Dr. Susan Hanssen, associate professor of history at the University of Dallas, gave a lecture titled “Henry Adams on the Sanity or Suicide of the American University” on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. in Gorman B. The lecture was the second in a two-part lecture series on the topic of liberal education. Fr. James V. Schall of Georgetown University gave the first lecture, titled “The Obscolescence of the Colleges: On the Paperless and Placeless Institution,” on Nov. 5.
Hanssen’s lecture aimed to give a history of American higher education, to illuminate Henry Adams’ take on the problems of the modern American university, and to demonstrate why UD’s curriculum represents an adequate solution to the difficulties of the modern “multiversity.”
Hanssen traced the roots of the American educational system back to the rise of the modern nation state, the diminution of the papacy that resulted, and the astoundingly prolific writings of Pope Leo XIII. Hanssen said that Leo’s revival of Thomistic studies represented a return to tradition and, particularly, to the “great source of the western tradition, Thomas Aquinas himself.”
However, while she noted that the first colleges in America were “small, medieval liberal arts schools” founded by immigrants on the Old World model, Hanssen claimed that the modern American “mega-university” came about after the Civil War as a result of the development of “massive, bureaucratic research institutions” in Germany. Hanssen said that the modern university that evolved “attends only to the question of accuracy in empirical facts” and rejects all “existential or religious questions.”
According to Hanssen, “here is where Henry Adams stands,” aghast at the transformation of the “little” Harvard College into the modern, research-based Harvard University. Hanssen claimed that Adams’ “The Education of Henry Adams” represents his diagnosis of the problems of the modern American “multiversity,” and that Adams’ “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” represents his solution: a return to the small, medieval, liberal arts model of higher education.
Hanssen then compared two other solutions to the modern “multiversity”: civilization courses and the Great Books model. According to Hanssen, the University of Dallas combines these two in a unique way that avoids the “hubris” of the first and the “intellectual despair” of the second. Hanssen concluded that UD represents a faithful response to Adams’ analysis of the predicament of American higher education.
The lecture ran for nearly two hours and concluded with a small reception.
In addition to her work at UD, Hanssen received her Ph.D. at Rice University and was the 2010-2011 Garwood Visiting Fellow for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Hanssen also contributed to “The Idea of the American University,” a collection of essays on American higher education that was published in 2010, and she recently completed the manuscript of a book on Henry Adams and American higher education.