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The teaching of ‘enduring values’ was called yesterday the true end of a university by Dr. Russell Kirk. In 1957, St. John’s University (New York City—not to be confused with the colleges in Annapolis and Santa Fe) awarded Russell Kirk a Doctorate of Humane Letters.

The New York Times reported on the speech Kirk, then holding a position in the political science department at Long Island University, delivered. I’m not convinced that the summation offered by the reporter is correct, but let’s hope the quotes are accurate.

He deplored the pursuit of more trivial goals by some American institutions of higher learning, ‘which are often unworthy of the name.’

Dr. Kirk, author and research Professor of Political Science at Long Island University, spoke of the meaning of a university and of higher learning at the eighty-seventh commencement of St. John’s University in Queens. He said detractors of lasting standards who applied the same norms to men and creatures ‘do not have the slightest notion of the norms by which we come to know the law divinely decreed for man’s self-government.’ Comprehension of standards that elevate humanity, he observed, is the only part of a university’s training that ‘will survive the tooth of time.’

In this light, he maintained, the study of the humanities should be undertaken in their ‘full and native vigor,’ which will produce a temperate man because he has a disciplined mind. Asserting that through the study of great thoughts, the lives of great men, theology, philosophy and history the humane person is formed, he went on: ‘The humane person is a conformist not to fads and foibles and appetites of the hour but to eternal truths. The university enjoins conformity to truth and declares that the truth about human nature has long been known to wise men, who have apprehended human norms.’ . . . .

[A Doctor of Humane Letters] was given to Dr. Kirk, who was cited for ‘cogently exposing the errors of confused liberalism and corrosive radicalism.’

Two years later, the university awarded a similar doctorate to Christopher Dawson.

 [“St. John’s Hears University Role,” NYT (June 17, 1957), pg. 21.]

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3 replies to this post
  1. Brad, I love these gems that you keep finding and sharing.

    Permitting me a silly digression, there are too many places named after various St. Johns and we ought to do something to change it. A colleague travelled from London to the wilds of Cambridgshire for some routine medical tests at an unfamiliar hospital named St John's and the taxi driver took him by accident to a mental asylum, also named St John's, where he checked himself in. After a short while of watching his fellow patients, he realised that something was wrong but when he tried to speak to the staff they ignored him. "I am in the wrong hospital," he insisted, "I am not crazy," but the nurses smiled indulgently for they heard this everyday, and so they asked someone bring him a 42nd cup of tea to calm him. It took him the entire day to find a doctor who realised the mistake and released him in time to go home to his bed. In order to be freed he was given paperwork, which he now says makes him the only public-policy consultant with a formal certificate stating that he isn't insane.

  2. Speaking of St. John, there is the great story of the baker who was asked to put 1 John 4:18 on the wedding cake. Not being a careful student of the Bible, he went to John 4:18, so instead of the cake reading
    "Perfect love casts out fear"
    it said,
    "You have had five husbands, and he whom you know have is not your husband."

    We just have to get our Johns right.

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