Education for plunging into turbulent waters

Figure of Speech

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

If a change is as good as a holiday, then I have been on vacation lately, big time. After deciding to retire as president of a university, I found myself called back to the role in a different city and context. Not as big a change as when I left Australia to return to Canada, but still different.

I moved from the Prairies back to an ocean setting, settling in Vancouver, presiding over two Catholic colleges — St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi — at UBC. Despite having been an academic and administrator in universities for more decades than I want to admit, I continue to be amazed and charmed by the enthusiasm and energy that returns to a campus when students are on site.

This has perhaps been heightened by the sense of loss COVID imposed on in-person activities. But that is only part of the story. The reality is universities and colleges — especially smaller institutions — are established primarily to champion quality teaching and community. It stands to reason, therefore, that when the raison d’être of the institution is engaged, everything comes to life.

As I attended an initial Senate meeting, the student representative was literally bouncing in her seat in excitement to be participating in this important governing committee. Senates are not the most riveting of places — until we remember the critical role of governance and the importance of decision-making to our sizeable communities.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition, which imbues the DNA of our Catholic colleges and universities, reminds us of one important fact: the pursuit of knowledge and the development of critical thinkers inevitably steers us towards an engagement with our community and the issues of our day. It is one reason so many students join us in initiatives supporting social justice matters. At a start-of-semester forum with our Fellowship winners, every award-winning student had founded or led a major charity initiative at their Catholic high school, and were engaged in volunteering. They chose our colleges over secular institutions because we marry quality education with concrete programs making a real difference in the community.

I am often asked what I feel is the unique character of faith-based institutions, especially when the non-secular world is under such intense attack. I am drawn to some key reflections. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition that underpins our learning model recognizes the importance and the power of each student to make a substantial contribution to society, and prepares them to make that difference. It does so recognizing the tools students need to effect this change can be forged only by the marriage of faith and reason.

Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller, Chancellor of our colleges, said in a powerful homily that Catholic institutions “readily speak about the harmony between faith and reason. Neither is to be sacrificed, one to the other. To do so would be to fall either into religious fundamentalism on the one hand or atheistic rationalism on the other.” He added: “At the colleges the faculty know, and the students come to learn, that there is no solution to any social problem...  if its religious and ethical dimensions are neglected.”

This is sometimes interpreted as meaning our students are not ready for the real world. The truth is the opposite. In The Idea of a University, a manifesto for Catholic higher education, John Henry Newman noted a university is a place that fits men and women of the world into the world: “We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them... Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel.”

This is the great sea change that we should all wish for our students, and ourselves: that we enter the world, however turbulent, with hope, energy and a passion for the common good, armed with the very best education possible, and of course, burning enthusiasm.

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