The apt phrase to describe President Donald Trump’s administration in recent weeks is in chaos. Professional critics have used more brutal descriptions of his intellect and character.
Last month, for example, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote that Trump “knows nothing of European history and cares less, as his cavalier trashing of the alliance and union that ushered the Continent from its darkest hours demonstrates.”
But most of the journalism about Trump’s college education leaves him a man of mystery. He arrived at Fordham University in 1964, and he was there perhaps because it was near home and it let him in. Most contemporaries don’t remember him, other than that he wore fancy clothing and drove an expensive car.
His stay was so short (he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in 1966), Fordham had little chance to offer its specialty, a liberal arts education — an in-depth introduction to the history and literature of America and the Western world, as far as one’s yearning for truth would allow.
Fordham’s required courses then included history, English, science, sociology and, because it is a Jesuit university, three on philosophy and four on theology.
As a non-Catholic, Trump could have substituted something else for theology. Whereas President Barack Obama ended his presidency with interviews on the long list of literature he had absorbed, the only book Trump has named so far is “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which is widely assigned in high school.
In the 1960s, Fordham welcomed its Lincoln Center campus and women students. In 1965, the Rev. Leo P. McLaughlin took the reins as Fordham’s president. A creative man, he raised admissions standards and faculty salaries, had the laity dominate the trustee board, and welcomed more non-Catholic faculty. His trademark: “Pay any price, break any mold, in order to achieve Fordham’s true function as a university.” He wanted Fordham to be Catholic with both a large “C” and a small “c.”
With McLaughlin, Trump should have felt at home. Fordham’s method was to integrate learning within a survey of Catholic social thought. Other courses, such as epistemology, might have introduced him to logic and idealism, while literature would lead him to Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But young Trump was more interested in learning how to make money and avoid the draft.
Trump’s lack of intellectual enthusiasm was unfortunate — for him and for the American people. A sensitive, well-trained brain and heart, the primary product of a good college education, would have saved him from the uproar that followed his decision to radically limit immigration. He might have felt reassured with the Catholic vote on Election Day, but he might not have realized that abortion is not the only concern of Catholics. Under the leadership of Pope Francis, Catholics are being sensitized to see Christ in the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the homeless, the immigrant and the peacemaker.
The Jesuit Refugee Service, an advocacy group for displaced people, has reminded Trump that our country was built with immigrant workers. Some supported U.S. forces in Iraq, and others are survivors from Somalia, Myanmar and Syria.
Several American cardinals and bishops and the presidents of the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown University and the Catholic University of America have added their voices, trying to teach Trump, perhaps too late, the virtues of critical thinking and compassion that he should have been open to in 1964.
The Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, a former Fordham University professor, is the author of “Fordham: A History and Memoir,” and is books editor at America magazine.