The Dean’s Corner – The Catholic Nature of Academics

dean-swindal-md  I have talked about what is liberal in a Duquesne liberal arts education. I would now like to talk about what is Catholic in our programs of study at Duquesne. (In a later blog I’ll talk about what is uniquely Spiritan about our approach. The Spiritans are the Catholic order of priests who sponsor Duquesne and are the inspiration for and architects of the unique view of education we provide.)

So, what is Catholic about the College? It is first important to make clear that Duquesne is not a Church institution like a parish or a seminary is, but rather it is an academic institution. Like any academic institution, though, it takes on a character, or even what we can call a personality. This is the nature of any institution, really. We at Duquesne thus have a Catholic character, and that is why we can call ourselves a Catholic academic institution.

Now, importantly and interestingly, the Catholic Church, though an ecclesial institution, was effectively the architect not only for several kinds of academic institutions in its long history but also was the architect of the contemporary university itself that became the inspiration for what has evolved into the modern university. This is a model where professors are dedicated to working collectively with students to prepare them for this full adult lives. This was accomplished by a rigorous plan of study for all students in what was considered the traditional liberal arts (initially Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Music, Astronomy, Mathematics, and Geometry). We’re a far cry from using that specific structure, but not completely so. We still have Core Curriculums, both in the College and University at Duquesne, which guarantee much in this structure.  After that standard seven part foundation, the traditional liberal arts included also natural science, morality, and then theology and philosophy. All of these are additional parts are also found in our Cores.

But the employment of this methodological structure alone is not distinctly Catholic.  It is a grounding for any “science of a free person.” It is necessary but not sufficient for a Catholic approach.

In fact, it is difficult to say that any particular academic program content is Catholic: there is no Catholic mathematical approach or formula, no Catholic historical period or specific event, nor any theory of Catholic sociology or anthropology as such.

Perhaps what is Catholic about Duquesne academics can be best described though a contrast. Catholic higher education is not a way of looking at the world by seeking a finite set of formulas or a method that encompasses absolutely everything.  Rather, the Catholic approach is one that is infinitely open, sometimes frustratingly so. No theory, no formula is ever considered exhaustive. Theoretically there is always more to know, even as knowledge increases; in the practical realm no two situations can ever be alike, and thus our habits of life need constantly to adapt to novelty. But this does not mean that all is relative, since indeed much needs to and does persist.  But a Catholic approach combines what is permanent and originary with what also needs to change and adapt.

Life is about constant creativity and openness. Though it seems like any stage of life is overly vulnerable to boredom and repetition, the sacramental view of life that Catholicism brings actually makes that impossible. “All things become new” (2 Cor 5:21). This does seem to contradict what we generally learn to do: become secure, predictable, so as to be stable citizens, parents, and friends. A liberal arts education in the Catholic spirit aims at both! Catholic liberal arts is what education should be for the way the world is, as always new.

Why is all of this desirable as a preparation for one’s occupation and life – and is thus the stuff of academics? It’s not just that any occupation that we choose must be open to novelty, but that we do need to find and create order in the world. We discover God’s way of ordering the plethora of individuals, both human and nonhuman creatures, and how we are part of ordering so we can order ourselves and our communities to be more integrated and at peace.

So, here is an example. If Catholic education would be to choose to stress an area of learning which furthers competitive success or one which furthered questioning and creativity, it would certainly embrace the latter. If Catholic education would need to choose to aim for a learning that stressed safety and security or one which focused on liberation, it would choose the latter. And yet throughout, Catholic education stresses history, logical thinking, and preserves the classic writings of cultures.

Life involves relationships. We live and work with and for others — and for ourselves. But the Catholic academic approach is one in which we assume that all are born in God’s image and likeness. All individuals are unique: no two are alike. But each has a common destiny: to find lasting goodness. This goodness can be achieved only with others: in life one has to transcend oneself. College in particular is a time in life where we are not learning only what is most basic to know about the world, but something even greater: how to make the world and thus ourselves even better. This “even better” comes through working with others who themselves, like ourselves, are ever new.

James C. Swindal

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