The Inspired Teacher: Frank O'Malley

Author: George McClancy '52

On the second day of the events described in Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades crashes the party and is led to deliver a speech in praise of Socrates as a teacher. Alcibiades warns his audience not to listen to anything Socrates has to say because he will cast a spell that will shame those who hear him away from lives of happy enjoyment and into the austerities recommended by philosophy. He insists that he means to describe much more than what one might find in a great orator. Indeed, his claim is an ascription of a mysterious power that greatly exceeds mere excellence of address.

For several decades, until 1974, there was a teacher at Notre Dame named Frank O’Malley whose powers were beyond the legendary. To many of us who were his students, O’Malley’s classes on Modern Catholic Writers and Philosophy In Literature bordered on the miraculous. Some years later, I can remember sharing wonderment with a fellow graduate student, Jim Conerty, as to the strange and amazing power of O’Malley’s which had gripped and changed us both so deeply. It did not seem to us to be a matter simply of the depth and seriousness of his ideas. After all, great truths were the substance of education and available in many classes at the university. On the contrary, there was something about the quality of apprehension attainable through the lectures of O’Malley’s that made the experience rare and exceptional, that made it an experience of profound revelation.

Our attempts to explain this effect were short-lived and unfruitful. However, I do remember that we facetiously suggested that perhaps O’Malley’s power lay in the mere sound of his voice. I was actually struck by that suggestion, although I did not admit to it at the time.

Witness to the truth

Looking back, it seems to me that O’Malley’s arrival was the occasion for a wave of awe to pass through the classroom. To me, the awe reached the level of shock. Having attained my senior year, I knew well enough that the University had many good teachers, but this man was doing something quite different. O’Malley was not just a good teacher, teaching an interesting course. He was prophetic. He was a witness to the truth, the truth being something that most were quite blind to, even within the hallowed precincts of Notre Dame.

Not that O’Malley engaged in the denigration of his colleagues and their efforts. Rather, he revealed to us an understanding of things, made available through faith and thought, which was different from and infinitely more profound than the mix of parochial school religion and complacent middle-class values that was the norm everywhere in American Catholic culture.

Claiming to much prefer “the ravings of Kierkegaard” to “the comfortable bromides of Benjamin Franklin,” O’Malley made us realize that all was not well in Christendom. On the contrary, there was a great misunderstanding abroad which failed to see the “fear and trembling” promised by St. Paul and which seemed to offer a false “promised land” of spiritual comfort and material prosperity as the reward of the Faithful. All the while, we were in danger of falling victim to a desperately misguided spiritual complacency that gave no heed to Christ’s warnings regarding mammonism and mediocrity. The need for love and heroism, for the extremes of passion, was revealed to many of us for the first time. Indeed, even the misery of heart of the wretched sinner was preferable to lukewarm spiritual complacency and self-satisfaction.

O’Malley read aloud the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins; he quoted Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Romano Guardini and Jacques Maritain; he analyzed the thoughts of Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, Graham Green, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and others, all with the purpose of providing insight into the truth of things, that we should see the world for what it really is and that we should understand those “deep down things” which our faith would allow our honest intelligence to see. In other words, he revealed to us an existence of a wisdom, at once Christian and Humanistic, which tore aside the veil of banal interests and gave us a view of meaning and importance that changed everything, even though outward appearances changed very little. Christ was placed in the center of life, as someone whose suffering and love we all shared and as the measure of all value and all meaning.

O’Malley’s power to move his students to see could be explained by his use of such great authors and thinkers, but it is only partially so. There was something about his actually giving voice to their visions that captured us, that made the truth of the insights irresistible. It became as though, suddenly, a fire was enkindled deep in the soul and we hung on every word O’Malley uttered.

There were royal moments. I know of no other way to describe them. O’Malley’s class instantly transformed me and continued to sustain me for the remainder of the year. I felt that if I had done nothing else in my four years at Notre Dame than hear Frank O’Malley, the experience had been an absolute and total success. I was, by the way, only an auditor.

His detractors

I returned to Notre Dame four years later with a graduate degree from another university in hand and a year’s curatorial experience in an art museum. I did so in order to take up further graduate studies, this time in philosophy. I had received an appointment to teach art history at Saint Mary’s College. Naturally, it occurred to me to renew my acquaintance with O’Malley and to sit in on one or two of his lectures just for memory’s sake and perhaps to see if now, grown-up and sophisticated fellow that I had become, I would still find him to be so impressive. Sometime in mid-year I did, and it was still a shock. Just as before, his words were charged with insight, windows to the truth. O’Malley’s was a voice quite beyond mere scholarly learning.

Unfortunately, it was also that year, at one or another social gathering, that I came to realize that O’Malley had serious detractors among the faculty. In some cases, the clear cause of the enmity was envy — that he was treated with legendary regard by his students was held as proof enough of his misdoing. Others tried to justify their contempt, claiming, “he flatters his students!”

O’Malley also had his strong supporters among the influential voices of the University. Father Leo Ward, CSC, comes to mind immediately as a powerful intellectual and a rigorous philosopher who was a friend and admirer of O’Malley’s work. Other I remember include Tom Stritch and Jim Wethey from the faculty.

To his students, the idea that O’Malley gained their admiration through flattery was ridiculous, since dishonesty of any sort in Frank O’Malley was unthinkable. It is true that his estimate of the potential of the student, an estimate which was as keenly considered and deeply felt as every other serious observation to cross his mind, led him to the conclusion that “judging the potential of the student by measuring the actual is illogical” and, moreover, that the potential of any human person is “unfathomable.”

Selfless dedication

I heard him make this observation in a summer graduate seminar on “Teaching the Humanities,” which he co-taught with Professor Robert Caponigri from the Philosophy Department. O’Malley subtitled his part of the presentation “How to avoid acts of aggression against students,” and gave us rules for doing so, the spirit of which is, I believe, well represented in the passage below, one of the few notes on the subject of “the teacher’s attitude” that I have not lost.

“Teaching involves a selfless dedicated concern for the unique working out (to adulthood) of each soul, a delicate sense of the peculiar needs and aspirations of each, for the peculiar way with knowledge, that is each one. This sympathy, this capacity to appreciate the requirements of another’s fulfillment … seems a function of prudence, perhaps an extension of the prudence of the father. The teacher must respect the delicate sacred interiority of each student, he must encourage the timid efforts at genuine utterance and integration.”

But, again, having the right attitude toward the student will not suffice for an explanation of O’Malley’s greatness. Even though it may have been an indispensable part of his character as a teacher, I believe that those of us, his former students who went on to teach with exactly that right attitude toward the student, will confirm that it did not provide us with such authority and power as O’Malley’s seemed overwhelmingly to possess. There did, indeed, seem to be a strange power in the very sound of his voice, halting and almost inaudible as it often was, much as there may sometimes be in the mere sound of the voice of a great singer or poet or dramatic actor, to move the soul.

The ancients had no rational answer to account for the superhuman excellence of great art and developed the theory of inspiration by the muses. Christian philosophers have no difficulty believing that the Holy Spirit is at work in such ways. In his famous debates with Siger de Brabant on the teachings of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas informs us that whatever proposition is true is true by the power of the Holy Spirit, no matter who asserts it, pagan or Christian. And the Gift of the Holy Spirit which is called The Gift of Words, which renders the truth lucid to its hearers, is directed precisely at the empowering of utterance, at the spoken word.

During O’Malley’s time, advanced degrees among the faculty members were essential to academic respectability for a university and therefore prerequisites for tenure and promotion. Scholarship and publication, which offered the prospect of national reputation to the individual as well as the university, were honored and encouraged. Teaching ability did not generally carry sure importance, although, to its credit, Notre Dame made exceptions in the cases of O’Malley and a few others.

Today, at least at the undergraduate level, the importance and the authority of the teacher is further undermined because of the two new influences. We live in an era when much is made in higher education of something called “student-centeredness,” which is the natural child of changes brought about by the 1960s regarding freedom and authority. More and more often, students are encouraged to pursue whatever interests them, without regard for any particular tradition of knowledge and culture. For many, there is no body of knowledge the attainment of which constitutes an education and there is no wisdom to be gained by the study of the thoughts of particular minds. The traditional liberal arts curriculum has been virtually abandoned in many institutions, replaced by courses and programs of practical and professional purpose. Lacking authority, the teacher has been reduced to the position of facilitator in the learning process rather than leader or guide. Further worsening this situation, great hope is now being placed in the promise of computer technology, as though there is no longer any need for the living presence of a teacher.

In opposition to this stands the example of Frank O’Malley. He represented and proclaimed an understanding of existence which was held to be wisdom. And his physical presence in the classroom materially and dramatically affected his communication of that wisdom to his students. For those concerned with such things, it would seem well to remember that his influence on generations of Notre Dame students was so profound and so vast in its consequences that it may find no parallel in the history of the University if not the history of American higher education.