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Defining the University

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 02, 2010

I found the little symposium of Christian college presidents in First Things fascinating (November 2010). The new presidents of King’s College, Baylor University, and Catholic University of America were invited to submit very brief statements of the defining purposes or missions of their schools. All are Christian, but each has a different vision.

For Dinesh D’Souza of King’s College, the purpose of a Christian college education—or at least the education offered at King’s—is to create “dangerous Christians”. D’Souza wishes to challenge and change the world by sending his students into mainstream institutions prepared to argue and inculcate a Christian perspective. To reach this goal, the curriculum is “built around the ideas that shape nations: politics, philosophy, and economics.”

D’Souza wants King’s College students to be ready for the challenge of atheism and radical secularism, and to be able to meet that challenge through both classical Christian apologetics and modes of argument that can engage those who do not share Christian beliefs. “This is what,” D’Souza says, “I call Christian bilingualism.” Happily, there does not appear to be an identity crisis at King’s College. But note that he defines his mission not as something intrinsic to what a university is, but in terms of something to be accomplished ad extra. This is a warning sign.

I note a similar problem, but from a very different perspective, in Ken Starr’s statement on the mission of Baylor. Perhaps this is inevitable in a university which upholds the tradition of the separatist Roger Williams, who thought it laudable, when he disagreed with the tenets of the church of which he was a part, to simply go forth and found a different one. Remarkably, however, Baylor has preserved an identity of sorts, rooted in a tradition “deeply respectful of the individual conscience.” Starr quotes Baylor’s mission: “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.”

Starr asserts that Baylor is “one university, indivisible, under a coherent idea”, despite the “wide-ranging opinions on a rich variety of important issues” which “swirl through the Christian academy”. Starr believes “we are called on to explore our world with energy and creativity”, he is pleased that a third of Baylor students want to pursue careers in health care, and he notes that one of Baylor’s core convictions is to “facilitate the discovery of new knowledge to the glory of God and the betterment of humanity.” But there it is, you see. Baylor is a kinder, gentler King’s College. The University’s mission is defined primarily in terms of its impact on society.

The new President of Catholic University, John H. Garvey, does a little better, perhaps because of two great advantages. The first is that the principles of the Catholic Faith are solidly grounded, which means they withstand intellectual scrutiny and continually yield up new insights and deeper understanding. This sort of scrutiny is, frankly, inimical to Protestantism. This means that Catholic universities can actually have a purpose unto themselves. They don’t need to subordinate the intellectual life to either cultural attack or social service (the better, perhaps, to gloss over their own uncertainties). No, the Catholic university has a mission all its own.

Secure in this knowledge, Garvey roots the university not in socio-political power (King’s) or socio-political service (Baylor) but in faith seeking understanding, not just in theology, but in everything. This leads him almost inexorably to a second advantage, his choice to base his brief exposition on the ideas of Blessed John Henry Newman, whose thought has a cohesive clarity which easily outclasses both kings and separatists. Thus for Garvey the mission of the Catholic university is to understand and explicate the truth, enlightened by faith, and aided by virtue:

We begin with the premise that we do well always and everywhere to serve God, and that all human knowledge works toward this end. We approach our work through the lens of faith—not only in our ecclesiastical faculties of philosophy, canon law, and theology, but also in art, music, history, literature, law, architecture, and even the hard sciences.

And in another place:

When we speak (as academics are wont to do) about the search for truth, we really believe that there is a truth we are searching for. The search for truth goes hand in hand with the pursuit of virtue. They are most successful when we do them together.

I don’t wish to go too far here. I had serious reservations about John Garvey’s appointment as President of CUA precisely because of his apparent weakness, at Boston College's law school, in confronting with settled truth and confirmed virtue some of the most critical public controversies of our own day, particularly those that revolve around the natural law, including homosexuality and gay marriage. One suspects that Dinesh D’Souza and King’s College, at least, would have done better. One must also beware of claiming to search for truth without being willing to find and use it as the basis for an ever-deepening investigation. The "lens of faith" must not be counterfeited with mere glass.

But Garvey is right about this. The university has a purpose all its own. It may sometimes shirk its own responsibility to the truth, but it is always a grave mistake to use the university primarily as a tool for something else.

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  • Posted by: Pro Deo et Hibernia - Nov. 02, 2010 11:22 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, I, a Catholic University senior, shared your concerns as well when Pres. Garvey was appointed, but I must tell you he has been an outstanding witness to the faith. He attends daily Mass celebrated by the chaplain, gave a lecture on being a Catholic professional at Theology on Tap, played a role in facilitating the annual Freshmen Retreat, and personally attended our first Students for Life meeting. In retrospect, our concerns were hyperbolic--he knows full well he's not at BC anymore.

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