The following column was published in The Observer, on November 6, 2012.
Few people are aware of the fact that, when Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies was founded in 1950, University President Fr. John J. Cavanaugh intended for the program to eventually take over the entire Arts College. As the program’s founder, Otto Bird, once put it, “Such an education aims at paideia.” This paedeia constitutes a kind of general knowledge “that makes not the scientist or specialist, but the fully human person.”
Bird identified man in his rational capacity as “a talking, thinking, observing, measuring and worshipping animal. To educate man is to train him in the use of these various faculties so that the faculties can perform their work easily and well. Education in this sense … is initiation into manhood.”
This education, however, must have a context. “Man is not only a creature endowed with certain faculties. He is also a creature with a heritage… In other words, man is born into a tradition, in our case the tradition of Western Christendom, and, if he is to become fully himself, he must be initiated into this tradition. It provides the context for the work of his various faculties.” The General Program, as it was known at the time of its founding, sought to cultivate Notre Dame men in their rational capacity and to initiate them into their cultural heritage, as both Catholics and as members of Western Civilization.
For those of us who value or come from diverse peoples and cultures, such an education may seem jarring at first. When Mortimer Adler, a friend of Professor Bird, was asked why he didn’t include any black authors in his list of the Great Books of the Western World, he simply responded, “They didn’t write any good books.”
In the midst of Affirmative Action debates, we are reminded of past injustices to minority groups in America and in Western Civilization. Many consider these injustices and call for restitution. Racial and cultural diversity must be actively promoted, because social structures privilege certain majorities. In an affirmative action culture, minorities will always be at a cultural advantage. I look back on my college application as an excellent example.
My father’s family is from Guam. That makes me half Chamorro. I wrote my college application essay about that culture, although, admittedly, I was largely out of touch with that part of my racial heritage. I talked about walking along the quiet beach of Rititian, pondering Chamorro legends and the feet of my ancestors that walked in that sand generations before me.
The Taotaomona are the ancient Chamorro spirits that protect the jungles against unwanted visitors. Four years ago I wrote, “It wasn’t the power that intrigued me. It was the ancient Chamorros themselves. The sand that I was walking on was the sand that they had once walked on. They once inhabited the caves I had visited.” I provided evidence for the accusations made by those against Affirmative Action: I overemphasized my race in order to get an edge in college admissions.
But can racial heritage be a credential when applying for college? I firmly reject the notion that racial diversity ought to be increased through a collective societal guilt. This fails to recognize many of the inherent goods that can come from minority cultures: intense family relations and traditions, a connection to the land and its peoples, a link between blood and language, literature, and culture.
I am against affirmative action, because I believe that my racial and cultural heritage is a powerful credential on its own. Each racial heritage has access to intellectual and cultural resources that others ought to admire. I will promote my culture through the excellence of my work. Some would answer Mortimer Adler by insisting he include diverse authors for the sake of diversity. I would answer Mortimer Adler by writing a good book, just as I once hoped, in the end, to write a good college application essay.
I concluded this essay with words that couldn’t be written by any other. I hope they are words that could be appreciated both by my ancestors and by Professor Bird: “Now, what do I want from college? I want college to be that walk on the beach. I want to learn about the world and, by learning about the world, learn about myself. I want to be in a place saturated with Truth, waiting for me to discover it in my education and in myself. I want to be in the presence of great people, who will help me develop through the exchange of the intellect. I want an experience I will never forget.”
Christopher Damian is a sophomore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.