Monday, August 30, 2010

Why we go to college.

Students at colleges and universities across the United States go back to school this week, including here on Hawk Hill. I'm officially back in the saddle again, as fall semester classes began today at Saint Joseph's University. Though I always mourn the end of summer, I also appreciate the sense of new possibilities that accompanies the start of a new academic year. As a student, I almost always looked forward to the first meeting of a new class - a meeting, more often than not, with a teacher and a set of ideas that were also new to me. As I begin my second year teaching in a university setting, I find that I still look forward to new classes - I look forward to meeting new students, I look forward to watching a new (if only temporary) community take shape in the classroom, I look forward to trying to help students gain both intellectual knowledge and practical wisdom, and I look forward to learning something new from the perspectives and perplexities that students offer in class and in their written work.

With the above sentiments in mind, I'd like to share an editorial from the latest edition of The Hoya, Georgetown University's newspaper of record. This editorial is in some sense highly Georgetown-specific, occasioned by the sad news that one of the Hilltop's most beloved professors, Father James Schall, will be unable to teach this semester as he recovers from cancer surgery. Father Schall's (hopefully temporary) absence from the classroom leads The Hoya's editors to write more broadly on the nature of higher education, offering reflections that I find universal enough to quote in full:
For those of you entering the gates of Georgetown for the first time, the university can feel like a world away from anything previously known. It is, in fact, a refuge - a place of contemplative thought and serious scholarship, one of the great repositories of heritage and tradition in Washington, D.C. Those of us fortunate enough to spend four years in such a place should do our best to take advantage of it.

This fall, however, Georgetown will be missing one of its most valuable individuals, Fr. James Schall, S.J. He is perhaps no less than the most celebrated professor in a government department known nationwide for its exceptional talent.

Schall is currently on medical leave following major surgery to repair a cancerous jaw. We wish him the speediest and fullest recovery, for even his briefest absence leaves Georgetown worse off. This man and his kind are the bedrock of the university. His classes are the stuff of legend: a Socratic setting bursting with students eager to know the lessons of classical political theory. Schall dispenses with technology, preferring instead to enter a dialogue with Plato, Aquinas and Chesterton sans PowerPoint. There are no teaching assistants and no distractions, just deep discussion about the greatest ideas of the Western canon.

This is why we come to Georgetown and, in truth, why we go to college. The thrill of a Georgetown basketball game or the buzz of the latest political intrigue is an enviable benefit of being in Washington, but the soul of Georgetown is still her teachers and students. For his entire career, Schall has rallied against the wandering relativism of the modern academy, maintaining a belief in certain timeless truths and the necessity of not only being educated, but actually learning.

As you set off on your four-year journey on the Hilltop, we hope that you take advantage of the wonderful opportunities available at Georgetown. Perhaps for the first, and last, time in your life, you have the chance to enter the age-old dialogue about what is important to humanity. There may be more questions than answers on a subject as profound as this, but there is no better time to explore these depths and see what you find.

Our parting words are simple: Make the most of your time at Georgetown. Find friends with whom you can talk about anything, including the most important of things. Seek out the teachers who can show you a fact that you never knew and a viewpoint you never considered. Georgetown has stood on the banks of the Potomac for over two centuries, employing both reason and faith in her quest for knowledge. That is the mission of our school, for, as Fr. Schall writes so poignantly, we students can do nothing less than "pursue the highest things, the things that are, but are not of our own making." No alternative would be conceivable.
My best wishes to all who are going back into the classroom these days, on both sides of the desk. I hope that those who are currently enrolled in undergraduate studies are able to make the most of these special years, and I likewise hope that their teachers are able to help them do so. AMDG.


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