Notre Dame professor disputes claim that Notre Dame was mediocre before Land O’ Lakes

I was unable to attend the recent symposium on the Land O’Lakes Legacy planned by the Office of the President and well-hosted by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.  Subsequently, however, I watched the two sessions of the symposium. The panel of the five presidents was a rather shallow exercise with each participant singing from the same song sheet—so much for ‘dialogue’ at the contemporary Notre Dame. The first session featuring Dean John McGreevy was more interesting. McGreevy gave a typically adroit address in which he notably focused much more on the context of Land O’Lakes rather than its questionable content. Toward the end of his address McGreevy admitted some of the limitations of the Land O’Lakes statement, but cleverly skated by them in order to contend—without any supporting evidence whatsoever—that Notre Dame was stronger in its Catholic identity today than it was in 1967.  Only the gullible will accept that contention, and I plan to address it at a later point.

But I must discuss a different matter here. Dean McGreevy argued with obvious approval that the “biggest obstacle” Father Hesburgh tackled through his efforts at Land O’Lakes was the “mediocrity” of Notre Dame. This assertion that Notre Dame was ‘mediocre’ prior to Land O’Lakes is now regularly bandied about by vapid administrators and the tribe of their public relations associates who constantly inform us of how “great” Notre Dame is today compared to how it was a half century ago. The charge of mediocrity is usually made without any serious qualification, and on its face, against all, or almost all, who taught and studied here in the 1960s and before.  This capacious charge slanders some of the terrific faculty who helped build Notre Dame. They should not be labeled as mediocre in any way, shape, or form.  

Let me illustrate the point by referencing the department to which both John McGreevy and I belong––namely the Department of History. In 1967 the History Department at Notre Dame had approximately 20 faculty members, compared to today’s department of over 40 faculty. The faculty in the 1960s taught at least three courses per semester and had little of the research support that faculty enjoy today. One might expect that faculty in the contemporary Notre Dame, which so emphasizes research, would be dramatically superior to their forebears of a half century ago. However that may be, let me ask fair minded readers to judge whether members of the History Department in 1967 should be labeled as mediocre.

The department at the time had recently been led by a terrific historian of Colonial America named Marshall Smelser. Smelser had studied at Harvard with Samuel Eliot Morrison, and he had established a national reputation for himself such that he was invited to write the New American Nation Series volume on the U.S. during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, The Democratic Republic, 1801-1815.  Smelser was succeeded as Chair by Vincent DeSantis, my own mentor. DeSantis’s 1959 book Republicans Faced the Southern Question had helped reorder how historians thought of American political developments during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. His fine reputation led to his being enlisted to join a wonderful group of scholars like David Potter, Carl Degler, and Arthur Link in producing The Democratic Experience, a renowned textbook that went through five editions after its initial publication in 1963.

Among the rising young scholars in the department was Philip Gleason.  Gleason is a giant in American religious, intellectual, and cultural history.  He wrote and edited books that would have been part of John McGreevy’s own intellectual formation. Anyone who thinks Philip Gleason is mediocre needs a deep reality check. Gleason had been taught at Notre Dame by the legendary Holy Cross priest Thomas T. McAvoy who was still teaching in the department in 1967 as well as serving as Director of the Archives. McAvoy helped shape the field of American Catholic history with his important books, including The Great Crisis in American Catholic History, 1895-1900 (1957). Another notable teacher on the U.S. history side of the department was the great U.S. diplomatic historian Julius W. Pratt.

The History Department also had a noted Latin American historian in its ranks. Frederick B. Pike already had written important books on both the history of Chile and Peru by 1967 and would go on to write and edit other major works including his opus The United States and Latin America: Myths and Stereotypes of Civilization and Nature (1995).  If there is a Latin Americanist on campus at the moment who is as intellectually gifted as Fred Pike, I would request that John McGreevy identify him or her.

On the European side, Notre Dame benefited enormously from the presence of one of the most wise and learned scholars ever to grace this campus— Matthew A. Fitzsimons.  Fitzsimons edited the Review of Politics and also produced important books on British foreign policy in the mid-20th century.  I have benefited from these works in my own research and can testify to their quality. Notre Dame also had the great Church historian Msgr. Phillip Hughes teaching here at this time. Hughes trained talented historians like his successor, Fr. Marvin R. O’Connell, and additionally was a noted historian of the Reformation and indeed of Church history in general. McGreevy might complain about the popular nature of some of Hughes’s writings, but he was actually a historian who connected with a broad public and deepened their appreciation for both history and for the Church. Would there were more like him today.  In medieval history James Corbett had helped Notre Dame build up its distinctive record for excellence, and he warranted his own repute as the capable editor of important medieval texts.

Sadly, men and women who contributed much to the growth and development of our university can be quickly forgotten upon either their departures or their deaths. This is especially the case at Notre Dame at the moment when the place is filled with inflated vanity and excessive self-regard. Individuals succumb to the temptation to congratulate themselves on their “impressive” present accomplishments. Yet we should acknowledge that we build upon the efforts of those who labored here before us. Surely we should not denigrate those who worked hard at Notre Dame, and did so without the substantial research support and many of the material benefits that faculty now enjoy.

Perhaps we might also recognize that while there was undoubtedly mediocrity as well as excellence at Notre Dame in 1967, there remains much that is mediocre here today. This recognition is especially needed by those who bear responsibility for the recent curriculum changes that weakened the Catholic education offered to our fine undergraduates.

In any case, at least one might hope that especially historians, who should know something of the history of both their own department and the university, would speak of them with more respect. The incessant self-congratulations of the present moment should not be undertaken at the expense of the many able faculty and students who preceded us here. Their significant contributions, faithful service and deep love for Notre Dame should always be properly acknowledged.

Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, teaches in the Department of History and is a member of the Irish Rover’s faculty advisory board.