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Education & Schooling

UNIVERSITY/ Still seeking answers to life’s deepest questions?

John Garvey

giovedì 25 agosto 2011

John Garvey, the President of the Catholic University of America participated in the Meeting in Rimini in a conference on “The Religious Sense at the Root of the University”. asked him some questions on this topic.

Professor Garvey, the title of the conference states the hypothesis that the roots—or the “invisible” part—of the university lies “inside” man. It is also said that his conscience is the “organ” of the infinite (the religious sense), implicitly suggesting that only this openness of reason can legitimize the “business” of knowing, the university. What do you think about this?

Aristotle famously began his Metaphysics by stating “all men by nature desire to know”.   I think this is what you are getting at when you say that there is an “invisible” university inside man.  This desire accounts for why we ask questions, why we read books about history, and why we study astronomy. Universities provide communities where we can do this for a period of our lives.  Their purpose is rooted in this fundamental impulse to better understand the world.  Aristotle also thought that by observing the world, we learn about the causes that lie behind it.  Our observations lead us to what is beyond the finite.

Again, reason that is open to everything is reason that searches for the truth of things. Do you think that this is the task of the university? What can you say about this, in the light of the prestigious school that you direct?
At religious universities, like the one where I work, we also use reason to better understand the things we learn through revelation. Our academic pursuits are open to the infinite not only through observation of the world and what it tells us about its causes, but because God has communicated something about Himself to us.   Our mission statement sums up our task like this:  “Dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, The Catholic University of America seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.”

Do you think that the university as an institution is in crisis today? If there is a crisis, what does it consist in and what caused it?
In the late 1980s, Allan Bloom wrote a book about the state of the university called The Closing of the American Mind.  In it, he lamented that the great books of western civilization had lost esteem in the university, and were too rarely taught.  Without these texts at the core of education, he worried that universities no longer taught students to ask and seek answers to life’s larger questions, and that disciplines had no point of contact with one another.

These concerns are not unlike the concerns that Blessed John Henry Newman expressed over a hundred years before.  For Newman, the concern was not that the disciplines were fragmented, but that religious discourse and rational discourse had been divorced. “It will not satisfy me,” he said, “what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together. . . .  I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline.  Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the sciences; nor is science a sort of feather in the cap . . . an ornament and set-off to devotion.  I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.”

American universities still suffer, perhaps more than before, from the fragmentation of the disciplines.  By the time they finish an undergraduate degree, students too often have learned a lot about one subject, a little about others, and very little or nothing about the perennial questions posed by the classics. They have also learned to check their beliefs at the door.  The Catholic University of America tries to be a counterweight to this fragmentation.  Our faith tells us that God created a world that is like Him. This means that faith and reason are not opposed. It also means that the knowledge we gain from the sciences cannot refute the knowledge we gain from theology. The disciplines of the university all serve the truth. 

Could a university have a “mission” or “task”? What can this be understood as? Do you think there is a risk in making knowledge the foundation for a dominant ideology?

The mission of the university is the formation of its students.  This means imparting knowledge to them. Sometimes this knowledge is general, in the case of undergraduates, and sometimes it is specialized, in the case of graduate students.  Universities bequeath to students the habits of mind necessary to think critically.  This enables students to be successful in jobs related to their field of study. The university also teaches its students to live well.   This is an especially important task at a Catholic university, where we have consensus about what it means be a good person.  Teaching our students to cultivate the virtues makes them better students in the classroom. It also guards against the idolatry of knowledge, and protects education from becoming ideological. Students who put faith, hope, and love above all else don’t worship science or art.

Do you give your university a particular civil mission in relation to this history of your country? How and why?

Catholic University resides in our nation’s capital.  Though a number of cities were considered as the site for the national Catholic university, the bishops settled on Washington, DC because they saw the university as playing a special role in the nation. Our statement of aims and goals claims that we want our students “to serve the nation and the world”. Our national traditions shape our students. They live and study in a vibrant political culture.  Our students shape our national traditions, as well.  They are politically engaged in legal and cultural issues, particularly those that require a Catholic voice.

What is the goal of the organization of knowledge in a university? Is it simply to further knowledge, or is there something else? Why?
Like most universities in America,  Catholic University offers both graduate and undergraduate programs.  When the bishops in America resolved to create a national Catholic university in 1866, they had a research and scholarship based model – like Louvain – in mind.  It aims to “further knowledge,” as you say, and produce scholarly books, articles, and papers.  In 1904, our university added undergraduates.  Their course of study emerges from the liberal arts tradition.  Its name comes from the Latin liber because it is a fitting education for the “free” man or woman.  The liberal arts convey general knowledge to students.   A university, then, produces scholarship that moves the conversation forward in various fields of research, and imparts a general knowledge to its undergraduate students.

In what way does the historical tradition of the university that you direct condition its present? Is that heritage able to stand up to current challenges? How does it face this task, with what criteria? What are those criteria inspired by?
Bishop John Lancaster Spalding, who pioneered the idea of a national Catholic university in America, said “Certainly a true university will be the home both of ancient wisdom and of new learning; . . . it will be at once a scientific institute, a school of culture and a training ground for the business of life . . .” That was in May of 1888, when the cornerstone for our first building was laid.  Christian intellectuals were facing a crisis.  In Britain there was a growing freedom to reject the faith as unfounded, if not actually immoral.  Thirty years earlier, this acrimony toward Christianity had led Newman to say in an 1856 sermon, “[T]he object of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in setting up Universities . . . is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man” – namely, faith and reason.

Today, Catholic universities face many of the same challenges that Newman and Spalding faced.  Faith is thought to obstruct the path to knowledge.  Encouraging Christian morality is passé or old fashioned.  Our mission is to pursue knowledge in the light of faith, and cultivate a life of virtue in our students.  We were created by the bishops for this purpose; it is embedded in our history.

Do you aim towards a particular model—belonging to another historical era, whether European, British, American or Asian—of the university?
We draw from a number of models. As I’ve mentioned, we were founded in the tradition of Louvain, as a research and scholarship based institution. When we introduced an undergraduate program, we built upon the liberal arts tradition, which has roots in classical antiquity. As a Catholic university, we also draw from the medieval scholastic tradition.

In your work, you have come into contact with different generations of students. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current generation? What are today’s young students missing?
Students of this generation have to cope with a lot more than previous generations.  There are more voices competing for their allegiance.  This challenges students, but it also makes their successes sweeter.  There are two challenges students face that I’d like to point to. First, students today are taught to check their beliefs at the door of the classroom early in life.  I’ve alluded to the difficulties that the enlightenment posed for Newman.  We continue to suffer the effects of the exclusion of faith from the academy.  The Catholic University of America is lucky to be a place where students refuse this bifurcation of faith and knowledge.  But they are a minority among their university peers.

Students who wish to pursue knowledge in the light of faith face an uphill battle. Likewise students who wish to live virtuously.  University life can discourage good habits, like moderation and prudence.  The media has a hold on young people from an early age, and it very often fails to suggest good role models or healthy lifestyles.  This is my second point. Students who want to become good citizens, members of their church, parents, friends, and professionals won’t always find support from their university communities.

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