The inspirational teacher who was far from a failure

Alice von Hildebrand, pictured in 2010 with the then Archbishop Raymond Burke (CNS)

Having blogged recently about My Battle with Hitler, the memoirs of the Catholic philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, I was curious to read Memoirs of a Happy Failure by his widow, Alice von Hildebrand. Why this intriguing title? Because, as the author explains in her book, as a teacher of philosophy at Hunter College, New York, for nearly four decades, she was a “failure” as far as the faculty of this very secular college was concerned. For years von Hildebrand was given only the uncongenial evening classes to teach, was passed over for promotion, was refused tenure, only paid by the hour and even had scheduled courses changed without consultation – for no other reason than professional jealousy at her popularity in the classroom (enrolment for her courses was nearly always full) and disapproval of her Catholic faith.

As a lecturer in philosophy, the author was always very careful never to bring her personal faith into the classroom. Yet it regularly happened that some students, sometimes of no faith background, at other times lapsed from their faith, would decide to become Catholics after listening to her lectures. Thus von Hildebrand was accused by her colleagues of unprofessional behaviour and of trying to “convert” her students. As this wasn’t true, the author could only conjecture that her “uncompromising devotion to truth, a passionate desire to share with others what I myself have received, and an absolute refusal to compromise for the sake of worldly advantages” had somehow communicated itself to them. They knew they were in the presence of a teacher of integrity, who not only had a passion for objective truth as it arose in philosophical discussions, but someone who also had a pastoral concern for them as individuals. Teaching for von Hildebrand was not a career or a job – it was a vocation: a desire to help her students to discover what was good, true and beautiful in the realm of philosophical ideas.

Relegated for years to teaching evening classes, she writes that “I devoted my love and care to grooming the ‘miserable garden’ to which I had been assigned.” Looking back she comments, “It is amazing what one can endure when one has a sense of mission.” At the end of her book she makes an appeal for teachers “who courageously stand up for the objectivity of truth. There are things which do not change, which have an absolute and transcendent validity, and which every person has the right to know.”

Such a courageously uncompromising attitude does not go down well in an age of relativism, when everyone’s views are seen as valid as everyone else’s and when the put-down to any argument goes, “That’s just your opinion.” What is surprising is the revelation in the book that the collapse of a common core of values was obviously widespread in the US as early as the 1950s. My final reflection: if that was the case in the 1950s, as Alice von Hildebrand describes, how much harder it is for Catholic teachers today – in Catholic schools as well as secular ones.