I am writing this letter during "spring break" week. Outside my window, the temperature is holding at about 5 degrees and an icy wind is gusting over College Hill. Students have fled the campus for warmer climes — some to relax on the beaches of Florida and Mexico; others working on service projects in Kentucky and Virginia; and still others spending time at home with family before returning for the last stretch of the semester. Though staff and some faculty members remain on the Hill, the campus always seems particularly empty and quiet whenever the student body is absent. Parking spots are abundant. There are no lines at Cool Beans coffee shop or Crossroads café. It's possible to hear one's own footfall echo off the marble tile of the hallways in Fenwick and O'Kane.
I thought about that quiet this week while perusing Conversations magazine, a journal published by the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education. The headline of the current issue is "Jesuit Education and Today's Student: A ‘Disconnect'?" But it's the cover photo that conveys the issue's central theme with pointed clarity.
The setting is a generic college classroom, but the dozen or so students depicted appear prepared for anything but a class lecture or discussion. They are portrayed as physically present but mentally removed to multiple corners of cyberspace. Their ears are plugged with iPod buds or Bluetooth headsets. Their hands are filled, not with books, but with cell phones, MP3 players and PDAs. Their desks are covered by laptops. They are seen multitasking — listening to music as they read e-mail and send text messages; making phone calls as they watch YouTube clips or browse Facebook. Their focus, the photo implies, is so wildly distributed that the classroom setting becomes uncomfortably ironic.
I don't read the photo as necessarily judgmental. I don't see it as a rebuke by a scolding authority figure. For me, the picture nicely captures the media-assaultive world in which today's students have come of age. It frames perfectly, I think, the challenge of engaging the attention and igniting the understanding of this digital generation. And it represents, I'd argue, a real and urgent need for the proliferation of the Ignatian educational tradition — a process that has always understood and embraced the value of quiet reflection, depth of thought, the slow accretion of wisdom.
Which brings us to our own cover story, a profile of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery. When the gallery was dedicated, in October 1983, Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49, then president of the College, praised the Cantors for recognizing the need to "nourish … students intellectually and spiritually by exposure to great works of art — works of art that will open the eyes, ears and hearts of men and women in a new way."
Over the last 24 years, the Cantor has mounted dozens of diverse and imaginative exhibitions, each one an attempt to nourish all who visit the Gallery in O'Kane Hall. But the Cantor has done more than this. It has become a communal reflective space, a center of stimulating engagement and renewing contemplation. The Cantor is an essential hub of the College's cultural life, a place that encourages us to rediscover the value of unplugging and settling into the present, of meditating on the fundamental questions of human experience as they are evoked by art.
Picasso famously said that the purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls. In the digital age, the dust seems to be blowing as cold and forcefully as the wind today over Packachoag Hill. We're fortunate to have a place like the Cantor Gallery — and the College that hosts it — where we are perpetually invited to step inside and wash away the dust.