The Question

April is the cruelest month for college English departments, and not just because we’re fans of T. S. Eliot (yes, he still gets taught, if occasionally—Shakespeare, too, if we can fit him in).

April is when we finally learn whether those bright young minds we invited to join our faculty will actually come. If they do, we’re relieved. If they don’t, we’re frantic. A process that has had us reading hundreds of applications since fall may all come to naught if we lose our top choices to other institutions. And if that happens to us this year, I’ll wonder if it was because we didn’t ask The Question.

I first heard about The Question long before the present hiring season. I was asked it myself, in fact, late one December afternoon in Philadelphia. I was in a room with a hiring committee, answering questions about who I was and what I did and what I’d like to do. Finally, the senior member of the group cleared his throat and said, “And so it falls to me to ask The Question.”

What do you believe? That was the question, though it wasn’t so baldly put (I was interviewing with a Jesuit college, after all). And the answer he wanted wasn’t necessarily “I believe in God.” It could have been “I believe I’d be comfortable on your campus, comfortable with your values, and that you and your students would be comfortable with me.” I answered every way I could—yes, and yes, and did I mention I went to a Jesuit high school?—until he nodded; then we proceeded to talk of other things, essays and syllabi, the size of the library and the gym.

I got the job; I didn’t take it. I loved the school, the faculty, the students, but I worried I would be too comfortable there. At my Jesuit high school—which I’d also loved—I’d always been pushed to take the harder road. Thus, I took a competing offer at a large, urban, public university in a completely unfamiliar city. They settled the matter in a phone interview. I was never asked The Question.

Why? Because ours is a public institution, and, as I’ve since discovered, we hew to a very rigid set of questions during applicant interviews: no deviation allowed. We never ask about beliefs. This puts everyone at ease, I’m sure, but I have to admit, it makes me a little nervous. Because I want to know.

Not our applicants’ religious beliefs. We’re not hiring theologians or campus ministers. We’re a public university attempting to hire public employees to teach our state’s young citizens about reading, writing, and the critical thinking involved in both. But too often, I find, we transmit to our students the notion that healthy skepticism isn’t just a trait of scholarly inquiry, but its sum. Forget God: our students don’t believe. To have faith in something—Jesus, the Surgeon General (cigarettes are back, in a big way), or the president (they liked him better as a candidate, now he’s just another politician)—is to be marked as a dupe. Credulity is frailty.

I’ll claim some of the blame for my colleagues and me: any time we hold back, roll our eyes, equivocate—maybe Shakespeare isn’t necessary; perhaps poetry won’t one day save your life—we sell a simple message: Don’t believe. Simple, but dangerous. Because students interpret this not as “Don’t believe because you shouldn’t”—that is, belief is a choice, maybe you don’t believe, but you could if you wanted to—but rather, “Don’t believe because you can’t.” As though belief requires a muscle they don’t have.

Here’s what I believe. Asking faculty recruits The Question would signal that we believe in belief, that ours is a faculty they’d want to join. (Unless, of course, they have a Jesuit-instilled predilection like mine for harder roads.) As for students: they do have that muscle. Like any other muscle, it weakens with disuse. Nevertheless, it’s there, connected in some way to the muscle that opens their mouths to speak or their minds to think—or that allows them to raise their hands and ask a question.

What do you believe? I wish I’d asked the people we interviewed. I wish they’d asked me in return, forced me to think, question, and finally answer: I believe you can.

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. His new short story collection, Listen, will soon be published by Four Way Books.

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