fortin and thoughts on education

On Friday, March 26, Profs. Thomas Hibbs and Frederick Lawrence each delivered a paper addressing the late Fr. Ernest Fortin’s thoughts on education. Lawrence, of Boston College’s theology department, spoke primarily about doing theology in a “political mode.” Hibbs, formerly chair of BC’s philosophy department and now head of the Honors program at Baylor, spoke more broadly about the problems facing Catholic education both inside and outside the classroom. Both praised Fr. Fortin’s wit, good nature, unrivaled mind, and the “harmony of logos and ergon” with which he lived his own life. Fr. Fortin’s praises continued to be uttered by Fr. Flanagan, Prof. Colbert, and others at the dinner following the presentation of the two papers.

If there’s one thing that people in higher education, Catholic or not, can agree on, it’s that there’s something wrong with the way education is carried out today. Few, student, teacher, and administrator alike, are honestly satisfied with their education. There also seems to be some sort of agreement that, at one point or another in history, education was being carried out more or less correctly, though I wonder whether there could ever be anything close to a consensus on when, where, under whom, how that model existed.

In any case, Profs. Hibbs and Lawrence presented quite clearly the conflict between the “sawdust” manual Thomism prevalent in Catholic universities and seminaries in the 19th and early 20th century, and the specialized research-based education which, perhaps because of that prevalence of manual Thomism, appeared to be out of line with the tradition of the Church – at best, being secular, at worst, modernist. Naturally, for Fortin, neither camp, so often divided “politically” into conservative and liberal, would suffice. Manual Thomism allowed students to get away with merely memorizing “the questions, the opponents, and the answers” without really engaging with them, that is, making those questions and their potentially correct answers operative in their own lives. In fact, it’s even questionable whether the questions asked and answers given in the manuals were those Thomas himself gave. On the other hand, research education so often lacked a respect for the genuine insights of tradition and, perhaps more importantly, neglected the communication between increasingly specialized disciplines necessary for a school to even be considered a university.

Of course, beginning in the 1960’s education in general has taken the reaction against the manualism guiding the first half of the 20th century too far. Now the dominating problem with education is not its rigidity but its lack of form. The university has become a “multiversity,” with exponentially increasing specialization, little to no communication between professors and students of different areas of specialization, or between students and professors within their own areas of specialization, or between professors and professors, students and students in their own specializations. Why this lack of community? It seems that the ultimate reason must be the shift of the purpose of a university from a place of learning for its own sake, as it was in its genesis in the medieval period, to a place to gain the skills necessary to get a job. (On a side note, it seems that the manual tradition itself did not promote learning for its own sake, but only for training apologists of the faith against its ever increasing rivals – who themselves wouldn’t have been so far ahead if Catholic education hadn’t taken the focus off learning for its own sake!) The fact of the matter that those in higher education need to realize is this: with the end of the university what it is right now, it is impossible to create a community and thus to have unity amongst the various specializations existing on most university campuses today. I stress the word impossible. How could a group of people living and studying in the same area have anything more than a Rousseau-ian compassion for one another, when the primary goal of their education is “for-me” and thus directly contrary to the goal of community?  It’s no wonder that professors don’t have friendshipswith students, that so often the only thing bringing students together is a party in the Mods or a comparison of grades after a test so that everyone can ask “whad’ya get?”

For Fortin, true education was “reading old books with friends.” Against the manual tradition, Fortin stressed, rightfully so, the absolute necessity of reading primary texts in order to truly engage authors as they understood the world and as they understood themselves. Against a blind progressivism, Fortin stressed in like measure the need to read the primary texts of the history of philosophy, the dialectically collected insights of the tradition that is the “Great Conversation.” In one sense, Fortin’s model includes neither one camp nor the other. Yet in another sense it embodies the Catholic “both/and,” taking the best aspects of each camp and combining them into one. The fruit of Fortin’s vision for education is the Perspectives Program at BC which, if you know me, I think is quite successful.

Indeed, one could say that “reading old books with friends” is the very goal of the Perspectives program. Empirical evidence, the fruits of the past 30 years of shaping this great books program, supports Fortin’s claim about the efficacy of this model of education. In my two plus years as a Perspectives major, which includes taking each of the four year-long, double credit courses presenting various angles on the history of philosophy, I have found an actual community of learning unlike any other, save perhaps my AP Modern European history class senior year of high school. What was distinctive of AP Euro, and what is distinctive of the Perspectives program, was that everyone was there by choice. The Perspectives program is not like the A&S Honors Program, where one is invited to join, simply put, because of one’s high SAT scores. I hate to say it, but my experience with the seminar-based Honors Program was that students joined it simply because it would be absurd not to join a program that would look so good on one’s resume. In class, it was clear that few people actually wanted to engage the great minds of the history of philosophy, literature, and religion. Outside one or two groups of students, those being the ones who have studied under Professor O’Connor, I haven’t heard of any other  groups who have genuinely loved the Honors Program. I say these things not to bash the HP, only to illustrate the love of knowledge for its own sake those in the Perspectives program breeds. Although there is much advertisement for the Perspectives major, one becomes a Perspectives major not by invitation but by taking Perspectives I, being charmed by the Great Conversation it presents, desiring to become a Perspectives major, and freely, actively seeking it out. The flow of students in the Honors Program is usually out of the program; the flow of students in the Perspectives program is into it.

So, there is something attractive to the Perspectives program that few other areas in BC’s education can offer. More than a few of my friends wish that they had known about the Perspectives major earlier on in their careers at BC so that they might have had a chance to participate in the Great Conversation themselves. It’s no surprise that the program is so attractive. It allows men and women to exercise a phrase I have become so fond of over the past year: “the pure desire to know.” Besides the desire to love, the desire to know is the dominant desire in man’s heart. It is constitutive of his nature. Man is a rational animal. Since it is his nature to be reasonable, it is through gaining knowledge, through the inquiry-driven process of attentive experiencing, intelligent understanding, and reasonably affirming, that man is ultimately satisfied. The Perspectives program is geared to allow students to exercise this self-corrective cycle of knowing in its purity. In other words, it allows students to learn for the sake of learning, and those who join the program do so for exactly this reason. The result of this education  is – surprise, surprise – a real community of learning, rooted not just in students living together and taking classes together but also actually being friends. As Prof. Lawrence remarked in his paper and comments, Fortin, both in word and in deed, thought friendship to be essential to a proper education, and likewise, a love of learning to be essential for an authentic love of neighbor and love of God. Fr. Flanagan announced during his words at the dinner following the papers that there will be three floors in three residence halls in which students in the Perspectives program will reside in community, just as there are floors reserved for students in the Honors Program. Remember Aristotle’s observation that one of the distinctive qualities of friends is that they tend to live together. I’m excited to learn the fruits of this living arrangement, to see just how much the education outside the classroom wrought through communal living will enrich the minds of the Perspectives program students of years to come.

If the Perspectives major is as successful as it is in breeding love of learning, providing a point of unity for education, and fostering virtuous and lasting friendships, why doesn’t the university at large take notice and model the core curriculum off of the Perspectives model? Easier said than done, of course. Granted, not all desire to study the history of philosophy like those in the Perspectives program do. The pertinent question to ask in the situation is this: did students come into Perspectives I with a love of learning, or was it Perspectives I, the material studied, the professor guiding students through it, and the friendships built in that class, which sparked the love of learning in the students? In almost every case it is the latter. Thus, the complaint that making the Perspectives program, say, required for all students of the university would be subjecting students to something they would despise and “don’t need to study” isn’t giving the program – or the students – a fair chance. Realistically speaking, not everyone would love the Perspectives program as much as its current adherents do. However, instituting the Perspectives program as the university core at least would give all university students the opportunity to fall in love with learning for its own sake and give the university a real shot at attaining the unity that it so desires to have.

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