, Gilson, Newman, and contemporary priest writers such as Jesuit Fr. John LaFarge and Thomas Merton -- are weighted toward a particular world-view. But he assumes that “the average young American of every persuasion needs more awareness of the continuity of history and the coherence of truth than he does of the change and chaos which floats in the intellectual sphere like bomb dust over a ruined city.”

His first section, “The Idea of the University,” with excerpts from Pope Pius XI, Maritain, Newman, and Fordham Jesuit political scientist Fr. George Bull, establishes that education can “be ideally perfect only when it aims to form the true Christian and the useful citizen.” Contrary, he says, to John Dewey’s “progressive” position that “social utility rather than wisdom is the end of education.”

My final paper for Connolly’s course that summer tried to show that, for Newman, the student-teacher relationship was the heart of the educational experience. Connolly, I think, was the first person to alert me to the famous line in President James A. Garfield’s address at Williams College in 1871 that all one needs for an education is a “simple bench” with Williams president Mark Hopkins on one end and the student on the other. Personal influence was, for him, even more than books, the essence of education. What matters is the intellectual friendship. “For truth to live in the student,” I wrote in my paper, “he must catch it from someone in whom it lives already.”

This is serious business

I don’t think that is the first thought in the minds of the 20 students in my Fordham freshman English class, the first day of the semester, January 1999.

Nor in mine.

I am laying down rules -- no food, no water bottles, no gum, no absences or lateness, no late papers (not even one minute), no book bags on the desk, no hats, no stacking books before the class is dismissed -- all meant to drive home the idea that literature is extremely important, that the work we are doing together demands every atom of our concentration. For the first time in many years, to force myself to break from familiar material I’ve taught before, I’ve put myself at the mercy of a standard textbook, Elements of Literature. I chose it because it includes essays, fiction, poetry, drama and film; because it is not divided into artificial categories like “stories about family life, etc.”; and because it has none of those “questions for discussion” after each piece like, “Why do you think the author said that?”

We meet at 10:30 a.m., three times a week in a cinder-block seminar room on the first floor of Dealy Hall, the same building, built in 1867, where I took my first English course 48 years before. For the editors of my new text -- Robert Scholes, Nancy R. Conley, Carl H. Klaus, and Michael Silverman -- “Literature enriches our lives because it increases our capacities for understanding and communication. It helps us to find meaning in our world and to express it and share it with others.”

Of the 100 authors in Connolly’s text, only 16 appear in Elements of Literature. The only clearly identifiable Catholics are Flannery O’Connor and Gerard Manley Hopkins; but there are works by those other writers I most love to teach: Thoreau, E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes.

Connolly, guided by his religious vision, designed his texts to teach not only literature but Christian virtue to Catholic men. These editors have collaborated to produce a marketable product that must do three things: Continue the canon -- those writers like Shakespeare, Tennyson and Fitzgerald, without whom, presumably, no educated person can open his mouth in public; contain enough explanatory material to compensate for the teacher’s inadequacies; and teach the new secular virtue -- multiculturalism -- with enough works by blacks, women and various minorities to satisfy a teacher who wants to build a whole course around a political issue. The biggest change in English teaching over 30 years, says a professor who revered Connolly, is the imposition of political agendas on literary texts, which both distort the texts and rob the student of the opportunity to discuss more fundamental questions about human life that the original authors pose. On the first day of class we have a 1500-page anthology with no up-front ideology, but 114 authors, from Sophocles to John Lennon, with little sense of what we and it will yield in the 14 weeks that follow.

The 21 of us are crammed close together around four long narrow tables placed in a rectangle, so we have to look at each other all the time. Twelve women and eight men, four of whom have gone to Jesuit high schools. Seven are in the business school. Two are varsity athletes -- one baseball and one football. The ethnic-racial mix includes two Puerto Ricans, an Albanian, one African-American, a Ukrainian, a Nicaraguan, and the usual component of Italian and Irish. The Albanian, Lek Berishaj, resists removing his heavy leather jacket -- a sign, I explain to him, that he does not intend to stay. At this point in the semester he considers himself more Albanian than American.

For about 30 years I’ve taught journalism, American studies and literature at five Jesuit universities. In recent years, partly to test myself and to prove to my students that I can write, I have traveled to international hot spots like South Africa, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam, Cuba and Indonesia, and published articles and photographs on my adventures. In Indonesia last summer I looked out the train window at miles of rice patties, lush forests, mountains and poverty-stricken farmers on the way from Jakarta to Yogyakarta and was overwhelmed by the realization of how differently God treats us all. If I had been born the son of an Indonesian rice farmer rather than of a Trenton, N.J., journalist, rather than know the joys of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” French bread, cheese and wine, Tolstoy and Walden Pond, rather than teaching generations of students like those in this room, I’d be standing in a rice field in mud up to my knees, not even looking up to see this train go by.

If my personal history repeats itself, one or two of these students may take a course from me again, become my friend, running or biking partner, dinner guest and host, write to me for years, maybe even invite me to perform a wedding and baptize a child. Or bury a parent or spouse. And someone else will finish the course bitter, angry at a low grade or some other offense of which I may have been unaware. I must miss the second class in order to preach at a friend’s wedding in St. Augustine; so, for the long weekend, I assign nine essays, 59 pages. Two drop the course immediately.


One day when she was 12, Clarilibeth Torres, looking out her South Bronx windows about 30 blocks south of Fordham, waved to her friend Hector on his way home from his job. He waved and smiled; then suddenly a gang of men appeared with baseball bats and beat him to the ground. They slashed his face, pounded him, ripped his shirt and left him face down in a pool of blood. They had stolen the gold chain Clara’s mother had given him for his birthday. The next day she read in the paper that Hector had provoked the fight.

Now Clara, a freshman at Fordham, age 20, sits directly across from me, determined to master the media, write poetry, have her own Web page and her own magazine. Born in Puerto Rico, she spent the first five years of her life shuttling between various aunts and grandparents in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. She has never met her father, although she once called him on the phone, then hung up before he could answer. Years passed without her seeing her mother, who does not even know her birthday. Her two older brothers and three younger sisters have different fathers. When she moved to America in 1989 her mother and her mother’s current boyfriend dragged her from Albany to Philadelphia to all-over Florida, because “the authorities” in each town were a few steps behind the boyfriend.

Today she divides her addresses between two Bronx “aunts,” who are really cousins, commutes to lower Manhattan where she works 30 hours a week as a receptionist at Barnes and Noble, and at Fordham does her best to compete with students with more stability in their lives than she has had in hers.

At the Bayard Rustin Humanities High School in Manhattan she was a star. She won a Shakespeare recital contest, worked in an anti-drug program, joined the photo club, softball and volleyball teams, yearbook and newspaper, and edited her own magazine. The faculty loved her and encouraged her creativity; but they did not teach her intellectual discipline, spelling and grammar. This is not necessarily their fault. Surrounded by Spanish speakers most of the day, she has settled into something she calls “Spanglish.” Her favorite poet is Sylvia Plath, and she has read the Confessions of St. Augustine twice on her own; but there’s an enormous gap between what’s bursting out of her creative soul and what she can say in Sylvia Plath’s native tongue.

When she arrived at Fordham for the HEOP (the federally funded Higher Education Opportunity Program) remedial summer courses, she loved it -- a beautiful campus, students like herself. But September, when the other 3800 arrived, threw her into a funk. To her eyes, she was swamped in a sea of preppies, all cool in their J. Crew and Gap designer garb, all the middle class white people and the minorities split into their own cliques and only the resident students in on the fun. Those high school A’s and B’s slipped to a 2.6. But somehow, though she is not formally religious, she believes in God’s plan; she loves her courses and almost all of her teachers, and she adapts.

She fights me. When I take 10 points off her quiz because she says that Robert Frost’s classic poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” --“Whose woods these are I think I know/his house is in the village though”-- is about “escaped slaves,” she stays after class to argue. It’s her interpretation, she says; I demand evidence for it in the text.

When we do four films at the end, I assign “High Noon” (They have never heard of Gary Cooper!) and John Cunningham’s story “Tin Star” on which it is based; and the class unanimously prefers the story, where the sheriff -- contrary to the film’s lone hero who wins a shoot-out with four killers -- dies, deliberately taking a bullet aimed at his deputy. But to Clara, Gary Cooper’s Will Cain, the 1950s liberal’s ideal man of courage, is a “coward,” because he went around trying to raise a posse, rather than handle it himself.

It is the most astonishing idea I have every heard from a student. Perhaps her imagination is so distorted by “Lethal Weapon,” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Kung Fu movies, where comic book heroes armed with automatic weapons, somehow never touched by the thousands of bullets that splatter earth, sand, walls, and glass around them, blow away their adversaries with machine gun bursts and flying kicks. Or rather, perhaps she reads all literature totally through the prism of her own experience. She is an escaped slave looking for a house in the snow. No posse or armed committee of town folk have ever done anything for her, and she has survived. Gary Cooper should quit whining and take care of himself.

When class goes well, it is 90 percent lively discussion; I sit with my prepared discussion outline, broken into five or 10-minute segments in front of me, and a long No. 2 pencil in my hand, look around to call on quiet people who resist getting involved, and strain with my army artillery-damaged ears to hear what to me are mumbles and whispers.

But sometimes I go to the board and outline the things I think we should have learned so far. This is important stuff, I say. Most of them sit back with their arms folded, either remembering it all or unconvinced that what I say is worth remembering. How do I look to them, talking emphatically and scrawling illegibly with my chalk?

In my first semester Nonfiction Writing course, a bright sophomore, Amanda, took notes on me: “The pencil is his heartbeat: the blood of his life gushes on his students’ papers in a series of X-filled circles and marks where he must have tap, tap, tapped in contemplation. The nod is the invite to enter his universe. He is the center of this universe, pulling each student onto his planet with an invisible cord that comes with the penetrating eyes that stare from behind his glasses. Sitting ramrod straight, his lean body clothed in a collared shirt and tie, he is relaxed and ready for action. If it is cold he wears a cardigan sweater, and he is reminiscent of the quintessential grandfather: strong, trusting and yet powerfully authoritative.”

But I am not ready to look like a grandfather. And if I am “authoritative,” why are they not paying attention? Do they not know I see their every move? Clara is doodling. Now she’s talking to the boy next to her. I never reprimand in public, so I speak to her after class. To my embarrassment, she has been drawing a portrait of me. I am a hideous prune, with big ears, deep eyes, wrinkled, bony cheeks, baldhead and a ridged brow like those Klingons on “Star Trek.” She knows me well.

Their favorites

In a rare small experiment with democracy, rather than assign my old standbys, like Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” I ask the class to read ahead and pick poems they want to study. Some light on my favorites, like Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” about a black student at Columbia, overlooking Harlem, who tells his instructor in a paper, “You are white -- yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.” Several pick Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” in which the speaker loves his mistress, though her hair is like wire, her cheeks are colorless and her breath reeks. Reflecting, I think, their own insecurity about their looks in a culture where, one tells me, no young woman can look in the mirror and find herself thin enough, and young men take steroids and pump iron for hours a day to chisel their pecs and abs.

They focus, too, on Adrienne Rich’s “Rape,” in which a violated woman graphically describes her humiliation -- “the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs” -- and implies that the policeman to whom she must report the crime is the very man who degraded her. And they pick Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother,” in which a woman laments, though not necessarily regrets, her several abortions. At the end she addresses her dead children: “Believe me, I loved you all.” As Brooks has presented her, I doubt any reader is meant to believe her, and she may not believe herself.

In his anthology, Connolly included Hemingway’s bullfighter story, “The Undefeated,” perhaps because it represents spiritual triumph in physical defeat; but our book has “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which, without using the word, a selfish young man intending to end his relationship, talks his girl into having an abortion. Elements of Literature has no stated ideology; yet, the themes of race and women’s issues have naturally emerged. And though I did not know him well enough to be sure, I think Connolly would approve.


Joseph C. DeBarbrie, tall, smooth-complexioned, gentlemanly, usually sits four seats to the left of Clara. A year before, as a senior at St. Ignatius Prep in San Francisco, he sat in a musty, wood-paneled room at the Jesuit retreat house outside Palo Alto, sipping Earl Grey tea and wondering what was so great about kairos and agape -- buzz words that annually floated home from the senior retreat. Then a retreat leader knocked, came in, and handed him an envelope bearing St. Ignatius’ picture and stuffed with surprise letters from family, teachers and friends showering him with love and praise.

Joe is the kind of boy adults find easy to praise. His family -- insurance broker father and teacher mother who met at Santa Clara University and married right after graduation, his older brother and younger sister -- are so happy and supportive that he sometimes sat around just enjoying them rather than studying. When surgery following a freshman year injury to his back ended his varsity sports, he threw himself into four years of those extracurricular activities that allow the Jesuit boy to thrive: manager and trainer for five teams, the yearbook and newspaper, the liturgy, cheer leader, social action and, above all, the theater. Appearing in plays and musicals -- like ‘Inherit the Wind, Our Town, Carousel’ -- for four years, as a senior he won the male lead in ‘Shadowlands.’

Not that every moment was smooth. The over six weeks of recuperation his freshman year took him out of circulation longer than an adolescent can endure without losing out on friendships and the group. As a sophomore he drifted into the wrong bunch of friends. One night when the gang was hanging out smoking cigarettes by the San Francisco reservoir overlooking the Pacific, his “friends” turned on him, told him bluntly that they didn’t like him, and that he was out of the gang. Go home. Emotionally crushed, he staggered home in the rain.

He rebuilt himself in school activities, particularly on a school-sponsored summer “faith tour” living and working in Belfast and Dublin. In Dublin he lived at Gonzaga College and worked in a summer camp for 8-to-10-year-old boys strung out on dope. In Ireland, he says, the campaign against drugs resembles the American campaign against cigarettes -- graphic posters of young people with rotting teeth. His little boys liked to show off the track marks between their fingers where their older brothers and pals had given them a hit. On walks he would cut through a graveyard where the boys had left their needles strewn between the tombstones.

So on retreat he relished the notes of praise; but he was most struck by the letter from his drama coach, who told him “It’s time to exit stage left at the prep”; rather than applaud, his director challenged him to go on and “become a good man.”

He picked Fordham because Jesuits “take care of their students,” because he liked the pretty campus with pretty girls, because he liked the student body’s economic diversity and because he thought he “could handle New York.” Though it took him a few months to be sure he had come to the right place, he soon came on strong in residence hall leadership, a role in the Mimes and Mummers’ production of “Moon over Buffalo,” and a focused dedication to study that moved his high school B average to a Fordham A-. In his theology course, famed feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson changed his image of God from the more simple, personal, someone-I-can-talk-to encounter of his high school retreat, to a God who is many things, masculine and feminine, still real, yet incomprehensible.

On Thursday nights he occasionally enjoys the local bar scene, which he sees as just one aspect of Fordham’s generally healthy social milieu. True, some students party too much, but that depends on the attitude they bring with them; and better to visit the local pubs than drink on campus. Besides, he says, the neighborhood is safe. On weekends he loves to ride the “awesome” D train to Manhattan and, coming home, doesn’t mind the 12-minute walk from the subway down Fordham Road.

Joe’s final paper focused on three films -- “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” and “Four Feathers” -- where strong men either compromise or sustain their integrity. I teach Zoltan Korda’s 1939 British Empire epic, “Four Feathers,” both because it is a wonderful work of art and because its thinking and rationale, its lofty concept of duty and commitment, are so foreign to 1990s young people reluctant to commit themselves to anything beyond Saturday night’s date -- which they will also break if something better comes along.

It’s also one of the first films I remember seeing. As the son of a World War I hero who wiped out a German machine gun nest on his own and who personified courage and integrity all his life, I must have identified with the hero, young Harry Faversham. He joined the army just to please his Crimean War veteran father and was terrified that his father would ever consider him a coward. As everyone over 50 -- plus some of my college classes -- knows, Harry resigns from the army after his father’s death, just as his regiment is on the way to the Sudan. When his friends send him white feathers as a sign of cowardice, he disguises himself, goes to the Sudan and saves their lives. For Joe, Harry’s true courage was in refusing to follow the army career; his war exploits were merely a brave gesture to regain the respect of his friends and fiancée.

Other things going on

Other things happened this semester. Tornadoes killed more than 40 persons in Oklahoma and Kansas. The Yugoslav army drove a million Albanians out of Kosovo. NATO bombings killed anywhere between 400 and 1000 innocent Serbian and Kosovar civilians by mistake. High school students gunned down their classmates. Fordham College’s new dean, Fr. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., a historian from Princeton, Yale and Georgetown, spelled out the trustees’ plan to move Fordham to the national prominence that Georgetown and Boston College once enjoyed. During Black History Month someone smeared racial and sexual insults on a door in Finlay Hall, prompting weeks of self-examination on the possibility of racism in our midst. Three of the five students we helped prepare for Fulbright Fellowships won -- to France, the Philippines and an alternate to Indonesia. A series of Fordham Ram surveys sampling 50 students revealed that 86 percent drink, and 42 percent had missed class at some time because of drinking; 88 percent could name three Shakespeare plays, but only 22 percent could name three of the 12 apostles. The Ram ran a series of articles on Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 guidelines for an authentic Catholic university; most writers seemed relatively content with Fordham’s Catholic character, whatever it may be.

With the help of students and alumni -- plus a rambunctious gang of happy hecklers called The Sixth Man -- who packed the gym for home games, basketball caught fire. Fr. Avery Dulles, S.J., who celebrated his 80th birthday and 10th year in the McGinley Chair, lectured to a crowd of 700 on “Can Philosophy be Christian?” The Ram praised in its editorial the Mimes and Mummers production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ for casting a black Jesus and interpreting Jesus’ death as his solidarity with oppressed groups everywhere -- African-Americans, Jews, women and homosexuals.

The Security files report 410 incidents for the semester. These include: a Guinea pig loose in the cafeteria, a dozen stolen wallets (including mine), stolen book bags and computers, students caught with beer or marijuana, misparked parked cars, broken elevators, emergency illnesses, fire alarms and two tombstones toppled in the Jesuit cemetery.

The last week of the year, I visit a student friend, a senior, in the hospital. After early morning words exchanged in a local pub, he was outnumbered on the way home and beaten senseless. They punched in his face and could have killed him. In the final month we, as a nation, have been overwhelmed by the shock of American middle class boys with guns who somehow release the demons that plague them by shooting down their classmates. This madness seemed far away, in the West or South. But this was done not by neighborhood troublemakers, but by Fordham freshmen. My friend is victim of the alcohol culture, surely, but also of whatever it is in the American mores that says men should settle their differences by resorting to violence in its many forms. But we can hope those freshmen will not be back; and the senior received his diploma in person to a standing ovation.

Making the rounds

I close up my deserted sophomore dean’s office a little before 5:30 p.m., trying to decide which I need more, daily Mass or a quick swim. Tonight I’ll go to the wake of a sophomore’s father who has died in a fall. At a student Mass in my residence hall room on Monday night we prayed for those whose lives come apart in the last weeks of class and during exams. During the semester about a half dozen have withdrawn for a while with depression. On the way to the gym I pass John -- hospitalized two years ago, now one of our successes. His philosophy professor calls him a star; his mother says any other school would have forgotten about him.

In the campus center and Vince Lombardi Sports Complex, the newly installed network of around-the-clock TV monitors in the lobby, cafeteria, lounge and weight rooms has given the area the atmosphere of an airport waiting room or a sports bar without the beer. On the screen, commercials, news trivia and MTV: Performers kiss, their tongues meet, they unbutton their clothes. In the Jesuit graveyard I make the rounds of the tombstones, try to decipher the names, many of which time, air pollution and New York winters have washed away. The plan is to destroy the old stones before the elements reduce them to rubble and replace them with a little bronze plaque for each man and a statue of St. Ignatius. A fitting memorial, to be sure, but not an old-fashioned college graveyard with whatever those stones have to teach the young.

It begins to rain. The skies open. The earth is drenched. Three students -- two guys and a girl -- cavort onto Edwards’ Parade and send their Frisbee sailing through the torrent. They leap, tumble, roll, laughing, splashing in the lush green grass.

The last day of class

On the last day of class I give them a short slide show, pictures I’ve taken over 30 years, but mostly within the last few months. Nineteenth-century Fordham: Dealy Hall, in which we sit, and Hughes Hall, in which several of us live, when they first went up. The baseball bleachers no longer on Edwards’ Parade.

For the group photo of the 1857 Jesuit faculty, I point out: Fr. Tissot, the Civil War chaplain; Fr. Doucet, the friend of Edgar Allan Poe; Fr. Daubresse, who taught moral philosophy but did not know English; and Fr. Legouais, the funny-looking fellow with the face of an angry goat, the dwarf, whom students loved. I don’t tell the anecdote about Legouais on a walk with students when a rude fellow by the side of the road made fun of his appearance and a burly Fordham boy resolved the situation by pummeling the wise guy with his fists. The Third Avenue El passing by the campus in 1916.

Myself swimming in Walden Pond and sitting by Thoreau’s grave. Hemingway posing with a dead leopard in Africa and kicking a can in Idaho shortly before killing himself. The campus in fall and spring.

And finally themselves. The class photo -- my last class of the millennium -- very few of them the same persons who sat looking at me and one another in January. Lek, though he still hates poetry and old movies, makes an exception for “Four Feathers.” It may help him stand up to his father who wants him to move back to Albania. The baseball player has quit the team. The football player thought of quitting but stayed. Two of the 18 in the picture have failed the course.

Joe could go one of two ways. This summer he works for the Gap in San Francisco. With a Colombian grandmother, he speaks Spanish well. Some day, as a Gap executive, he could go to Latin America and convince his company to apply Jesuit social justice principles to their factories there. Or he could take some risks, take communications courses, stay in New York, “make it here,” and end up host of the “Today Show.”

Clara ends the year evicted by her aunt, split from her boyfriend, but with a solid average Fordham grade. Her favorite essay is James Thurber’s short fable, “The Moth and the Star,” about a young moth who ignores his parents’ commands to flutter around the street lamps like the other moths and get his wings singed. Rather, every night, for years, he tries to fly to a star, as if it were right beyond the treetops. He never reaches it, of course; but he begins to think he did, and lives a long life happy with his imagined accomplishment.

His parents, brothers and sisters all burned to death when they were young.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond Schroth is a regular contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999