Since 1983 I’ve been on the faculties of various universities in the United States: two public land-grant systems (the Universities of Wisconsin and of Illinois), one Catholic university (Notre Dame), and two private research institutions (the University of Chicago and Duke). I’ve taught undergraduates and graduate students, supervised doctoral students, written books and essays and journalism, and, throughout it all, talked to anyone who wanted to listen, with a special preference for those who’d pay to listen to me. The ordinary academic thing.
I’m a creature of the university, and, above all, a child of words. Words have flowed through me, sometimes easily and sometimes not. They’re what I’ve immersed myself in and provided a channel for, and they’re what I’ve tried to give to others. I’ve loved word-work and poured my life into it. I love it still.
I am, too, a working-class emigrant Englishman, in the first generation of my family of origin to gain a university degree. I’ve been a delighted citizen of the United States by naturalization since 1994, and have lived here much longer than that, from the bitter end of the Carter presidency to the astringent beginning of the Trump years. I’m 61 now, and was 24 when I landed at JFK Airport with a suitcase, a scholarship, and $500. My life in those years has been a university life, which has been both a privilege and an ecstasy.
It’s over because I recently, and freely, resigned my chair in Catholic theology at Duke University in response to disciplinary actions initiated by my dean and colleagues. Those disciplinary actions, in turn, were provoked by my words: critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university diversity policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms. My university superiors, the dean and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents.
And so, I reluctantly concluded, the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference — these no longer have the place they once had in the university.
Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure. That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: Being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest. Both moves are common enough in our élite universities now, as is their support by the powers that be. Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was. So is tolerance for argument.
For me, the sky-flower has fallen to the ground, its petals scattered but bearing still the beauty of a remembered reverie. I bear responsibility, of course: my class, my intellectual formation in the snidely and aggressively English dialectic of debate, my eye-to-the-main-chance polemical temperament, and no doubt other deep and damaged traits of which I’m scarcely aware, all had their part to play in bringing the sky-flower to earth.
The words remain, however, and I as child of them — child, too, of the Word in which the words participate. Leaving the university is a small thing in that light. It’s the opening of a door. And at 61, the door opens, among other things, upon the path toward death. Timor mortis conturbat me, certainly; but the anticipation of death comforts me, too. That there are words for that complicated condition — and that it’s possible to think with them — are not among the university’s gifts. But without the university I would not be able to think about those words as, in fact, I can; and that is a debt of gratitude I won’t now be able to further discharge.
Paul J. Griffiths is a professor of Catholic theology at Duke University. This article originally appeared in Commonweal.