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First of two parts
When gathering at meetings of the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities, abbots and presidents often have discussed whether there is a particular Benedictine approach to teaching.
I would like to explore this question, taking into consideration the seven Benedictine University values we so purposely and proudly profess.
Our Web page clearly states that "Benedictine University is grounded in the spirit of the founders who based their lives and work on St. Benedict's 'Rule for Monks' written in the early sixth century. This university builds its educational life and efforts on the same values which Benedictine men and women espouse."
Is there such a thing as a "Benedictine" approach to teaching at Benedictine University? We can begin to answer that question by looking at the first four of seven values from a teaching perspective -- or from a more contemporary perspective -- as a framework on how to approach a Benedictine University classroom.
• A search for God by oneself and with others.
An interesting thing about creation is that it is never completed. God created us, truly, as incomplete. Completion ultimately rests in him. This incompleteness is characterized in our constant search for meaning in our lives. Incompleteness begins in childhood and continues throughout our lives. The Benedictine classroom, from the perspective of the incompleteness of creation, becomes extremely important.
Our quest for knowledge (God) happens in the lives of students sitting before us. It is also happening in our own lives as faculty and staff.
In our Benedictine classrooms, we work with our students to provide the tools necessary for acquisition and application of knowledge. We provide the necessary tools to continue their work of creation (self completion) throughout their lives.
However, the search for truth does not happen in a vacuum. God gave us each other because each of us is incomplete and in need of others. Our role in life is to complete our own incompleteness, and to be successful we need others to help us.
I often speak of God's sense of humor as evident in our incompleteness. We have been charged with putting life's puzzle together in each of our lives, with a twist (God's sense of humor).
God has given others pieces of our puzzle, and to complete our quest, we must acquire our puzzle pieces from them; I need them for my own completeness. Ultimately, I need them for my search for God.
Finally, in the creation account in the Book of Genesis, we are told that humankind has been made in God's image and likeness. The first hint we have of God in Scripture is that of creator.
In fact, if we are made in God's image and likeness, we are destined to be creators. Even to the point of completing the creation begun by God and which he continues to oversee.
So our classrooms now have a divine purpose: to outfit our students with the necessary tools to continue the creation process.
• A tradition of hospitality.
In Genesis 18, when Abraham welcomes the three strangers in his midst, he was welcoming his God. This passage of Scripture teaches us that God comes to us in the stranger.
Hospitality is the foremost Benedictine University value. It recognizes that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome God into our midst. Hospitality enables us to engage the stranger as "God among us."
Who is the stranger? Simply, anyone I don't know and who does not look like me -- culturally, ethnically and religiously.
At Benedictine University, we are blessed with a wonderful mix of "strangers." I often tell guests that if you visit the campus and do not leave feeling welcomed, we have failed in hospitality. Because of our "hospitality," the university is one of the most diverse in the country.
This gift comes with a price -- we must take advantage of this diversity. As the monks in the 11th century designed the classroom that is still ours today, we have an opportunity to design the classroom far into the future.
In welcoming the student qua stranger to our campus, we have filled our classrooms with God's diversity. In that classroom we have the opportunity to equip our students with knowledge, understanding and the spirit of welcoming the stranger as God among us.
By producing students who know how to live and deal with each other's diversity, the university can make a significant difference in the world.
Finally, this value of hospitality instills in the faculty a sense of divine wonder -- the belief that somehow God is present in each one of our students and that the classroom is the confluence of this divine presence.
• An appreciation for living and working in community.
If creation itself is incomplete, if we are incomplete and need each other for our own completeness, what better value can there be for a Benedictine institution than an appreciation for living and working in community.
Social scientists tell us we are social creatures by nature. Might I suggest that the divine plan is for us (humanity) to live, work, play and achieve our destiny together.
However we interact with others -- in the classroom, as a member of a club or team, by living in a residence hall or merely meeting at some campus event -- the raw material is present for our completion.
We are works in process and need the community to move forward in our quest for fulfillment. With this understanding, class assignments should be made as a way of learning to work together for mutual benefit. As students leave us to pursue their future, their learning to work as a member of the Benedictine University community will be transferred to other local, regional and world communities.
• A concern for the development of each person and a commitment to academic excellence.
If our community members were without potential, the need for a university would cease. At Benedictine, we embrace our incompleteness and work with one another to make each of us the best we can be. Philosophers speak of actuality and potentiality. What we are is our actuality; what we can become is our potentiality. At Benedictine, faculty and staff are dedicated to helping every individual realize her or his potential. Isn't that why we are in a community?
The classrooms at Benedictine should take every student from point "A," where they are, and move them to point "D," what they can become. Clearly, points "A" and "D" are different for each student.
In this scenario, academic excellence has little to do with grades and everything to do with enabling individuals to realize their point "D." If we can make students the best they can be, we have created an environment swimming in academic excellence.