Leuven, Louvain, Katholieke, Catholique — Ik weet het niet, Je ne sais pas!

Word in the Belgian press is that the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven shall be Katholieke no more — well, somewhat.

Although it’s still to be decided this week, officially, our Dutch name shall be “KU Leuven”, with the “K” no longer signifying anything (humorously, university officials like to emphasize that we shall also no longer be “K.U. Leuven”, either). Apparently, our English name shall be “The University of Leuven — KU Leuven” or “The University of Leuven (KU Leuven)”. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of letterhead, website design, curriculum vitaes, etc.

This decision is part of the ongoing mixture of market- and identity-politics here in Belgium. It has been presaged by earlier identity problems (or continuities, depending on your view): previously, we were the Studium Generale Lovaniense (from our founding in 1425 to 1797), the Université d’État de Louvain (until the 1830s, with a brief closure during the Napoleonic regime), then the Université Catholique de Louvain/Universitas Catholica Lovaniensis until the political crisis of 1968 resulted in two universities with the same charter: the Flemish-Dutch Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in historical Leuven, and the Université Catholique de Louvain in the purpose-built town of Louvain-la-Neuve in southern Francophonic Belgium.

The latest change has been justified along two lines: first, that the Catholic Church is interfering with stem cell research (apparently, the change shall also entail removing the archbishop as chairman, leaving him as chancellor); and second, that the “Katholieke” adjective hurts our reputation in the United States, as it supposedly gives the wrong impression of us, i.e., that in order to have a degree from here means one must subscribe to the Catholic faith. Proponents for the change also argue that the university is becoming more and more pluralistic (that remains to be seen in some faculties, but as an official intention this is true).

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Seeing ourselves in our religions

As I get older (and granted, I’m far from elderly), I surprise myself by how I seem to get more radical, but not blindly so.  My misgivings toward capitalism in general run deeper and deeper.  Yet, I also surprise myself in the way that my perhaps peculiar brand of Leftism apparently has some bourgeois limits.

For one, I am not so foolish as to identify capitalism with democracy, although of course they both share roots in liberalism.  Moreover, I also make the perhaps bold distinction between democracy and methodology — something which most Americans don’t like to try.

The way I see it, for all of liberal democracy’s many strengths, it has become a breeding ground for discord.  I am critical of the system for the ways it manufactures consent, inspires egotism, partisanship, and mediocrity among public servants and the political class, and inevitably strips agency from the citizenry.  There has to be a better way of being democratic, of avoiding the short-sighted self-destructive cycles of liberalism without resorting to the sophistries of traditional Marxism.

For another, in light of the uprising in Kyrgyzstan and subsequent land seizures by impoverished citizens of that nation, I’ve had to seriously confront myself about my feelings toward private property.  After all, it’s easy to say I’m a Leftist, but Marx et al were prophetically correct that atomistic individualistic private property is at the core of capitalism, so am I  willing to put my money where my mouth is?  The answer is: not yet.

There are two reasons for my equivocal answer.  On the one hand, there were the Jewish and Protestant values I grew up with of hard personal labor, not to mention the hard lessons of my family’s struggles with money taught me about the need for thriftiness. However, at a more profound level is the sense of ownership itself, of possessing if nothing else one’s inner world and ultimate destiny.  Private property, then, is ultimately about the immortal soul.

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