Had I lived around 1143 A.D., my name might be: Ken Walker or, better, Ken, walker. My son might be: Michael, son of Walker, or Michael Walkerson. Since I was a teen I have walked a lot, usually solitary rambles outdoors. When in the country, I hike trails in the woods or along no trails at all; I let curiosity lead me.
On the Notre Dame campus where I work, I walk around its long quadrangles, its curving trails, its lakes. When winter arrives, I wander through the corridors of buildings. Fortunately, Notre Dame has many buildings with long hallways, buildings that are three or four stories high. I say “fortunately” because the winters in northern Indiana are harsh; if you are a walker, and an aging one at that, you benefit from those long corridors. While young I frequently hiked the country through snow-covered landscapes and was invigorated — not as much today. My body no longer wants to battle the cold that constricts and cracks the skin.
I recently bought a fitness wristband, which tracks my steps, miles, active minutes and calories burned. My heart has had troubles lately, leading to minor surgery, so I’m getting my body back to health. Moreover, my oldest daughter is getting married seven months hence and I want to fit into the one suit I own because I’m too cheap to buy a new one. So I walk during lunch and work breaks. I amass steps.
My office is at one end of O’Shaughnessy Hall’s first floor, looking out on a long corridor. O’Shaughnessy, home of the College of Arts and Letters and the humanities, has a lackluster interior, with drab yellow tile walls and terrazzo floors. The walls are cluttered with fliers and posters announcing lectures, symposia, plays, concerts, debates, conferences and new courses. Most of the posters are colorful and graphically pleasing, thank God — they hide the sterility of the faded yellow walls. Others are modest and subdued, but they all vie with one another for the attention of passers-by.
Work-study students and department secretaries tape multiple copies of each poster, willy-nilly, on every floor and in the stairwells, hoping one of them will catch someone’s attention amid the dozens of competitors, sometimes so densely packed they partially overlap. One notice shouts, “Embrace the F-Word,” encouraging students not to shy away from feminism. (“Feminism is not a dirty word,” it says. “Hear it. Say it. Take Gender Studies.”) Next to it is a “March for Life” flier recruiting students to sign up for the annual pro-life march in Washington, D.C. An upcoming film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, documents a group of Guatemalan citizens who sought justice following the horrific crimes committed by President Ríos Montt in the early 1980s. And there are upcoming guest lectures: “Is the Brain-Dead Patient Really Dead?: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Bioethical Analysis of an Autopsy Report”; “The Primacy of Panpsychism” (the idea that all matter — even inorganic — has some degree of awareness, if only in a rudimentary state such as the attraction and repulsion of atoms); and “Theology in Star Wars: From Padme to Leia: Eve/Mary Typology.” Another announces a lecture about Schelling and Hegel’s philosophy of nature and its relation to spirit. Schelling said, “Spirit is invisible nature; nature is visible spirit,” affirming their essential unity, if not identity. It is a passage I love to quote, pantheistic though it may sound.
I enter some of the lecture dates in my iPhone calendar.
I learn from another poster — “Critiquing the Core: What is the Ideal Core Curriculum?” — that the University is undertaking a major review of the courses that all students, regardless of major, must take in order to be considered well-educated. The University president has posed a number of questions for deliberation, three of which interest me: (1) what knowledge, dispositions and skills should all Notre Dame students possess upon graduation?; (2) how can our core curriculum not only sustain but also deepen our commitment to Notre Dame’s Catholic character?; and (3) how do and should core curriculum requirements work in conjunction with academic major requirements? Those large questions will unsettle many and spur others to jockey for a place in the core. `
Anyone may attend these events if they can find the time. O’Shaughnessy’s posters illustrate the tumultuous nature of the humanities today: the give and take of competing worldviews, of opposing ideologies jockeying for hegemony; the battle between the traditional and the trendy; the quest to interpret events and phenomena the right way and the discursive battles over what the right way is; of what truth is or whether there is such a thing as truth; and the boisterous cacophony of it all. By walking to and fro on O’Shaughnessy’s three floors, I learn what’s up in the humanities while getting my walks and accumulating steps.
The Mendoza College of Business, two buildings south of O’Shaughnessy, has four wings connected by a central atrium and an impressive open, circular staircase. You can walk back and forth through each wing, on all three floors, and log in about a mile, approximately 2,200 steps if you include the stairways.
Mendoza displays upcoming events and notices on bulletin boards outside department offices, not on the walls. Notices must be approved before getting hung, and they get hung tidily. I do not see hints of provocative intellectual arguments emanating from those walls. Perhaps the kingdom of business wants to appear neat and in control, without raucous and dissenting voices. Mendoza is, nonetheless, an inviting place for walkers.
I am self-conscious wandering the hallways like a stranger in a foreign land, unlike when I wander out of doors. Someone’s bound to notice my frequent passing. Secretaries and professors in offices facing the hallways often leave their doors open. Some probably see me regularly and wonder what I’m up to. Doesn’t that guy work? Is he casing the joint? Prowling? So I carry a manila folder stuffed with papers intended for the recycle bin, hoping they’ll suppose I’m on official business, perhaps delivering important documents or scurrying to a meeting of consequence. On occasion I encounter someone who knows me and is puzzled why I’m in their building, out of place. They ask a variant of, “What are you doing over here? Are you lost?” Lately, I’ve taken to replying with a variant of, “Well, yes, in the sense that we’re all lost until we find our true path,” which usually evokes a puzzled smile that I don’t try to interpret.
The science buildings fascinate me, that is, what goes on inside them. Nieuwland and Stepan halls, the connected homes of the Department of Physics and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, respectively, are just north of O’Shaughnessy, a quick walk across an access road. Their corridors serve as an indoor, winter passageway from O’Shaughnessy to LaFortune, the student center that houses Starbucks. Signs are posted on most doors: “Radioactive Materials. No Food or Drink.” I wonder why no food or drink: If the radioactivity can get you through the air, what difference does it make if it gets you through your coffee? Other signs warn: “Restricted Access: Strong Magnetic Field,” “Keep Doors Closed at All Times for Proper Venting” and “Laser Radiation: Avoid Eye or Skin Exposure.”
Nieuwland has distinct chemical and metallic odors. The latter emanate from the machine shops. When I pass I smell hot, drilled or sawn metals, see shiny metallic shavings all about, notice hand tools and machine tools, and stacks of slide-out compartments containing, I imagine, brackets, screws, bolts and all kinds of cool gadgets. An online brochure says the machine shops keep a ready supply of aluminum, brass, copper, magnesium, molybdenum, steel, carbon, nylon, teflon, delrin, polycarbonate, bakelite and plexiglass. And machinable ceramics such as boron nitride and high-temp alumina. Some of these materials are brand names that get capitalized.
Down the hall is the “Materials Characterization Lab. No Food or Drink.” What do they do there? Pierce, twist, stress and tear away at matter, exploring its every detail, coercing it to give up its innermost secrets? Is it the stressed agony of tortured matter that I smell? When I look up “materials characterization” on the Internet, I discover it involves use of such techniques as microscopy, spectroscopy and macroscopy. The latter includes “tensile, compressive, torsional, creep, fatigue, toughness and hardness testing.” Definitely sounds like torture.
How far can we stress this stuff before it breaks? I envy the machinists who get to work in these shops and labs, the way they get to mold and shape matter, then experiment with it. It sparks one’s childlike imagination of creating toys with super-sophisticated scientific designs and purposes behind their creation.
The Nieuwland and Stepan hallways also have posters, most of them summaries of student research projects, placed in a more orderly way than in O’Shaughnessy, fastened by hooks to gray tile walls. I want to read them all, but there are too many and I cannot tarry — I must get in my steps. One is titled “Imaging and Analysis of Single Optically Trapped Gold Nanoparticles Using Spatial Modulation Spectroscopy.” Ever since I worked in the gold fields of Nevada in my late adolescence and early adulthood, I have fancied myself having a spiritual affinity to gold, so I take a picture of the poster for later reading.
My iPhone mimics the sound of a camera shutter opening and closing, then advancing the film. Click. Whirr. The cinder-block walls amplify the sound in an otherwise quiet corridor. A professor in a nearby office pokes her head out the door and asks suspiciously, “Hello? May I help you?” She’s a middle-aged woman with long, curly, black hair streaked with gray. She wears thick-lensed glasses like the ones my wife wears.
“I was just taking a walk and saw this interesting poster, so I took a picture of it,” I say.
“May I ask why?” She stands authoritatively outside the doorway now, in a stance that demands I give an account of what I’m up to. Oh, my God, I think, she thinks I’m casing the joint. People don’t walk down these corridors randomly taking pictures of student posters. I’m not prepared for her question. How do I explain what I’m doing here? Not that there’s anything wrong with wandering the hallways, but most people don’t. Most have a good reason to be in this building; they belong here, have something to do that is specific and authorized. I’m just a wandering stranger, taking photos of student research posters. Is that peculiar behavior?
Words stumble out of my mouth: I work in the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts; because of the cold, I’m wandering through campus buildings to get my daily walks; the posters interested me, so I took some pictures to read later. As I say this I’m also thinking: I need 6,400 more steps today, 43,450 this week, 3.8 million by the time of my daughter’s wedding. So many more steps.
The professor seems to get it. She understands why I’m walking indoors, and she introduces herself. “I’m Marya Lieberman,” she says and extends her hand.
“Ken Garcia,” I say, extending mine in return, “pleased to meet you.” I recognize her name, have heard about her research. She’s a well-known scientist who developed a device for detecting counterfeit drugs. In the developing world, substandard or counterfeit drugs float around freely. More than 300,000 people die each year from using them, either because they’re tainted with dangerous chemicals, lack necessary ingredients, or are made of little more than maize or chalk. The fake medicine doesn’t cure the sick, who often die. Professor Lieberman has developed a Paper Analytical Device that tests the ingredients of some 45 drugs by rubbing a capsule across a piece of paper. You dip the paper in water, take a photo of it on a smart phone and email it to her lab for analysis. Technicians can tell whether the ingredients are genuine or counterfeit, and get the results back to Africa almost instantaneously.
“Where did you say you work?” she asks. I tell her again and with an attempt at levity add, “I’m really not spying or anything, just interested in the research being done.” She smiles a bit.
“It’s just that we have to be extra careful these days. Sometimes people sneak in and steal chemical solutions from the labs to make drugs with.”
“Really? Yikes,” I say, as the TV series Breaking Bad pops into mind. Should I try to assure her I’m not interested in cooking meth?
“You know,” she says, “if you want to know more about the students’ research projects, they’ll be glad to talk to you about them.” She starts to walk me down the hallway to introduce me to a student.
“Great” I say, wanting to learn more, but then I stop. “Oh, wait, I can’t right now. Could I another time? I have to get to lunch.” That is partly true, but really I have to get my steps.
So many more steps to go.
I thank her and say goodbye.
Jordan Hall of Science is a new teaching facility surrounding a majestic central atrium four stories high, with cathedral windows pointing toward a glass ceiling. Off the atrium, on all four floors, are classrooms, auditoria and teaching labs with state-of-the-art technology. And, for a walker, long, inviting corridors.
At the end of the main hallway is a small café, named à la Descartes. I appreciate the pun and wonder if the choice of Descartes’ name was intentional or inadvertent. Descartes is the 17th-century philosopher who conceived of reality as having two substances: matter, an inert substance, and mind or “thinking substance,” which works on matter externally. In time, his ideas evolved into a dualism in which the natural world has no value in itself and can be exploited by thinking beings. It has no internal telos, no formal and final cause guiding its development, no inner connection to spirit. There’s no way Descartes would have given a lecture on the primacy of panpsychism.
Jordan Hall doesn’t have the feel or smell of scientific research, not the way Nieuwland does. My first impression on entering is of a library. I expect to see shelf after shelf of books in solid wood bookcases. The place has the feel of knowledge on the increase and bending toward wisdom, as it should. On the terrazzo floor of the first level are three large medallions, spaced equidistantly. One of them displays six mathematical formulas that have laid the foundations for modern physics: Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system; Newton’s law of action and reaction (why not gravity, too? I wonder); Einstein’s special theory of relativity (E=mc²); Max Planck’s principle of entropy and density of states; Einstein’s general theory of relativity; and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The formulas are replicas of the scientists’ own handwriting, scripts with a beauty of their own.
Another medallion has a representation of the porphine molecule (C20H14N4), which is essential for the blood protein hemoglobin and chlorophyll in plants — a really big-deal-for-life molecule. The third medallion has a diagram of the DNA double-helix, encircled by a citation from the famous 20th-century geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I know Dobzhansky’s work, read some of it more than 40 years ago in an Introduction to the Theory of Evolution class.
A placard above the DNA medallion notes that Dobzhansky’s citation was inspired by the French priest, mystic and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). I know Teilhard, too. His writings changed my life in the early 1970s, led me to mystical religion and later to Catholicism. He didn’t get his own medallion in Jordan Hall, though, only this quote on the placard: “[Evolution] is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must hence forward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow.”
I am pleased to see Teilhard’s work acknowledged in this way, even though the placard does not give the full context of his thought. Teilhard articulated a vision of an evolving cosmos guided by Spirit, of nature forming ever more complex, integrated and sentient beings until it arrives at intelligent, spiritual beings like us. The natural world is as much spiritual as material, and evolution exhibits a telos — a directionality — and an eros impelled by divine love, writ broad and deep. In the Hymn of the Universe he wrote:
“I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim; not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you — debased, disfigured — a mass of brute forces and base appetites — but as you reveal yourself . . . in your totality and your true nature. I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.”
Teilhard believed evolution goes somewhere, in spite of many setbacks, dead ends and suffering. It is guided by spiritual energy and will end in spiritual fullness. The alpha and the omega of that process is Christ.
Science doesn’t acknowledge teleology anymore, although it once did. Speculation on the possibility of design or purpose is verboten. Plus, science’s methods cannot reach beyond the finite world, so it focuses on that alone, as if that were the only reality. This concentration on finite reality is fine, of course — science had made great discoveries — as long as students have the opportunity to see how the universe that science reveals can lead to broader philosophical and theological questions — to boundary questions — and then learn how philosophy and theology attempt to answer them. Shouldn’t that be a key part of the core curriculum? I wonder.
Unfortunately, academic fields have become increasingly separated and fragmented over the past two or three centuries. Scientists, philosophers and theologians speak different languages, often impenetrable to one another. Teilhard tried to bridge them, though unsuccessfully. He believed that research, done rightly, merges with adoration; it opens one to the beauty and wonder that is the mind of God as reflected in his Creation. Even the astrophysicist and atheist Stephen Hawking conjectured that if scientists could discover a complete “theory of everything,” we would know the mind of God.
I wonder if any of the scientists whose offices and labs I pass conceive of research as adoration. I bet some of them do, even if quietly. After all, any topic, if pursued long and deeply enough, will lead to philosophical and theological questions that cannot be answered from within the limits of any particular science. Albert Einstein, an agnostic who rejected the belief systems of all organized religions, considered himself a deeply religious man because he recognized a mysterious force within nature that cannot be grasped, even by an understanding of the fundamental laws of physics. The scientist’s religious feeling, wrote Einstein, “takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”
Science and theology and philosophy have now become separate activities, siloed in separate buildings and labs. The departments of theology and philosophy at Notre Dame share a building, though not much else these days. The humanities are housed in O’Shaughnessy Hall; the social sciences in Flanner — except for psychology, which, alone like the isolated self, is hidden away in Haggar Hall. The life and physical sciences are spread about in a variety of buildings. In order to get in my daily steps, I wander through them, exploring their interiors. But where is the center around which they revolve?
One might ask, “What about the University itself — its stated mission? Isn’t that the center?” I would answer, “No.” The University is an archipelago of disciplinary islands with no — or, at best, flimsy — bridges between them. It is an administrative and accounting center, a precinct in which academic disciplines reside, but it does not weave them into a coherent and beautiful tapestry wherein knowledge in all fields bends toward philosophy — the love of wisdom — and then toward theology, the study of things divine.
Hegel said, “The true is the whole,” and the finite world is “that which is not true in itself” but finds its truth only in relation to the whole. Notre Dame’s mission and public relations statements claim such coherence, but in reality it is lacking. Universities, too, I suppose, can wander and get lost until they find their true paths.
Where, I wonder, does that leave us? Where will this noble university go with the vast and fascinating knowledge it discovers and harbors? Will it fragment further like an ever-expanding universe into utter isolation and cold death, or will it form itself into a kind of spiral galaxy revolving around a center to which all academic disciplines converge? And what would that center be?
I wander out of Jordan Hall into the cold, wondering if Notre Dame can fulfill its mission, can integrate the partial knowledge gained in the many academic disciplines into a whole, or at least point it in that direction.
So many more steps to go.
Kenneth Garcia is the associate director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the author of Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University. He has written for The Gettysburg Review, Southwest Review and other publications.