22 August 2011

He Said It: Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict gave a short speech to young university professors at the Basilica of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial in Madrid last Friday, 19 August 2011. The Holy Father is known for his ability to craft a penetrating and profound speech, and this one does not disappoint. If you are interested in education, in what kinds of things should be taught at colleges and universities, or in what should move and motivate teachers, you should read the Pope's speech in full

Let me excerpt a few of his claims that struck me particularly. 

"We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria [for determining college curricula], much is lost and the results can be tragic: from the abuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limits beyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily arises when one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power."

My comment: Human beings are possessors of an inherent dignity that requires a moral respect. A science that reduces humanity to its constituent material parts, or a politics that sees human beings as interchangeable pawns in its ideal blueprint for society, not only misunderstands human nature but also runs a substantial risk of becoming destructive of human dignity. The conceiving of human beings as precious individuals deserving of respect was a great leap forward in human development. It should be celebrated, even as we understand the fragility of the civilization it has helped to enable.

"The Gospel message perceives a rationality inherent in the creation and considers man as a creature participating in, and capable of attaining to, an understanding of this rationality. The University thus embodies an ideal which must not be attenuated or compromised, whether by ideologies closed to reasoned dialogue or by truckling to a purely utilitarian and economic conception which would view man solely as a consumer."

My comment: The Roman Catholic tradition is one of the few large-scale religious denominations that affirms the fundamental rationality of the universe, and thus the coincidence of reason and faith. The Holy Father here reaffirms this belief, and draws out the implication that any forces that work to stymie or obstruct the progress of reason not only work against human reason but also against human dignity. The university is the place, if nowhere else on earth, where open-ended investigation must not only be allowed but encouraged. It is thus also the place where enforced orthodoxies are most pernicious.

Young people need authentic teachers: persons open to the fullness of truth in the various branches of knowledge, persons who listen to and experience in their own hearts that interdisciplinary dialogue; persons who, above all, are convinced of our human capacity to advance along the path of truth. [...] Always remember that teaching is not just about communicating content, but about forming young people.

My comment: The duties and moral obligations of the teacher are many and manifold. In order to execute them faithfully, the teacher must first be a master of his material, yet ever mindful of his obligation to seek truth, not conformity. But he must also be a person of integrity and virtue himself; for how can he pretend to 'form young people' if he himself is most in need of reform? This is perhaps the most daunting and humbling aspect of being a teacher. Each of us is fallen and flawed, yet among the easiest falsehoods to believe in are the infallibility of one's own intellect and the purity of one's own soul.

Teachers complain a lot about the apathy, the ineptitude, the ungratefulness of their students. We believe students have obligations as students that they all too often fail to meet. But it is no less true that teachers have obligations as well, obligations that indeed come prior to and give content and meaning to those of the students. We are obliged to the truth, and to the sacred tradition of higher learning that has been created in the service of the truth; and those obligations require us to examine and reexamine our professional selves long before we enter the classroom. Even if the teacher does not believe, as I do, that the genuine, serious, open, and humble search for truth is rendered holy by its connection to God, still the search for truth must be the highest end, for without it little he does has meaning or purpose beyond "the mere calculus of power."

I believe that understanding of the teacher's obligations is part of what the Holy Father means by the "authentic teachers" that young people need. And it is in full knowledge of my own shortcomings and of my own inevitable failings that I nevertheless proceed in cheerful good faith to strive to fulfill my profound--even sacred--obligations as a teacher.

No comments: