Not far from here there's a college campus. It's unobtrusive, occupying about half a city block, and consisting entirely of buildings that have served other purposes in the past – an elementary school, several private homes, a couple apartment buildings, even an old dance studio – and were converted to act as housing and classrooms for a few hundred college students. You could easily pass it without even realizing it was there.
I've made the drive from home to that tiny campus countless times – for class, for Mass, for study groups, for special events, for hanging out with friends – and for me, as for many others, that block is not just a random city block. It's the home of Ave Maria College, my alma mater, a place that has left an indelible mark on me. I am better, stronger, wiser person because of the time I spent there.
It saddens me enormously to know that very soon that little campus will not be there anymore. I'll still be able to drive past that block, but it will be an ordinary block. If I stop there, I won't meet anyone I know, and the people who walk those sidewalks and live in those buildings might have no idea that the space they're occupying was once the home of something important, something vital, something which many of us will mourn for the rest of our lives.
It's one of the realities of this world that sometimes, in the temporal realm, evil does triumph. That those on the side of goodness and justice can fight valiantly and lose. That money and political power have more influence than they should.
It's especially tragic when that money and power are wielded against us by people we thought we could trust, by people who claim the same righteous goals, the same high allegiances. There are few things more disillusioning than watching someone wreak destruction while claiming himself a builder of the kingdom of God, than seeing people deal in lies while preaching truth, than learning that a facade of goodness and light might sometimes be no more than that – a facade, a fake front.
I'm not going to hash out the details of the Ave Maria College controversies here, partly because I don't need to do that to my blood pressure and partly because everything I could possibly say has already been said better than I could say it. (If you really want to know, Google should be able to help you out.)
But I will say this: that when Ave Maria College closes its doors this month, something will be lost which should never have been lost. I have watched the battle firsthand, from the inside, and though I live to be a hundred, nothing will ever convince me that it has been a victory for Justice and Truth. It is not the angels who are celebrating now.
When I started at Ave Maria College (AMC) in January 2003, I anticipated nothing of the sad future of my little school. I'd heard rumors that the college – originally intended to have a permanent campus a few miles from its current one – was going to be moved to Florida instead, but the admissions counselor had assured me that this would not affect my career there. He was correct only in the very strictest of senses. I did have the opportunity to graduate from Ave Maria in Michigan, but the school which gave me my diploma in May 2005 was very different from the school in which I enrolled.
Actually, I'm glad that I didn't know about the struggles AMC was facing when I started there, because if I had known I might have decided to go elsewhere, and then I would have missed something incredible, something irreplaceable.
I've only attended two colleges in my life, counting AMC and the huge, faceless state university where I enrolled after graduating from high school in 2000, but I still think I'm qualified to say that my alma mater was a unique place. I've never heard of another school quite like it.
I was drawn there by the opportunity to receive a classical liberal arts education, something which is hard to find in today's college-as-job-training environment. I don't know many students my age who got the chance to spend so much time and energy on learning for its own sake, and to delve into such a broad range of subjects and be exposed to so much culture. I wasn't a literature major, but I got to read (sometimes it felt like had to read, but I'm grateful for it now) Homer and Virgil, Dante and Chaucer. I didn't major in history but I learned it anyway, from the ancient civilizations right up to modern times. I didn't choose philosophy as my major but I still studied Plato and Aristotle and critiqued Hume and Kant; I know what metaphysics is and am ready for a discussion of ethics anytime, anywhere. And since I did major in theology, I'm proud to say you'll be hard-pressed to name a prominent theologian, a core doctrine, or a pervasive heresy I haven't studied, and my copies of the Scriptures and the Catechism are dog-eared. I am intellectually far richer because I got the chance to attend Ave Maria College.
AMC was important, too, because it was a Catholic school of the kind that few Catholic schools are nowadays. I had a high school friend who went to Yale, and during my first semester at Ave she asked me scornfully how valuable the education I was getting there could possibly be, since it was so obviously skewed toward a particular religious tradition. I wish I'd been able then to give her the answer I'd give her now: that education means much more than mere assimilation of bare facts. (I have rather a low opinion of the objectivity of the "facts" that she was served at Yale, but there would be no need to mention that.) Education means the pursuit of truth, and as Catholics we believe that Truth is not a mere abstraction but is a Person, that all Truth comes from God. For a Catholic learning must always be understood in the context of the higher purpose of living: as we gain knowledge we gain wisdom, as we gain wisdom we become more fully the people we are intended to be. My education was not impoverished by its focus on faith; rather, it was greatly enriched by that focus. As I understood that my study of different subjects was integrated into the higher purpose of the pursuit of truth, I was enabled to integrate the knowledge I gained into my own life, and I possess it much more fully today because of that.
However, a classical liberal arts education within a faithful Catholic tradition is obtainable elsewhere - if not very many places elsewhere - so it is not that which gave AMC its particular distinction. From what I can gather, in the beginning it was the newness of the school that made the difference. Those involved with the fledgling endeavor (the school was founded in 1998) made sacrifices for the school's sake. They believed in its value. Faculty moved across the country, staff worked long hours, students put up with countless deprivations, and ultimately it bonded them together. Ave Maria College was their school; they had suffered for it. I noticed from my earliest days on campus a particular character among the members of the college, a loyalty that I haven't observed seen among students of established colleges and universities. Perhaps it was the fact that the school was so young that it, like so many youthful things, seemed to need special protection.
As it turned out, it did need special protection; unfortunately, that protection was something that AMC's students, faculty, and staff, despite our devotion, were ultimately unable to give. When we learned that there was a plan to close our school by 2007 (it ended up closing a year early) it was upsetting; when some brave people made attempts to negotiate a different plan and found that the intent to close AMC was non-negotiable, it was devastating, to me and to many others. I was one of the lucky ones who had a chance to graduate before the school closed, but as I said before, the school which gave me my diploma was not the same school it had been three years before. Being part of AMC while it was dying was, at many times and in many ways, one of the hardest and saddest things I have ever had to do.
At the same time, the fact that the school was doomed made its last years that much more valuable. The students who were willing to lash their academic futures to this sinking ship of a college were its loyallest and most devoted, and that loyalty drew the student body together. It seemed to me that class discussions, extracurricular activities, and social gatherings had an added measure of vibrancy because we knew their days were numbered. Of course the school did not become perfect because it was being destroyed - it had its fair share of problems - but I think there was something intangibly priceless in the character of the Ave Maria College community during the school's last years. Something that would not have been there if we'd had the easy security of knowing our school would still be around for decades in the future.
And oddly enough, despite the real pain of the experience of losing something so valuable, I think that those of us who stuck around were strengthened by that experience. I can't speak for my fellow students, but I know that I, while slightly more cynical than I was before, am also more dedicated to truth and justice because I have seen that they do not always prevail. I hope that as my life goes on, the things I saw at AMC will make me more likely to fight for the sake of the poor and forgotten ones, for the sake of all that is good and true, for the sake of Love Himself. I hope that it is true for my fellow students as well.
Kate points out with her usual verve that Ave Maria College is dead, and she is right. It is mere wishful thinking to imagine that the school can live on as it did before, no matter how valiant our efforts to be faithful to it. But I don't think that means that we who loved AMC are powerless. I consider it a mission to be, as an AMC alumna, a better citizen of the kingdom of God because of the time I spent there. The school is gone, and I can't change that, but maybe I can help make it so that the college will not have lived in vain. We may have lost the battle but we have not lost the war, and all that. I'm going to give it a try, anyway.
Meanwhile, a cliche rings true for once. It is better to have loved and lost in this case, because the pain of watching AMC die has not in any way negated the blessings of the semesters I spent on that tiny campus. Someday I'll take my children on the short drive and show them where my school used to be. I'm hoping that by then, my sadness will have been replaced by something better, something I already have now in rare moments of clarity: the feeling of having been incredibly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. As indeed I was.