How often do you have brunch with your students?”
An undergraduate at the University of Dallas asked me this, cheerfully and innocently, on a recent Saturday morning. I was visiting the university to deliver a lecture, and this student had invited me to brunch. I joined him in a run-down but much-loved apartment in Irving, Texas, together with fifteen or so other UD students, a few recent alumni, two babies of recent alumni, and a distinguished historian on the faculty. Laid out on the table before us, below a picture of an armadillo (we were in the Lone Star State) and an Irish flag (two of the residents of the apartment have Celtic blood and a name to show for it), was a fine spread: sausages, a yummy frittata, coffee and pound cake, orange juice and prosecco, and (as a nod to my Oxford education, I was told) marmalade.
My immediate reaction to the student's question was to laugh. Then I began to tear up. The simple answer is that I never have brunch with my students anymore. For one thing, I don’t have any students now that Princeton University, which recently branded me a racist, no longer permits me to teach while it “relitigate[s] incidents from years earlier that ha[ve] already been adjudicated” (to quote Anne Applebaum). Even if I were still properly employed in academia, however, I probably wouldn’t be having brunch with my students. And if, somehow, I were having brunch with them anyway, it certainly couldn’t be in a private residence and it certainly couldn’t involve prosecco. It is 2022, after all, and every action and every word, every smile and every joke, every against-the-grain remark and every allusion to the founding fathers is liable to cause offense.
Ah, but not in Irving, which in the last couple of years has seen a massive housing boom as people from both coasts flee to open skies and freedom. It was a shock for me to experience firsthand the difference between the elite mis-education to which I have grown unhappily accustomed and what college is supposed to be—what it was when I was a student and what it still appears to be at the University of Dallas. At UD, twenty-year-olds have no compunction asking a visiting professor such earnest questions as “Is the Ivy League really as awful as it seems?” and “If my wife and I wished to teach our daughter Hebrew, how would you suggest we do it?”
The prevailing tribe at UD is conservative Catholics, who have never dominated the scene at Princeton or any of the other fancy institutions with which I have been associated. At no point in recent memory would anyone have expected to find in most dorm rooms at Princeton the items I saw in both student residences I visited during my twenty-four hours at UD: a well-thumbed Bible, a cross, and a biography of Patrick Kavanaugh. At no point at Princeton in recent memory would a main line of conversation over brunch have been renderings of Psalm 90 into different languages and Lincoln’s allusion to it in the Gettysburg Address.
And yet: I remember a time when Princetonians and UDers were not that different. I remember monthly late-night discussions with undergraduates about Plato and Dostoevsky that the administration supported and encouraged. I remember a raucous party in a student room on campus attended by half a dozen of my colleagues in classics. I remember when everyone looked forward to the annual December pizza outing where differences in rank between classics majors and professors dissolved for a few hours. And I remember how, when I myself was an undergraduate at Yale, it was perfectly normal for groups of faculty and students to engage in spirited extracurricular conversations about the definition of virtue, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the meaning of Western civilization (Yale announced the now-infamous Bass gift in the spring of my senior year).
Don’t get me wrong: I understand, better than most, that there are lines no one should cross. I am emphatically not saying that students and professors should be out getting drunk together. But certain kinds of social activity, where hierarchical relationships are not at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, enrich life, enabling a freer exchange of ideas than is usually possible around a seminar table, never mind in a lecture hall. To judge from my brief visit, UD—where, to be clear, no one in my presence appeared to be more than happily buzzed—strikes a good balance.
The talk I had given the day before the brunch was on a figure who is generally said to sit at the head of the Western tradition: Homer. My host—the already-mentioned historian—had produced an amusing flyer. Below a picture of Achilles she had placed the following words: “Princeton University recently cut the requirement for classics majors to study Greek or Latin?! Come welcome Prof. Katz as a refugee from insanity to UD, where EVERYONE reads Homer! (OK, but not everyone reads Greek!)” UD has a core: Everyone does read Homer (and Aquinas, Kant, and Frederick Douglass), the majority spend a semester abroad at the university’s Rome campus (“Due Santi”), and many have more than a passing acquaintance with Latin or Ancient Greek.
The auditorium for my talk was packed with students, faculty, and at least one Cistercian priest from the nearby abbey. And there was no shortage of probing questions afterward. In fact, these questions—and, more broadly, genuine two-way conversation—continued into the night, first at dinner at a local restaurant, where UD’s own Due Santi rosé was served (not half bad), and then at a different run-down but much-loved student apartment from the one where I would eat a slice of frittata the next morning.
Will I ever again go on a “Raj run”—the students time you as you race (in my case in coat and tie and with black leather shoes) to the nearby convenience store, shout “Hi, Raj!” to the owner, grab some bottles of tonic water, and run back (payment follows by Venmo)—and then listen intently as my fellow runner recites Catullus with Church Latin pronunciation? Will I ever again be in a room in which everyone is arguing, heatedly but merrily, about the qualities of Fanny Price?
I hope I will. But it will take a major shift in values—away from infantilization and fear and toward learning and joy—before any of this is possible again at places like Princeton. In the meantime, I recommend the University of Dallas.
Joshua T. Katz is Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and professor of classics at Princeton University, as well as a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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