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Faculty Symposium

"Imagining Teaching and Learning at a Jesuit, Liberal Arts College in the 21st Century"

September 13, 2012

Remarks by Jonathan Mulrooney, associate professor of English


This June, I found myself at the University of Virginia during the controversy over the ousting of President Teresa Sullivan.  The reasons behind Sullivan's removal by the UVA Board of Visitors are still not entirely clear, but it is fair to say that her vision of the University's direction differed markedly from that of the Board, and that the contours of the disagreement were shaped by the distinct institutional logics of academia and those of the business world.

I mention the UVA case not to revisit the controversy in a detailed way, but to suggest that the incident illustrates the crossroads at which North American Higher Education now stands.  In as short a time as the next decade, the leaders of our institutions will have irrevocable decisions to make about what our Colleges and Universities will become over the next century, and about how those institutions will shape American public, not to mention private, life.  Whether we are to be merely the specialized training ground of the professional classes, or whether we will adhere to the humanist mission that prompted the founding of so many places of higher learning, remains to be seen.

Holy Cross matters in all of this because it holds a unique position in American higher education.  As the only exclusively undergraduate Jesuit school in the nation, we have more than any other American college a direct genealogical line back to the teaching institutions the early Jesuits founded.  These were schools-colleges, before they were universities, John O'Malley has shown us-committed to the education of the whole person and thus to the integration of intellectual rigor and professional formation.  Their pedagogy was informed by the humanisms of the great medieval universities, but the ratio studiorum also resisted the instrumental training to which such institutions were becoming increasingly beholden.  Five centuries later, this tension persists at Holy Cross.  Indeed, to the degree we capitulate to the professionalism that defines our own historical moment-to precisely that degree-we risk losing sight of the responsibilities that our Jesuit heritage entails upon us.  This capitulation takes several forms, but manifests itself most notably in the college's changing institutional organization and in the way that that organization influences our students' daily lives.

Holy Cross is subject to many of the same pressures as UVA, as Harvard, as any other college: to "advance" our institution in an increasingly competitive marketplace, to offer myriad extracurricular activities and first-rate facilities, to provide students with marketable skills, and to do all this while keeping costs affordable.  Our particular response to these pressures-to meet them all while emphasizing social justice and the undergraduate experience-is laudable.  In fact it has distinguished us from places that have embraced on-line learning, part-time coursework, and vocational training-all potentially praiseworthy initiatives but, for us, simply not what we do.  We have maintained, on the whole, an identity as a liberal arts college.  But what might be called the Holy Cross response has in its own way begun to hinder our ability to bring into the world the kind of thought, imagination, and ethical action so desperately needed now.

The problem of which I speak is our adoption of a professionalized way of life that, in the interests of "complete" education, threatens to obscure the centrality of academics at the College.  This may seem a strange claim to make-after all we pride ourselves on our commitment to the liberal arts and sciences.  But the matter is more than one of curriculum or of publicly stated mission.  Look at any student's calendar and you will find it filled to capacity: they run from activity to function to class to meeting to event to library to sleep (sometimes), and so on again in the daily round, all while building credentials, acquiring skills, developing resumes.  Rather than integration, rather than cura personalis, the result of all this busy-ness is a compartmentalization of time and of experience, a separation of academic work from the athletic, from the social, from the spiritual.  To be sure, there is real learning going on at Holy Cross, but when the academic becomes merely one of so many entries in the student datebook, rather than a presiding institutional concern, we have begun to lose sight of who we are, and why we are here. 

We have created this reality in part because we seek to respond to student needs, and to the needs of a world rife with human suffering.  We wish for our students to encounter what Father Kolvenbach called famously "the gritty reality" of the human condition, to put their academic endeavors in a larger context, to develop a "well-educated solidarity."  What I fear, though, is that in that effort we have strayed from a fundamental commitment to the life of the mind, to the "well-educated" dimension of Fr. Kolvenbach's phrase.  Our students, like students at most places, simply do not have time to devote themselves fully to serious and transformative study: to the habits of reading, reflection, argument, and discernment that used to be the sine qua non of the college experience.  If we have done well at Holy Cross at living out the Jesuit credo of "faith that does justice," we could do better, I think, at maintaining our connection to the intellectual apostolate of the Society.  And this means modeling for students how an Ignatian commitment to justice can only emerge from the studied interior transformation of a self living out that other dimension of Ignatius's great design: faith seeking understanding.

What I am calling for is a Holy Cross that clearly values-above all else and in every aspect of our institutional structures and practices-the ability to provide for students a four-year experience of the life of the mind, and an integrated sense of how that life, lived in the context of the Jesuit Catholic traditions of intellectual inquiry, Ignatian spirituality, and Christian love, can transform them, can, under the sign of the Cross, transform a world encrusted with tears.

I propose that the singular challenge facing Holy Cross, as we embark upon a new era of possibility marked by the wonderful event of Fr. President Boroughs's inauguration, is to reclaim for ourselves and for our students the spaces of serious reading and thought that have been stolen from them all their lives by the noise of the contemporary world-and that we have stolen from ourselves, by over-administering our days, our weeks, our semesters in the service of, well, in the service of service, in the service of professional accomplishment, and-a word that has become recently the near enemy of thought-in the service of "excellence."  Concretely, this means articulating and enacting at the very top of the administration a commitment to the academic endeavor as the center and circumference of all that we do here.  More specifically, led by our new President, we must (FIRST) reinvigorate the role of faculty in the highest levels of institutional governance, (SECOND) include a critical mass of intellectuals and scholar-teachers on our Board, (THIRD) foster dialogue between faculty and trustees, (FOURTH) hire and train more administrators who have a deep understanding of our classroom culture, and (FIFTH) provide a re-imagined curriculum that is at once more flexible and more rigorous than our current system of common area requirements.  And these beginning steps must all be directed toward developing, on the whole, a way of proceeding that quiets the days of our students, even as we set their minds and hearts on fire.

This is I believe our call over the coming decade at Holy Cross, a call that simply cannot go unanswered if we are to honor the mission of those men who founded a Society so audacious as to call itself the companions of Christ, nor if we are to continue the work of those fellow travelers with the Jesuits who have for one hundred and seventy years come to teach and learn in this place, on this Hill, at this College that could bear no bolder name.