Santa Clara University

Reflections on the Teaching Scholar

—By Paul Locatelli, S.J.

 

Reflections on the Teaching Scholar

 

Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, along with a number of other educators, recently posed a serious question to the academy: “What practices provide students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens?”

 

In May of this year, Stanley Fish, a noted literary critic and former dean of the University of Illinois, Chicago, responded to this question: “That’s not a bad question, but the answers to it should not be the content of a college or university course.”

 

Fish sharply separates the intellectual purpose of education from any moral, spiritual, or civic aims. In his ideal university, faculty should stand apart from issues that underlie the structures and practices of society—limit their politics only to academic issues—and focus on the search for truth and the teaching of knowledge, narrowly defined to one’s academic speciality. Why? Because in his view, moral or civic education deforms the true task of the university.

 

But Fish serves a purpose in arguing that knowledge has value in and for itself, somewhat as Cardinal Newman did in his Idea of the University. Fish challenges us to reflect upon the academic calling of faculty—and by extension of the educational calling of staff—and the purpose of universities in general and of Santa Clara with its Catholic, Jesuit distinctiveness in particular.

 

From Ignatius to Kolvenbach

 

Jesuit education takes a very different approach from the one Stanley Fish suggests. From the time of Ignatius in the 16th century, learning, critical thinking, and knowledge have been valued in and for themselves, and students have been encouraged to live lives of virtue and meaning. And when they do, society benefits. Then, according to Ignatius, God is glorified.

Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, has articulated a philosophy of Jesuit education for the 21st century. In the Mission Church, on the occasion our Sesquicentennial celebration in 2000, he made it clear that the education of the whole person, the ideal of Jesuit education for 450 years, now needs to include, “an educated awareness of society and culture and a commitment to contribute socially, generously,” and morally to the real world.

 

Professor teaching students
He opened his comments on research and teaching by saying, and I paraphrase:

 

“If the measure and purpose of our universities lie in [who] and what students become, then the faculty are at the heart of our universities. Their mission is tirelessly to seek the truth and to form each student into a whole person of solidarity who will take responsibility for the real world.”

 

These brief sentences have many layers of the meaning. But I will limit my comments to two questions. First, in the mission to tirelessly seek truth, how does one become a teaching scholar?

 

And second, does the aim of “who our students become” as whole persons of solidarity have relevance for “who our faculty become?” and “who our staff become?”

 

First, then, what does it mean to be seeking truth? At Santa Clara, as with all universities, the raison d’etre of our calling—whether we are faculty, students, staff, or administrators—is academic excellence, where the ability to think critically about questions and the world is paramount. But it is much more. What is this more?

 

It is a community in search of meaning—meaning in the sense of those human and moral truths that we can live by. Truth does not begin with answers, but with questions. The world and all of creation provide the grist for questions—great questions—that will align professional aspirations with living a life in quest of truth. This alignment is critical to our commitment to the ideal of the teaching scholar.

 

Santa Clara must be a place, without being bashful of being Catholic, that raises and vigorously debates questions that many secular universities purposely avoid. To be an authentic university, we must not be afraid to debate all questions within a community that has a plurality of faiths and cultures, for that is the world in which we live and for which our students will be responsible.

 

Catholic universities are places where that Catholic community and Church does its best and most creative thinking; hence, it is imperative that Santa Clara be a community that raises questions about faith, life, and God, seeking ways to integrate the love of learning with living a life with meaning and purpose.

 

The commitment to seek truth requires a habit of intellectual inquiry, a questioning curiosity, and critical thinking to analyze root causes, to follow evidence to its logical conclusion, to develop conceptual theories, and to offer paths to improve society for all, with particular attention to their human dignity and rights. 

 

The commitment to truth does not end with questions nor a passive understanding. Rather truth demands an integrity of dialectic between thinking critically and acting ethically, between faith and developing cultures, between personal interests and emerging global realities. Truth will inspire us to contribute to the common good and no longer be indifferent to people suffering and dying of hunger, illness, war, or ethnic and religious conflict.

 

Let me turn to the second question. Does the aim of “who our students become” as whole persons of solidarity have relevance for “who our faculty become” and “who our staff become?” This question specifically points to the issue of vocation.

 

The language of vocation is not always comfortable for university faculty or staff because it is most often associated with

Professor Mark Ravizza, SJ
religious vocation. However, Fr. Kolvenbach is speaking about vocation in the way author Robert Bellah speaks of calling.

 

Bellah distinguishes between a career and a calling. A career demands a commitment to the profession. One’s work and, in part, one’s life are shaped by the professional guild with its expectations, particularly its definition of research areas and methodology.

 

A calling, by contrast, draws into focus the tension and balance of professional work with both personal and community life. A calling

gives meaning to one’s life and links a person to her professional community and to the larger community.

 

One’s career, in proper perspective, can enhance one’s calling to serve students, the learning community, and the good of society, or a calling can be derailed if one allows the professional guild and associations to set the agenda for who one becomes.

 

The ideal teaching scholar cannot claim to be a great teacher and do no or little research. Nor could one claim to be a great researcher and neglect teaching.

 

One’s academic calling is to find that balance and integration of teaching and research that makes one better at both and gives one joy. Then, one’s calling will contribute to the common good of all.

 

The virtue of solidarity and students

 

Jesuit education invites us to find joy in educating students who form their own habit of thinking critically and independently as well as having the intellectual and moral courage to fashion a more humane and just world.

 

Our call doesn’t come like a bolt from the blue or a direct command, but as a persistent invitation addressed to our freedom and

Professor with students
openness to who we are and who we want to become.   It means reflecting persistently on our experience.

 

One reality check, then, that connects us with the virtue of solidarity is our personal presence to students. As psychologist Mark Epstein suggests, a faculty or staff member “may well have as great an impact through his or her presence as through his or her skills.”

 

This presence reflects, in part, one aspect of solidarity beyond the classroom.  As Fr. Kolvenbach said:

 

Solidarity is learned through “contact” rather than through “concepts.” When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the degradation and injustice that others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity, which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry, reflection, and action.

 

 

Students learn best in a pedagogy of engagement. And one of the best forms of engagement is “being present” with them as teaching scholars and staff-educators who mentor, challenge, inspire, and move students to learn and become virtuous persons.

 

Being a teaching scholar and educator is our call—our vocation of presence to students and colleagues and the world.

 

Virtue of solidarity and global common good

 

The person of solidarity also learns from and seeks to shape culture and society. A well-educated solidarity does not stop with our students or only at the flashpoints, the most visible problems.

 

“Solidarity” is the virtue, the habit of the heart that binds us emotionally and practically to our world, local and global. Solidarity has the quality of combining a sense of justice with active compassion. It realizes that the quality of our lives is intrinsically linked with the quality of the lives of others, especially those who are most threatened or left out.

 

For the world of the new century, it is no longer enough to see our lives as a personal, individual quest. We have to understand how our lives are vitally linked to the earth and all who live on it. Solidarity enables people to devote themselves “to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

 

In education, not only are we to preserve our humanistic orientation and the quest for intellectual, ethical, and theological excellence, but also we are challenged to embrace a global viewpoint of accompaniment with every other person suffering deeply. Doing that will change the way we teach, research, serve, and live our professional and family life, and connect with our community, Church, and whatever else we do.

 

Then, our careers will truly become our vocation.

 

—Adapted from Fr. Locatelli’s Sept. 14, 2004 Convocation address at SCU.