Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Professor Bertonneau’s Poignant Observation


I finally got around to reading Prof. Thomas Bertonneau’s compelling “What Me Read?” series written for the Pope Center and referenced by George below, and I enjoyed every word. Or perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word. I was captivated, and often appalled.

The final piece was his best. As someone who works every day at the intersection between faith and higher education (specifically to ensure that the marketplace of ideas remains open to Christian perspectives), I found Professor Bertonneau’s students’ seeming inability to comprehend the conversion story at the heart of Augustine’s Confessions to be particularly sad and telling. Reflecting on his students’ failings, Bertoneau notes:

The inability to make a straightforward statement along such lines as Augustine rejects self-indulgence and adopts self-control as a mandate of his conversion is much more than a funny instance of incompetence. It is a crippling intellectual deformity that will prevent a student who distantly glimpses a moral problem from adequately seeing or articulating it. The problem will vex and hobble the student whether it is his own or someone else’s. He will lack the very notion of a deliberative resolution. Agonies of error and indecision lie ahead in such a life, but where there is a mass of such lives, the misery of vexation and indecision will afflict everyone, not just the victim of deficient education and default of analysis.

It is not too farfetched to suggest that there is more to the student’s problem than an absence of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax or a life without reading. The hostility to religion that pervades the academic environment and popular culture also hampers him. For to say that self-indulgence is the problem and that Christianity was Augustine’s solution is to go against many years of–undoubtedly half-understood but sufficiently threatening–propaganda from the same crusading people who refuse to let student stores sell Christmas cards or Easter candy, but say nothing about promiscuity in the dorms.

Without question, hostility to Christianity is pervasive on campus, but it is a hostility based not on knowledge (a truly considered rejection) but on primitive caricatures, the cartoon villains conjured up by pop culture and administrative imagination. When faced with the real thing, Augustine’s actual Christian experience, it is hardly surprising that students react not with scorn, but with something that is perhaps even worse–near-complete incomprehension.


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