On Being A Catholic Academic at A Secular Campus: Hamilton College,1969-1972

I was fortunate to have reached my late teens at a time when the Roman Catholic Church in which I grew up climbed out of its protective shell, looked around at American higher education (including graduate schools), and decided it was not that much of a danger to faith after all. Many of my teachers when I was a Jesuit seminarian (1956-65) had their doctoral degrees from Ivy League schools, and Roman Catholics with graduate degrees, laypeople as well as priests, were being hired by secular colleges and universities. But by 1969 a Catholic teaching on a non-Catholic campus, especially a small one like Hamilton College with a long history of choosing only white male Protestants as faculty, was still something of an anomaly.

A Jesuit priest I knew, faced with an oral examination on 18th century literature at Harvard, was asked questions only about Catholic authors until he had to beg the examiners to question him as they would any other Ph.D. candidate. At Hamilton, where I taught from 1969-1972, I faced nothing quite so awkward. The chair of the philosophy department, referring to the common joke about Thomas Aquinas’ questioning how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, graciously complimented the tradition I came from by pointing out that the passage in question in fact dealt with the philosophical problem of the nature of space. So Aquinas was hardly the fool it was so easy to make of him. Similarly endearing, though disparaging of the popular culture of the time, was the remark made to me by the most senior member of English department, who said he could not understand how a religion as historically rich in great music as mine could be assaulting the ears of 1960s congregations with guitar tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Despite this graciousness I did notice some discomfort about my religion among my new colleagues. An historian, born Catholic, referred to me and my wife Mary who had registered in the local Catholic parish, as the “practicing Catholics”, as though the “practicing” part was a bit much. No such point was made about the faculty who attended the Presbyterian church in the heart of town or the Episcopalian who dutifully went to church with his family every Sunday right across from our apartment on Williams Street.

The Hamilton College Chapel

There came a time in my stay at Hamilton, however, when my Catholicism became a more important issue than I ever wanted it to be. At the invitation of some Catholic students who attended Mass celebrated by a Catholic chaplain in the Hamilton College Chapel, Mary and I began going to church there some Sundays and on others at our parish in town. I had taught a few of these students in my courses, but I think they all felt an affinity for practically the only Catholic faculty member on campus who made no bones either about his Catholicism or about “practicing” his religion, though without any fanfare.

I had been at Hamilton roughly two years by this time, having finished my dissertation, successfully defended it, and risen in rank from Instructor to Assistant Professor. My department chair, who knew I loved Chaucer, had also temporarily surrendered his claim to that course and handed it over to me. But according to the unwritten terms of my original appointment I had no chance whatever of becoming a permanent tenured member of the Hamilton faculty. That restriction, which applied not just to me but to other young teacher/scholars hired on similar terms, was based on the assumption that we were teaching at so prestigious a school that we were likely to find good jobs elsewhere merely by the fact of having taught for a time at Hamilton. But in the early nineteen seventies the job market for all aspiring faculty members was vastly diminished, a fact that gave rise to the pleasantry that most Ph.D’s were currently driving taxicabs.

How my Catholicism could have resulted in the lifting of my status as a strictly temporary member of the Hamilton faculty will be the subject of my next post.

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