Holy Curiosity

In the almost ten months since I have begun posting weekly blogs, I’ve become aware that if there is a unifying theme to them—I say “if”—I believe it is freedom. I’ve been reflecting on what experiences in my lifetime have inspired my impulse to freedom. I track its inception back to my four year liberal arts education at Regis College (now University) in Denver and to two teachers, in particular. These two teachers, more than any others, encouraged—even insisted—that their students think outside the box.

The invaluable Merriam Webster dictionary app on my iPhone defines liberal arts as: The studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.

The old joke about a liberal arts diploma was that it and a nickel would buy you a cup of coffee.

I understand that a Liberal Arts education is completely impractical, it’s also absolutely priceless—a Jesuit liberal arts education is doubly so—I am indebted to it for the quality and richness of my life and, maybe most of all, for the unquenchable curiosity it inspired in me.

When I lived in New York during the 1960’s Fordham, a Jesuit University in the Bronx ran a series of public service ads with the slogan, “Fordham University—we never close a mind until we fill it.” A curious mind never closes. At least that’s my experience.

In the passing 54 years since I graduated, inflation has boosted the price of a cup of coffee to $2.99 at the local diner. My liberal arts education was amazingly inexpensive because the majority of my teachers (Jesuit priests) didn’t get salaries. They gave their services—really gave them—for the love of God and the love of teaching. Today the tuition for one semester at my alma mater is more than double the tuition for my entire four years.

A liberal arts education today is as expensive per credit hour as a degree in professional or vocational skills; on too many campuses liberal arts programs are an endangered species. This saddens me more than I can say. Lack of access to and the de-emphasis of traditional liberal arts education have contributed greatly, in my opinion, to what pundits call the “dumbing down of America.”

******************

Father Harry Klocker S. J. was the second most important professor that I studied with at Regis. Father Klocker was the Chairman of the Division of Theology and Philosophy as well as being the Head of the Philosophy Department. All liberal arts students were required to take two semesters of philosophy during our junior and senior years—12 credit hours in total, which meant that all students had a minor in Philosophy.

Philosophy, as it was taught at Jesuit colleges in the early 1960’s centered on the work of the medieval philosopher/theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and his masterwork, The Summa Theologica, which was published in two volumes by Britannica Great Books. The first volume consisted of 823 pages of double column text; the second volume consisted of 1085 pages of double column text. I still have my copies.

Father Klocker was an intellectual and scholar who had devoted his life to the study of Aquinas. In my junior year, he published a textbook called Thomism and Modern Thought; it was also the title of a course all seniors were required to take.

In the text, Father Klocker devotes a chapter to every modern philosopher from Immanuel Kant to Jean-Paul Sartre and argues that none of them could match or exceed the brilliant reasoning of Aquinas.

Our final exam was what was then called a “take-home” test. Each of the students was required to select a philosopher covered in Father Klocker’s text and defend Aquinas’s reasoning against that philosopher. Dutifully we all went about our task—except for my classmate, Ralph St. Louis, who turned in a paper that argued that German philosopher Friedreich Hegel’s work matched and improved on Aquinas.

When Father Klocker returned our papers, Ralph was the only student to get an A. “While I disagree with Mr. St. Louis’s conclusions, his arguments are better, more rationally, and more articulately stated than the rest of you who parroted back to me my defenses of Aquinas against the modernists.” This blew me and all of the other students away. “Think for yourself!” the Jesuit education demanded. “Present your arguments, rationally, clearly, articulately and back them up with resources!”

Ralph had challenged Father Klocker’s life’s work and gotten an A. Those of us who defended Klocker’s thesis did not do as well. As I recall, I got a B.

This is the essence of a Jesuit education which demands that students learn how to think—the root of intellectual freedom—rather than be told what to think.

*************

Rev. Robert R. Boyle, S. J. was Head of the Humanities Division and Chairman of the Department English Languages.

He was the best, most exciting, most inspiring teacher I have ever had and I have been blessed with a lifetime of good teachers.

I managed to work my way into one, and sometimes two, of Father Boyle’s classes nearly every semester: Shakespeare (9 undergraduate hours), Milton, Chaucer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, even James Joyce whose work was still considered scandalous (even obscene) in 1959. The novel Ulysses, Joyce’s masterpiece, was banned from sale and illegal to import or print in the United States from 1922 to 1933. In 1933 a case called United States v. One Book Called Ulysses was argued in Federal court. At issue was whether the novel Ulysses was obscene. “In deciding it was not, Judge John M. Woolsey opened the door to importation and publication of serious works of literature that used coarse language or involved sexual subjects. The court’s decision was upheld by the U. S. Court of Appeals. Judge Woolsey’s trial court opinion is often cited as an erudite and discerning affirmation literary free expression.” Father Boyle devoted an entire semester to the study of Ulysses and a lifetime to the championing of literary free expression.

Because of his championing of controversial literature, and his insistence that his students were intelligent and mature enough to read it, Father Boyle earned the nickname, “Dirty Books Boyle”. Although he never said so, I imagine he took some delight in that.

All students, regardless of their majors were required to take two semesters each of English literature and composition in both their freshman and sophomore years.

Father Boyle designed an English curriculum for these two years that focused on literary figures who were young men, roughly the same age as the students. In the first year we read A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s somewhat less controversial first novel, as well as The Dubliners a collection of Joyce’s short stories,. We also read Thomas Wolfe’s wildly romantic autobiographical first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. And, of course, there was Shakespeare: Henry IV Part One, the first semester of freshman year and Henry IV Part Two the second semester.

Among my fondest and most touching memories of my mother was coming home and finding her sitting in the living room with my copy of The Dubliners on her lap. She looked like she had been crying. When I asked he what was the matter, she held up the book and said, “I’ve never read anything this beautiful.” Mom read her way through the entire freshman and sophomore reading list, excluding Shakespeare.  Dad traveled for a living and when he was out of town, Mom and I would discuss these books. “I feel like I’m going to college, too,” she told me.

Father Boyle was in equal parts brilliant and demanding as a teacher of English composition. All students were required to have their own copies of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and bring them to class. Upperclassmen majoring in English were also required to subscribe to The New Yorker magazine to study writing styles.

Father Boyle had three rules for writing:

1.   Use vivid verbs
2.   Use as few modifying adjectives and adverbs as possible
3.   Put your main thought in the main clause.

One time, Father Boyle handed back one of my papers and asked me to read it aloud.

“I don’t think that Othello is totally evil,” I began.

“Stop right, there,” Father Boyle said. “Your main thought, Mr. Curtan, is that you ‘don’t think.’ Tell me why I should take the time to read the paper of a writer who informs us in the first clause of his first sentence that he ‘doesn’t think.’”

Lesson learned! I could paralyze myself trying to come up with vivid verbs. I’m not sure I could handle a weekly post without the help of Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus.

When Father Boyle passed out the final exam for his class on John Milton, it had only two sentences, this quote from Paradise Lost:

Th’ unwieldy elephant, To make them mirth, us’d all his might, and wreathed His lithe proboscis. – John Milton

This was followed by the one instruction for the exam: “Discourse at length on onomatopoeia.”

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to prepare for an examination on Paradise Lost. It is an epic poem consisting of 10 books and over 10,000 lines of blank verse. I didn’t sleep much the night before the exam nor do I imagine did most of my classmates.

We looked in shock at the simplicity of the exam. Father Boyle giggled in delight (he was not a tall man and in appearance did not look entirely unlike a leprechaun) and said, “Well, have at it.”

He was fully aware of how hard we had studied for the test, pouring over class notes and memorizing as many facts as we could. The test required none of that but to pass it you had to have grasped the soul of Milton’s unique poetic genius which Father Boyle had spent the entire semester immersing us in. He wanted to be sure that, in addition to understanding the text, we heard the music of Milton’s poetry

The Literary Club—I’m to the right of Father Boyle; on the far right is Ralph St. Louis who got the only ‘A’ in Thomism and Modern Thought.

I rarely have occasion to tell people how much I enjoyed that class. Even at the time people shrugged and looked at me strangely. I don’t know today who reads Milton or even knows who he was. It was a glorious and impractical class that demonstrated the power of words—not just to make us listen, but to make us see.

I attended my first performance of Shakespeare with Father Boyle and my classmates when I was a sophomore. The play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It featured among others Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz) and Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) and as part of the ensemble a very young Christopher Lloyd (later of Taxi and Back to the Future). I, of course, still have the program.

Father Boyle spent weeks prepping us for the performance, making sure we understood the play backwards and forwards and that we knew what every word meant. It remains one of the most thrilling evenings I ever spent at the theatre. Because of Father Boyle’s tutelage, Shakespeare has never intimidated or bored me. I’ve seen the majority of his plays live or on film—some of them, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Measure for Measure (my favorite) multiple times.

It was Father Boyle’s hypnotic classes on Shakespeare, however, that exploded the universe of my imagination.

The classroom episode I remember most, however, occurred when we were studying The Merchant of Venice. After we had finished discussing the scene, early in Act One where the heroine, Portia, cruelly mocks all of her suitors, Father Boyle paused and said, almost to himself, “Hamlet wouldn’t put up with Portia for five minutes.” Then he returned to the text and said, “Let’s meet Shylock.”

My mind was spinning. There is no character named Hamlet in The Merchant of Venice but I was certain of what Father Boyle said. We continued with the play, then, as the bell rang at the end of class, he said, “Come to think of it, Portia would despise Hamlet.” He shook his head and muttered, “Bad match. Bad Match,” and walked out of the classroom.

Father Boyle, I realized, didn’t see Shakespeare’s work as a series of individual poems and plays but as a total universe in which the characters in each play are so perfectly realized that you could imagine them in scenes with characters from his other plays.

This was my first visceral experience of the reality that “All Is One.” It changed the way I saw not just Shakespeare or literature but the entire world. Everything connects. Everything is in relationship.  Nothing is separate. As Father Richard Rohr teaches, “Everything Belongs.”

In doing research on Father Boyle, I came upon a sermon by John Foley, S. J., a classmate of mine at Regis. John says this about Father Boyle:

“Father Boyle was a great teacher, without question, and one proof of greatness lay in a statement he often made: “If you want to know what is happening in a work, look for what love is doing.”

Boyle went through Shakespeare, Hopkins, Joyce, Keats, Milton, and I can’t remember how many more. . . . I began to see that Boyle was crucially correct. Characters center around this something called “love.”

Father Boyle grounded all of his classes in Shakespeare with Sonnet 116, perhaps the best description of love in all literature. I haven’t found a better one.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Father Boyle said that this Sonnet is a mirror that can be held up to characters in literature “to look for what love is doing.”

For Fathers Boyle and Klocker it was not enough that their students learned, it was equally important that we come to love learning and that holy curiosity and the love of learning would last a lifetime. So far, so good.

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” -Dorothy Parker

“There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.” -Bertrand Russell

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