faith in the classroom
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Imagine this scenario: “YOU TOOK MY JESUS!” said the first-semester student who is feeling displaced, disoriented, disappointed and enraged while being overwhelmed, even defeated, by the unexpected convergence of seminary courses’ too dense readings along with the absence of personal faith discourse in a progressive theological school. “You must not ...
Building Catholic Higher Education: Unofficial Reflections from the University of Notre Dame
Date Reviewed: December 16, 2015
In this slim volume, Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, takes on a pivotal question for the future of Catholic higher education: faculty engagement with Catholic intellectual tradition. Exploring the convergence of Notre Dame’s three strategic goals – to provide an unparalleled undergraduate education, to gain recognition as a globally premier research university, and to remain thoroughly and distinctively Catholic – Smith brings into sharp focus two fundamental issues: (1) that any faith-grounded university’s capacity to fulfill its mission rises and falls on the knowledge, quality, and dispositions of its faculty; and, (2) that Catholic universities must wrestle with how their faculties engage Catholic intellectual tradition in their academic disciplines. His wrestling with these issues makes the book worth reading for anyone involved in faith-based higher education.
In the first chapter Smith lays out the texts from which he will work: the University of Notre Dame’s mission statement, Fr. John Jenkins’ inaugural presidential address, excerpts from Jenkins’ annual addresses to faculty, and Provost Tom Burish’s letter announcing a committee to explore hiring outstanding Catholic faculty. In four subsequent chapters Smith details the assumptions behind these texts with their implications for faculty; elaborates a range of ways that faculty, whether Catholic or not, can support Notre Dame’s mission; proposes what the pursuit of social science disciplines might entail in a context where Catholicism matters; and, takes a hard look at whether it is possible for Notre Dame, or any other faith-grounded university, to pursue three goals simultaneously – unparalleled undergraduate education, premier research status, and robust engagement with the Catholic thought across all disciplines. (He doubts that it is.) A paper by John Cavadini on the role of theology in a Catholic college or university serves as the appendix.
Smith’s dialectical approach emphasizes boundaries. He asserts that universities “cannot meaningfully call themselves ‘Catholic’” unless “Catholicism as a distinctive approach to life and the world” significantly influences intellectual inquiry, scholarship, and teaching; initiatives in valuing social justice or in spiritual formation will not suffice (65). His chapter detailing the “tensions, trade-offs, and dangers” involved in attempting to achieve excellence in undergraduate education and premier research status “in an institutional, cultural, and pedagogical context that is robustly Catholic” is refreshingly practical and pragmatic (78). Smith recognizes the challenge involved in an academic department attempting to maintain coherence with some faculty focused on teaching, others on research, and still others on Catholic dimensions of a discipline.
At points Smith is nostalgic for an era when Catholic universities were Catholic by virtue of their enmeshment in the webs of a subculture. He is far more anxious about the prospects for maintaining the Catholic character of universities than is John Haughey, S.J., whose Where is Knowing Going? The Horizons of the Knowing Subject (Georgetown University Press, 2009) offers an alternative, analogical approach to the question. Still, Smith makes his case that Catholic universities cannot maintain a robust Catholic identity without a critical mass of faculty members who both understand and engage Catholic thought and life critically and faithfully. Read together, Smith and Haughey could animate a vital conversation in which Catholic college and university faculties need to participate.
Becoming Beholders: Cultivating Sacramental Imagination and Actions in College Classrooms
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
This thought-provoking, insightful collection of twenty articles is directed toward teachers at Catholic colleges, but it is applicable to anyone who teaches in higher education and who comes to that task from a faith perspective. A wide variety of disciplines are represented, including art, literature, writing, chemistry, math, economics, sociology, communication, history, Spanish, and, of course, religion. The book’s title and subtitle are suggestive. The title derives from a Hopkins poem, “Hurrahing in Harvest”: “These things, these things were here and but the beholder / Wanting” (xii). “Sacramental imagination” in the subtitle is described as “a deeply Catholic perspective on the world, one that sees God manifest throughout the natural, created world” (ix). This perspective is cultivated through “Actions in College Classrooms.” The authors therefore discuss in detail activities in courses that they have taught that relate to the topic of the book. They often quote from students’ journals or essays as a means of demonstrating student learning. They also describe activities that go on outside the classroom, such as trips to museums, personal reflection during the week, and service with nonprofit agencies as additional ways by which the sacramental imagination is cultivated.
Several of these essays have appeared elsewhere, some in publications related to Collegium, a Catholic organization that describes itself as “a colloquy on faith and intellectual life” (http://collegium.org/). (Indeed, the book is featured prominently on the group’s webpage.) The organization, Contemplative Mind in Society, is mentioned, as is the work of Parker Palmer. One, then, could see this book as part of a larger conversation about spirituality and education. Here a Catholic perspective on higher education is brought to bear. Incidentally, two authors have Wabash connections: Angela Kim Harkins was a Wabash fellow, and Anita Houck acknowledges a Wabash colloquy. The title of their essays are both representative: Houck’s “You Are Here: Engagement, Spirituality, and Slow Teaching,” and Harkins’ “Cultivating Empathy and Mindfulness: Religious Praxis.” Other interesting titles (and topics) include economist Peter Alonzi’s “Pauses,” English professor Melissa A. Goldthwaite’s “Rhetorics of Silence: A Pedagogy of Contemplation, Empathy, and Action,” and communications professor Jonathan M. Bowman’s “Mutual Benefice: Helping Students Find God in a Research Methods Course.”
Readers of this resource might be tempted to read only the articles written by professors of theology or religious studies. That approach might be a good entry point to the book, but the treat is to see how teachers in various disciplines are cultivating sacramental imagination in their classrooms. A particularly intriguing example was Stephanie Anne Salomone’s use of a “This I Believe” essay in a geometry course, thus “Linking the Mathematical Axiomatic Method with Personal Belief Systems.”
The concluding sentence of the book was fitting and invites reflection. Jonathan M. Bowman writes, “I have reinvigorated my own experience of transcendence as I teach and mentor my undergraduate students” (313). Reading this book – and pondering its implications for our teaching – can help us too “become beholders.”
Education in a Catholic Perspective
Date Reviewed: January 19, 2015
Higher education is in a state of flux amidst a cache of challenges that might be cast as a new set of unanticipated three R’s: recruitment, retention, and reserves. As college administrators strategize for the future, the shifting demographics in traditionally student-rich areas and the overall decreased pool of potential students because of birth rate trends will make sustaining college operations increasingly difficult. The challenge is more acute for private colleges and universities, whose sticker price tends to be substantially more than those of public institutions. It is perhaps even more poignant for Catholic institutions of higher learning that educate students in a particular religious environment.
No two Catholic schools are the same and most wrestle with what it means to be Catholic. Some institutions boldly proclaim strong Catholic identity while others loosely reference their Catholic tradition or grounding. The number of students, faculty, and administrators on campuses self-identifying as Catholic complemented by the frequency of Catholic activities and choice of campus speakers have tended to serve as the metric for determining “how Catholic” an institution is. The first measure is reasonable. Without a critical mass of Catholic students, a Catholic school risks losing its identity. What precise percentage of Catholic students is needed for an institution to call itself Catholic, however, remains unsettled, but the ongoing admission of non-Catholic students merely to sustain rolls cannot bode well for the future of Catholic schools. As an example of the second metric, Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, often recognized as “the” Catholic university in the United States, received a maelstrom of criticism when it invited President Barack Obama to give its 2009 commencement address. Its detractors believed engaging an individual who holds views contrary to the Catholic faith lessens the Catholicity of the school.
In Education in a Catholic Perspective, Stephen J. McKinney from the University of Glasgow, U.K., and John Sullivan from Liverpool Hope University, U.K., recognize that the identity of Catholic schools is at stake. They state that “there is an increasing distance between Catholic education, in its many forms, and the rich intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church” (3). Rather than engaging in a polemic against post-modern neoliberal ideas that can threaten the preservation of Catholic identity, their text seeks to retrieve the philosophical and theological roots of Catholic education.
The book is divided into five parts. In the first section, the “Introduction,” two chapters written by Stephen J. McKinney orient the reader to the overall thrust of the text. McKinney’s first describes “education” in the Western world and then moves onto to discussing “Catholic education” using post-Vatican II teachings of the Catholic Church. McKinney admits the ongoing challenges Catholic education faces as it moves forward amidst the steady barrage of criticisms including charges of proselytizing and of being elitist and anachronistic. His assessment is honest and builds on critical scholarship in this area.
The second part, “Theological Foundations,” consists of three articles that shore up the religious supports of Catholic education. John Sullivan writes on the import of St. Augustine and Maurice Blondel to Christian education. Vivian Boland considers Thomas Aquinas’s contribution to Catholic education through his understanding of transcendental properties of truth, goodness, beauty, and integrity. Clare Watkins considers revelation, scripture, and truth vis-à-vis truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness as formidable underpinning for Catholic education.
In Part III, “Theology and Education,” Stephen McKinney and Robert Hill propose Jesus as a Teacher and reading the gospel from new perspectives to inform learning and teaching. David Torevell writes on epiphany, worship, and the contemplative body in Catholic education suggesting inward silence and embodiment as a distinctive import from Catholic tradition for education. David Evans demonstrates that the intersection of faith and reason is the “route to wisdom” and a holistic appreciation of education. Clare Watkins examines the role of conscience formation in education and teachers’ critical responsibility in fostering that in their students as well as in their own search for God.
The fourth part of the text considers “The Ecclesial and Social Dimension” of Catholic education. In the first two articles of this section, John Sullivan considers the tension between the individual and institution and then moves to discuss the Church and the World. Sullivan refrains from an “over and against” attitude of Catholic education towards society. Sullivan proposes a participative engagement model in service of the world for all involved in the project of Catholic education. Christine Forde concludes this section by considering “the troublesome concept of ‘gender’” and offering challenges from feminist theology. Forde’s work here can serve as a prelude to further discussion about other disquieting contemporary moral issues such as medical coverage, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and investment policies, to name a few.
The concluding fifth part, “Mission into Practice,” considers how to make the proposals in the text a sustainable reality. Kevin Williams suggests the development of a “Catholic” curriculum that incorporates specific teaching and learning goals. William’s piece seems out of place with the rest of the rather conciliatory text, but perhaps further development of his work is needed to fully appreciate his suggestions. Finally, John Sullivan and Stephen McKinney explore practical implications of strengthening the internal core of Catholic education in an effort to make it a viable educational option for the future.
As Catholic school leaders strive to understand their institution’s Catholic identity, they would be wise to reference this text. Students of philosophy and theology will also find this book of interest in relation to their respective fields of study. It could be useful for educational specialists seeking to understand Catholic education. The book provides a rich critical assessment of some of the major thinkers in the history of Catholic education and their import for today. It includes a resource-rich bibliography and a detailed index.
Leaders concerned with the future of Catholic education have to pay sharp attention to the externals that challenge institutional growth. However, what McKinney and Sullivan have assembled here offers another no less important and, perhaps, even more critical investigation into how to chart the future of Catholic education in a more meaningful way.