James Keane, S.J.
After just a few short years of Jesuit training, I have realized that to spend the bulk of one’s adult life as a college student is both a great privilege and an enduring curse. As I finish up coursework at my fourth university in a little more than a decade, my constant bemoaning of the latter reality is finally giving way to an appreciation of the former, and I value more and more the unique perspective that comes from having been a perpetual academic bridesmaid. Since I will move to yet another school for theology studies to continue my Jesuit training in a few short years, I suppose this newfound appreciation is also prudent and providential. “How is it possible,” one of my fellow Jesuits asked me last week, “that you’ve been in four colleges for a total of eight years, and only have a bachelor’s degree?”
The answer? Lots and lots of practice.
Of the aforementioned four universities, I attended two as a layman and two as a Jesuit, and two were Jesuit schools and two were institutions of the Ivy League, with the result that I field a lot of questions that cry out for a binary solution set: which Ivy League school is better? Which Jesuit school is better? Who’s better, the Jesuits or the…um, who is it, the Episcopalians? Of course, the reality is much more complicated, and deeply colored by my own self-identification at the time of enrollment at each place. But my experience of all four places has convinced me of this much: if I had a child…I would be in a hell of a lot of trouble with my superiors.
But let’s pretend for the next 500 words that I did have a child, and that child was choosing between the Ivies and Fordham. Where would I want him to go? Despite my own positive experiences at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, I’d still encourage him to stick with Fordham for the undergraduate education. The Ivies have more resources, more money, and more cachet in most circles, and offer a tremendous education; I would highly recommend both for graduate school or professional training. But the undergraduate experience, in my mind, is not really about plotting out one’s future employment. A Jesuit I met while an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount many years ago put in blunt but accurate terms what the real point of higher education is: “You don’t go to college to get a job. You go to college to become an interesting person.”
I agree — professional skills are important, but they are useless if a person is an ignoramus or a bore. And the project of becoming a more interesting person requires the acquisition of a fair amount of knowledge, but more importantly, it demands the steady development of wisdom, a very different thing.
“Sapientia et Doctrina,” proclaims the Fordham shield: “wisdom and knowledge.” As aims of any university, they are laudable, and for a Catholic university, they are terms loaded with meaning far beyond their simple appearance. Of course, we must be careful when we parse bold statements of ancient age, for sometimes their meanings change or become irrelevant; Columbia University, from which I will matriculate in a month with an MFA in Creative Writing, boasts proudly in stone-cut letters atop its famous Low Library that it is “maintained and cherished from generation to generation for the advancement of the public good and the glory of Almighty God.”
That is some creative writing, indeed. Though Columbia is a fantastic university with ungodly resources, no one would pretend that as an institution or a community it is committed to God’s glory; these days, most of my Columbia peers are ashamed even to admit any reference to Columbus. So what do the tour guides do when visitors notice that little business about “the glory of Almighty God”? They ignore it, or shrug their shoulders and say “we don’t really mean that anymore.”
What about Fordham, and “wisdom and knowledge”? Do we “really mean that anymore”? I think we certainly do, but I also think we need reminding about what exactly those paired words mean for our mission as a Catholic university. Any institution of higher learning can impart knowledge to its charges, and if we are to be brutally honest, we should admit that there are many that can accomplish that task much more thoroughly and efficiently than Fordham. We have always hung our hat on the premise and promise that as a Jesuit university, we could do better than simply to turn out well-informed worker bees. My imaginary child would be encouraged to attend Fordham because I can assume he would be forced to engage with his faith; that he would be exposed to the larger worlds of the liberal arts, the sciences, and contemporary society through a core curriculum that flows out of the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum; that he would find a community that expected both the acquisition of information and the proper discernment of its meaning and significance. As Fordham pursues lofty goals of national prominence and continues to reflect on its own mission, those factors must be kept in mind if we are to honor our tradition, if “wisdom and knowledge” are to remain more than just an ossified slogan from a bygone age.
We do not just want our graduates to be smart. Most of them are already smart when we get them as freshmen every September. We want them to be wise.
By James Keane, S.J.