Opening of Fall Workshop August 23, 2006

At the beginning of the school year, I am always beset by a mix of adrenaline & dread ...

What are we about when we begin another academic year?

Re-dedicating ourselves to liberal arts education:

  • exploring the nature of the human person and the meaning of life,
  • delving into the workings of the universe and this precious earth,
  • ascertaining the character of beauty and the claims of justice,
  • understanding the major dynamics of contemporary American and global society,
  • reckoning with the congruent and conflicting truth claims of the different intellectual disciplines.

We pursue these liberal arts goals through activities that are very practical & humane:  

  • good thinking and communication,
  • stimulating imagination and creativity,
  • cultivating character and capacities for leadership and service

At times liberal arts education is exhilarating, sometimes it is painful, always a lot of work - and we are committed to it at the core of our mission because we believe that

engaging in liberal arts education as wholeheartedly as possible

      liberates persons to become a full participants in our culture

to go from living on the surface to

      studying the most precious insights of great women and men who have gone

            before us,

      embodying those insights with integrity as best we can deep within,

      ultimately in a real sense to shaping and transforming the world for the sake of

            future generations

A mission commitment to liberal arts education demands the best labor of us all

  • most obvious for the professor
    • it takes knowledge of a very high order, skills that are extraordinarily well-honed and abiding patience to enter into students' pre-occupations and conflicting desires in such a way as to prompt them to risk new ways of thinking and seeing, listening and communicating
    • it also requires a discipline that is truly spiritual to let go of one's pre-occupations and conflicting desires enough to perceive truly what another needs in order to grow intellectually
  • this matching commitment to bring all that one has learned into the service of others and to care for source of one's own spiritual vitality is just as essential for those among us who
    • provide food and cleaning, light and (all-too-soon) heat;
    • care for finances & records, books & media, computers & equipment;
    • help our students integrate the life of the mind with their social, physical, spiritual and emotional growth 

We don't say this to each other often enough:  liberal arts education, the good of this liberal arts community, requires that those who teach and those who serve are committed to:

putting all their knowledge and skills at the service of another's well-being, and

caring for the sources of their own compassion and generosity.

There is a poem by Czeslaw Milosz that I came across this summer. It is entitled "Report."  It speaks about what it is to be a poet.  And I want to read it to you.  Pardon the gender-exclusive language. As I read "man" and the occasional male pronoun, please feel free to substitute.  And as you hear the word "poet" and the work of the poet described in some detail, in part of your mind I ask you to dwell on your own role within CSB and SJU - as professor of your discipline, as skilled professional supporting this learning environment. After I have read this poem, I want to express ever so briefly my hope for us all at the beginning of this new year.   

O Most High, you willed to create me a poet and now

it is time for me to present a report.

My heart is full of gratitude though I got acquainted

with the miseries of that profession.

By practicing it, we learn too much about the bizarre nature of man.

Who, every hour, every day and every year is possessed by self-delusion.

A self-delusion when building sandcastles, collecting postage stamps,

admiring oneself in a mirror.

Assigning oneself first place in sport, power, love, and the getting of money.

All the while on the very border, on the fragile border beyond which there is a province of mumblings and wails.

For in every one of us a mad rabbit thrashes and a wolf pack howls, so that we are afraid it will be heard by others.

Out of self-delusion comes poetry and poetry confesses to its flaw.

Though only by remembering poems once written is their author able to see the whole shame of it.

And yet he cannot bear another poet nearby, if he suspects him of being better than himself and envies him every scrap of praise.

Ready not only to kill him but smash him and obliterate him from the surface of the earth.

So that he remains alone, magnanimous and kind toward his subjects, who chase after their small self-delusions.

[Czeslaw Milosz, "Report," The American Poetry Review,  Mar 1995 ] 

I like that poem. 

And since I am a historian raiding another discipline, an administrator with a symbolic task to perform for the common good, I hope you'll forgive me for shamelessly raiding this poem to welcome you to the beginning of this academic year.

Liberal arts education at SJU and CSB requires expertise and it makes huge demands on us, both those who teach and those who serve.  At the beginning of this new year I hope

  • that each of us cultivates the practice of standing on occasion in God's presence, in whatever realm we recognize as the source of ultimate truth, to give an account of our labors and the spirit with which we conduct them;
  • that we attend as honestly as we can to the "miseries of our profession" and as creatively as possible to the abiding reasons we have to be full of gratitude;
  • that we cast a searching, but gentle eye on the delusions of others as well as those of ourselves;
  • that we take cognizance of suspicions we can have of one another and the sources without and within from which such suspicions do arise;
  • that we recognize that by our stewardship of the liberal arts we are "companions in an expedition that never ceases, though centuries pass away"; and, above all,
  • that we cultivate a sense of wonder and gratitude that no one can ever take away from us - "for to exist on the earth - this earth - is beyond any power to name."

It's time to sit down.  God bless!