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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The academy’s deconstruction of both person and community

Marion Montgomery on cultivating “a deportment of intellect governed by a continuing concern for the truth of things”

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The academy’s deconstruction of both person and community

On Volume 39 of the Journal, English professor Marion Montgomery talked about his book The Truth of Things: The Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality (Spence Publishing Company, 1999). That conversation was revived as a Friday Feature in January 2024.

As he had in his earlier book, Liberal Arts and Community: The Feeding of the Larger Body (Louisiana University Press, 2990), Montgomery argues that the academy is rightly ordered when it works “in service to the body of community, not merely servicing the appetite order of individuals collectively called society, but in service to the community as a body of members. In that term society the nature of community, as is the nature of person through the reductive term individual, has been lost.”

Montgomery goes on to lament “the confusing reality of the academy in our moment,” within which “there continues the deliberate (though sometimes merely accidental or thoughtless) deconstruction of both person and community. Such is the effect of the distortion of the traditional understanding of the liberal arts. The deconstruction has occurred in order to redirect liberal arts disciplines, peculiar to an ancient curriculum, to serve the practical convenience of the academician or the department or the school in its pursuit of specialization. What has ensued is the conflict of disparate ideologies in contention for power over the faltering academic body. So disparate are these ideologies, indeed, as to lead to civil wars, though each faction will in some moment of heated battle declare its cause that of the ‘rights of the individual’ or of the ‘common good,’ as opposed to its responsibilities to the person and the common nurture of persons in community.

“If we look at the academy at the close of our century, we find there are no longer ‘two cultures,’ arts and sciences, aligned separately and in opposition, their battle lines extending out of the academy into society. That was Sir C. P. Snow’s mid-century argument and lament, in his once-famous Two Cultures, the circumstances of intellectual confrontation by the ‘arts’ on one side and the ‘sciences’ on the other having grown out of nineteenth century dislocations. We, as Flannery O’Connor’s provincial Modernist isolated on a backcountry farm might say, are more advanced than the scientist-novelist, Snow. For we now have multiple cultures, as many as there are sovereign individuals committed to the paramount rights of the ‘self.’ That integer the ‘individual’ is more and more coming to itself in a dark wood as an isolated, alienated, frustrated, and increasingly furious ‘consciousness’ in reaction to all save itself, however wily it may at times become in idealizing self-love with borrowed clichés from that older intellectual tradition stretching back to Plato. What is happening is that the thing called individual discovers itself a lost person — the condition necessary to the effects we now witness on those intellectual reservations called the academy, whereon there proceeds as yet unchecked the barbarization of intellectual integrity.

“Intellectual barbarism envelops persons for the moment in the conspicuous spectacles of crisis in the political and social dimensions of our lives as a people, and the confusion is particularly evident within the academy as it pretends to serve us from its privileged position. Its fundamental doctrine, suited to manipulations by self-love in pursuit of the conveniences of power, is a presumption about the nature of intellect itself, radically at odds with the traditional orthodoxy of Western Christendom. Intellect, this doctrine holds, is autonomous. And that principle accepted, one is justified in an angelism presumed both means and end to self-rescue. What Dante called perverted love, love turned in upon the self, replaces that openness of charity through which existence and the Cause of existence can be celebrated. The substitute doctrine has gained ascendancy since the Renaissance, at last permeating Western people and their institutions at every level. and so the final chapter in this volume approaches critically that new religion, Modernism, with some attention to its recent history. But a word in advance here may help prepare the reader.

“In that new religion of Modernism, authority is made to depend upon the power accumulated by a particular fortunate or gifted intellect responding to the moment’s contingencies — whether he be (to put the point at once playfully and seriously) an instructor before freshmen, a chaired professor, a dean, a senator, or at an extremity of the new priesthood, a Hitler or a Stalin. What is crucial is the relativity accompanying power, which when the relativity itself becomes the guiding metaphysical vision can but result in abusive internecine destructions of community. The reality of relative power becomes central in determining the actions of the particular person coincident with the struggle for power. And that is a contradiction, since it recognizes a reality separate from the intentionalizing of power.

“This is to say that the Modernist doctrine of autonomy of intellect cannot acknowledge any given, such as its own relative power, since the survival of autonomous intellect through will cannot acknowledge a givenness. Such an acknowledgment would require of intellect itself that it confront the mystery of givenness. There must to the contrary be first, last, and always an affirmation by the intending autonomous intellect of a self-credit. The principle popularized and seductive of naive intellects, most particularly the idealistic young, is a slogan now met everywhere: You can be whatever you want to be. That is a denial of gifts, and a denial very central to Modernism’s most celebrated philosophy, Existentialism, now formally out of favor in the academy, even in departments of philosophy, though yet pervasive in the intellectual community, whether in the sciences or the arts. Existentialism is formally out of favor, since any philosophy formalized and adopted as patterning action becomes thereby a focal point of rigorous interrogation, requiring only one Socrates or Plato or Aristotle to expose its flaws.”

Later in the book, Montgomery describes the challenges faced by “the intellect in the academy.” Its given vocation is to pursue “the truth of how things stand, within conflicting circumstances such as the intrusion of committees or administrators whose self-justifications have obscured that first principle of intellectual action. But that principle is also subverted from within intellect itself by the corrosive acid of self-love which is anciently termed pride. St. Thomas reminds us of the first principle: ‘The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought.’ Which is to say to us, such ‘others’ as committees neutralized in their response to reality by a balancing of internecine ideologies, or administrators who are concerned with alumni or legislative or media support. No, says St. Thomas, not even what Plato or Aristotle or Thomas himself have thought, however necessary that we should know their thought. The end of intellectual action, he says, is to know ‘how the truth of things stands.’”

The pursuit of such knowledge is not a simple and smooth matter, and Montgomery goes on to acknowledge the “untoward circumstances of intellect. For those circumstances are, like St. Paul’s poor, always with us, to be handled with whatever charity proper to the reality of the circumstances themselves. Again, this does not mean the necessity that I accept the untoward. This is a lesson difficult to learn, and even more difficult to live by, as a teacher. For instance, it is difficult to hold firmly to the realization that true charity requires my giving a C or an F to a student who is a C or F student, rather than violate reality by giving him a B or a Pass. ‘Tell it like it is!’ cry our young, in response to which we lie about reality, which is what grade inflation amounts to — a formalized lying justified by socialized rationalizations.

“Now let me be as open as I may, telling it like it is in respect to my own position as teacher, an action seldom tolerated by an academy. Mine is a position, come to after long intellectual journeying, which denies my own intellectual autonomy. It is a position grounded, insofar as I am able to ground it, in Christian orthodoxy. That is my intentional position, whether actual in all parts of it or not. What that means is that mine is not a program to be advanced, but a deportment of intellect governed by a continuing concern for the truth of things. It is a position emerging from my faith that existence is real, that it has meaning beyond any prideful suppositions of my finite intellect. Thus, intellectual suppositions are suitable only as warily pursued, lest intellectual pride reduce creation to a flat world, as has progressively developed in the West since the Renaissance.

“Flat is a term metaphorical here, representing that limited metaphorical position — that of Modernism — which nevertheless thinks itself round and thereby ends up with the curved lines of its own thought intersecting as a closed universe, leaving that intellect rotating upon the axis of its prideful, self-declared autonomous self. That entrapment is almost absolute in the academy at this point of history, so intensified by centripetal reductions of reality as to have made of the academy something very like those black holes that fascinate astronomers, though those holes lie at the outer reaches of our closed or closing universe. The implosive force of intellectual autonomy, which is assumed the governing principle of reality, removes the academy more and more from the rest of creation, human and other.

“Most ominously, it supposes itself removed from that community of humanity in which the academy willy-nilly is embedded. The academy, once characterized in its removal from social dependence as the ‘Ivory Tower,’ now seems — at least from my perspective — rather a black hole at the outer border of the social body upon which it feeds parasitically. And because it necessarily feeds upon that body in increasingly conspicuous debilitations of that body, that sustaining social community more and more recognizes the academy as parasite. Or perhaps, rather, it appears a cancerous presence — to shift our metaphor from those black holes remote to us among the stars to a closer concern for the community’s local embodiment. For we are more generally acquainted as a community with cancer as ravenous of discrete beings than with black holes in the heavens sucking the universe into non-being.

“How may such forces turned randomly malignant, destructive of the proper ends to our intellectual journeying, be dealt with by the affected community? The question, cried louder and louder by community, unfortunately is answered by some program, some five-year plan of abstract construction, promised to be established and monitored by authority, usually as associated with Congress. We want an ‘Education President’ and an ‘Education House and Senate,’ by which we mean we want a centralized, detailed plan for directed action, funded by public monies — the sort of solution we turn to in any emergency in this country. But that is in the end only to exacerbate the problem. One rushing off to Washington for solutions is like rushing down to Mexico in pursuit of a magical scientific cure for cancer of the liver. Whatever help such cures might afford — and there is sometimes some help — is help only when ordinately taken. Which is to say, when taken in relation to the disease — the dis-ease — in the communal body. It is that dis-ease which must be first understood, and my understanding of it is that it lacks fundamentally that spiritual deportment proper to reality as required of intellect in consequence of intellect’s real, finite nature. Intellect is neither the cause of its own existence nor the first cause of any actual existence of any thing. That is why my approach to the difficulty attempts to act out, as it were, a recovery of a proper intellectual deportment. One reviewer of Liberal Arts and Community is quite right in charging that it provides no program, but whether that is a failure, as he supposed, may be yet an open question. Nor does the book gather up critical evidence by researchers into the general surplus of academic idiocy — the by-product of our larger community’s careless, unreflecting support of higher education in this century. That careless, well-intentioned community support leads to excesses whose analogy might be to those tons of butter or corn or soybeans that accumulate through federal crop supports, external intrusions into economic realities.

“But my metaphor is not apt in its correspondences. Butter and soybeans and corn clearly have intrinsic virtues, even when stored and rotting in warehouses. They are not properly related analogically to the surplus of academic idiocy that abounds, stored in computers or libraries. For, in another dimension for accumulating idiocy, what university, pretending to national and international prominence, lacks a multitude of ‘Institutions for the Study of X’ the blank filled in yearly with new ad hoc specialties? This species of subsidy to intellectual ‘crops’ promises to submerge the academy, to hide it, as kudzu hides an abandoned house. I might better seek metaphor in relation to surplus city waste, that residue of daily life which threatens to submerge our once habitable earth. For Institutes and specially designed Programs certainly threaten to overwhelm a once intellectually habitable academy. Recall, in relation to this analogy, those stories about the odyssey of those barges loaded down with Eastern city garbage, set afloat in quest of a dumping ground, with no place allowing an unloading. For all I know, those barges are still drifting up and down the Eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean, like ghost ships, the crew growing older and older — sort of our version of ‘The Ship of Fools.’ That is a metaphorical picture, increasingly seen as turning literal, from the disquieted community’s perspective, of the academy. As for the academy’s accumulation of intellectual detritus, I might be in favor of setting it adrift on the prevailing winds tending toward harbor on the Potomac. But then I am at this moment being rather caustic, less possessed of that charity which at once calls garbage garbage, without that inclination to a revenge that would innundate the White House and Congress with it. After all, they have as much and more locally grown than they can accommodate.”

from Marion Montgomery, The Truth of Things: The Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality (Spence Publishing Company, 1999)