e-mail us

Spring Books

History of human dimensions

by Raymond A. Schroth, SJ
Loyola Press, 424 pages, $16.95


Fr. Raymond Schroth, Jesuit Community professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., is known to NCR readers as media critic and author of articles on the recent crisis in the church. His book on Fordham, the New York Jesuit university, is based on archival materials, the student newspaper and magazine, and his own memories as an undergraduate and member of the faculty, and demonstrates his versatility and journalistic expertise.

This book is hard to characterize. It is not a definitive institutional history, analyzing change over time in the various components of the university, which was founded in 1841. Nor is it a memoir that describes the experience of a single individual. Rather, it is a book of stories about Fordham -- some personal, some historical -- through which the history and character of the institution emerge in their human dimensions, with humor, wisdom, tragedy, inspiration.

Fortunately, these stories rest on an excellent understanding of Jesuit higher education and its development over the centuries. The second chapter, for instance, takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s visits to the campus in the mid-1840s. He liked the Jesuits, he said, because they were “highly cultivated gentlemen and scholars, they smoked and they drank, and played cards, and never said a word about religion.” Yet, in the same chapter, Schroth offers a succinct exposition of the traditional Jesuit Ratio Studiorum (Plan of Studies) of 1599 that formed the central pedagogical paradigm at Fordham and all Jesuit schools.

During the mid-19th century, the ratio was interpreted in a proscriptive manner, with heavy emphasis on humanistic (classical) studies. The approach also mandated a healthy balance between study and recreation, orderly academic progression, personal spirituality, and mentoring relationships between faculty and students. The ratio took on a distinctive flavor at each school because of the local culture and because of the individuals who invested themselves in the enterprise and struggled over it.

Athletics was one of the variables that brought prominence to Fordham. In football, the legendary Frank Cavanaugh came from Boston College in 1926. He warned players unwilling to lose an arm or a leg to quit the team. Cavanaugh knew the meaning of sacrifice, having been badly wounded in World War I. Between 1929 and 1931, his teams lost only two games. By 1932, the aftereffects of his war injuries had damaged his eyesight so badly that he could no longer see his players and he was asked to resign. Later Vince Lombardi played for Fordham as one of the “seven blocks of granite” and carried his Jesuit-inculcated values into his coaching career with the Green Bay (Wis.) Packers.

Racial diversity prov-ed a difficult challenge. Fordham refused admission to a qualified black candidate in 1934 over the protests of Fr. John LaFarge (editor of the Jesuit weekly, America) and Catholic social activist Catherine de Hueck Doherty, who lobbied the university for three years to accept African-American students.

G. Gordon Liddy, a figure in the Watergate debacle, was a product of postwar Fordham and remained devoted to his alma mater. To capacity campus crowds, he announced: “The Jesuits taught me how to think. They did not teach me what to think. I am not their fault.” He sent three sons to Fordham during the 1980s.

Other vignettes tell the stories of Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts during the Civil War and was memorialized in the movie, “Glory”; Denzel Washington, who discovered his acting talents as an undergraduate; and Jesuit Leo McLaughlin, controversial Fordham president from 1965 to 1969, who left the Jesuits to marry and returned to the campus infirmary to die.

The book includes an appreciative account of Fr. Joseph O’Hare’s presidency, which started in 1984. O’Hare argues that identity is determined by a Jesuit university’s “contribution to the dialogue between faith and reason and its promotion of the Catholic educational tradition.” That identity challenges individuals to find God in all things, to undertake active lives as “men and women for others,” and to strive beyond the status quo toward a better world. It’s a strong definition and a good one, and Schroth illustrates its force through his marvelously engaging text.

Jesuit Fr. Anthony Kuzniewski is professor of history at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003