Keeper of a Great Intellectual Tradition
Prof. John Alvis strives to free University of Dallas students of the trappings of moral relativism
BY Ellen Rossini
September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 2:00 PM
Catholicism is not just about the heart, but the mind, and as such, Catholic thinkers should stand out as the voices of reason on issues of the day, according to nationally recognized professor and playwright John Alvis of the University of Dallas (UD).
“To my mind, Catholicism is important aside from considerations of personal piety. It's important because it's the very center of Western intellectual tradition,” said Alvis, 54, a gravelly-voiced veteran of the city's lone Catholic institution of higher learning.
“To me, that means that Catholicism combines the best of the classical world with revealed truth. And Catholicism, in particular, rather than Protestant Christianity, because Protestant Christianity rejected much of the classical world, especially the moral philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, at the time of the Reformation.”
“(Catholicism) is also essential for the proper understanding of Christianity because otherwise Christianity tends to become merely a sentimental enthusiasm … without a natural law basis … that establishes not only by revelation but by reason the importance of such institutions as the family and small communities and republican government.”
Applying that tradition of reasoned thinking to such issues as abortion and no-fault divorce is essential work for Catholics, especially scholars, believes Alvis believes.
“The Church needs to make it clear that they are representatives of reason and not just one group that cries out for respect among other groups,” he added. “Higher Catholic education should be education in revealed truth, yes, but grounded in recognition of natural principles of reason that will provide a foundation for revealed truth and provide one with the means of intelligent discussion of the matters that one holds in faith.”
Alvis, recently named to the Templeton Honor Roll for academic excellence, participates in that discussion on many levels. He is an award-winning playwright and a regular conference director for Liberty Fund, which gathers academics for a weekend of six seminars covering topics of the director's choice, such as Alvis' selections “Prometheus-Faust Connection,” “Liberty and Responsibility in the Works of John Milton,” and “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Liberty or Statism?”
Catholicism is also essential for the proper understanding of Christianity because otherwise Christianity tends to become merely a sentimental enthusiasm.
Calling him one of the “crown jewels” of the campus, UD English department chairman David Davies described Alvis' presence at the school as invaluable.
“His importance to the department is profound,” he said. “He is a first-rate thinker whose learning is characterized both by its breadth of knowledge of literature, philosophy, and theology, but also by the depth of his understanding, and it is enhanced by the fact that he brings his understanding to bear on the circumstances we find ourselves in.”
Indeed, one can hardly separate Alvis from the quietly esteemed UD — home of renowned Humanae Vitae defender Janet Smith — where the professor has taught for 30 years. He came here from Jackson, Miss., to study physics, but wound up with a bachelor's degree in English in 1966, a master of arts in English in '68 and a doctorate in politics-literature under political thinker Wilmoore Kendall in 1973. Except for a brief stint at St. Johns' College in Annapolis, Alvis has taught continuously in UD's core curriculum, one of the oldest in the country.
Alvis teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the literary greats from Shakespeare and Milton to Melville and Faulkner, but he names Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as the most important literary writer for our day.
As for political writers, Alvis ranks Leo Strauss and Eric Voeglin, whose works are cornerstones in the UD curriculum, because they “lead us back to the classics and they keep us from being bound by the opinions of our day.”
In fact, Alvis' work as a Catholic professor is to free students from the modern approach to philosophy characterized as moral relativism — that every opinion and belief and standard is equal to any other.
“University begins with the assumption that everybody is going to be a more or less unreflective moral relativist. They're going to come in that way. And it's senseless to attack it directly,” he said.
“What you do is have them read great books, and when they read great books they see that you have to make discriminations between the better and the worse, the noble and the base, and eventually that leads them back to moral distinctions, because they can see that moral distinctions are based upon intellectual judgments, they're not a matter of preference.
“That's not just a hope,” he said. “That's what happens here. But it takes an entire curriculum to do it. You don't do it in a course. You don't do it in a semester or a year. It takes four years before you can climb up out of the present climate of opinion.”
Students coming to UD usually have a good family background, character, independence of thinking, and capability of doing hard work, Alvis said, but in recent years they are generally lacking in their formal preparation for college work.
“I think there is one reason for that — whether they are in public school or Catholic school. Emphasis is placed on socialization rather than on training in subject matter,” he said. Such emphasis, which takes the form of multiculturalism, preachments about diversity and tolerance, and environmental dutifulness, leads to students being sent out to clean a median instead of reading Hawthorne, said Alvis.
The students best prepared for the university are those who read and converse with their parents rather than watching television or listening to music, he said, but the quality of their reading matters also.
Alvis recommends students read “first and foremost” the Bible, formerly the staple of American education, as well as Shakespeare, good novels such as Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, and quality short story writers such as Flannery O'Connor.
Prior to junior high, students can read speeches, particularly those by former presidents, “so they have a sense of what presidents can say that is entirely different from what they hear on the sound bites over television,” he said. “They have no sense of what a speech is.”
As a husband and father of three children — one a doctoral student at Fordham University, one a senior at UD and another who plans to enroll at UD — Alvis sees no better complement to the intellectual life than family.
“Life is mostly a matter of perfecting the mind, and the best way to perfect the mind is to raise children,” he said. “You retrace your steps, and you learn what you learned and how you learned, and the most elementary and fundamental things come back to sight when you're training children.
“It also enlarges the heart, and enlargement of the heart is necessary for intellectual keenness,” Alvis said. “You've got to be big to be intellectually keen, or you'll be thinking of petty things all the time, thinking of matters you can calculate, matters of self-interest. ”
The very moral virtues taught by classical tradition and the Catholic faith — prudence, self-control, and courage — are themselves aids to intellectual growth, Alvis believes.
“If you're not in the habit of standing up for principles in such a way that is painful, then you become small-minded and you don't grasp things as quickly,” he said.
Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas, Texas.
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