I’ve met Francis Oakley only a few times, and only at meetings of academic administrators. The first, in 1982 I think, was on a rainy fall afternoon at a gathering of ACNE (The Associated Colleges of New England), when the president of the host institution interrupted the proceedings with a diatribe against lazy, overpaid, and underperforming professors. At one point Oakley leaned over to me and whispered, “I wish I could cycle our faculty through this once a year so they’d see what they’re missing!” He was then dean of the faculty at Williams College, and I’d recently become provost at another institution to the north where I’d been teaching since the mid-1960s.
So not surprisingly I found much familiar in Oakley’s new memoir, particularly the parts about the drastic changes that have shaken up higher education in the past five decades: changes in students, in curricula, in public attitudes toward our colleges, and so forth. But though Oakley rose to become president of Williams (1985–1993), this is less a book about higher education and its ways than about “the lifelong pursuit of liberal learning”—learning not just from teaching and scholarship, but also from patient listening to those who disagree with you, whether irate students with their “non-negotiable demands,” skeptical trustees, or faculty who find some curricular suggestions to be “just not the Williams way.”
Oakley was born into an immigrant Irish Catholic family in Liverpool in 1931, but in less that a decade, he found himself dodging Nazi bombs, and then living in the world of deprivation that remained even after Britain’s victory in 1945. Homeschooled by his mother by necessity, he made it to an excellent Jesuit school, and then to Oxford (Corpus Christi College). Graduate study in Toronto was followed by his National Service in the Army, and then a return to North America (not least because of his Connecticut fiancée, whom he’d met in Canada) and a doctorate from Yale in 1959. Thence he went to Williams despite the worries of those who, like so many in the American intellectual establishment back then, assumed that a Roman Catholic could only be happy at an institution controlled by pope and church.
The real question for Oakley at Williams, however, came from his disappointment after the enormous hopes raised by the Second Vatican Council. A historian whose chief interests lay in late-medieval political thought, Oakley turned his attention to the study of conciliarism, increasingly convinced by historical evidence showing that the later rise of papal absolutism had scant historical basis, and was little more than a fearful reaction to the valid claims of conciliar authority that had been made at Constance in 1415. “No ecclesiastical exigency can alter a fact,” Lord Acton had said, and Oakley agreed. That question still hovered nervously around some of the doings of Vatican II, only to be quashed by Paul VI and the “tide of reaction” that came during
...the distinguished but in many ways destructive pontificate of John Paul II. So far as Catholicism goes, I was then and have since remained no more than one of the vast gray horde of spiritual walking wounded, shuffling forward, more in hope than expectation, in the presumed direction of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Commonweal’s readers may remember an exchange on this subject. (See Oakley’s “Authoritative & Ignored: The Overlooked Council of Constance,” October 11, 2014, and Robert Fastiggi’s response in the letters section of the January 5, 2015, issue.) Was Oakley correct? Not my field, as we historians are wont to say, and I moved from European to Chinese history many decades ago. I’d add only that it has always struck me that among all the problems the Western church faced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the French Revolution, Marxism, Darwinism, Dreyfus, the Kulturkampf, Italian unification, and the self-imposed papal “imprisonment in the Vatican”—the most serious obstacle to the growth of Catholicism was the kind of papal absolutism imposed by Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and their ilk, whose legacy lives on for many today.