The Real Purpose of Higher Education

Address to First Year Students
September 7, 2011

Last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education there was a short article entitled “The Purposes of Higher Education”. It was taken from the convocation address given to new students at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. The article listed five reasons:

  1. to ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of her parents, has a chance to enjoy the American Dream (upward mobility American value – but great inequality right now, 82% of students whose family income is in the top quartile get a bachelor’s degree compared to 8% of students whose family income is in the bottom quartile);
  2. to educate leaders in our democracy;
  3. to advance learning and knowledge through faculty research and by giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers (very important here, why we have a broad based general education for all students, even those already focused on a particular career);
  4. to teach students to interact with people different than themselves (we should be a model for the rest of society); and
  5. to help students find a passion - and even a purpose in life.

It’s a very good list, but if it were my list for you, I would change it, or at least add to it.

Cultivate a sense of awe and wonder. First, I hope you leave here with a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and complexity of the created world. I want you to be in awe of the minds that explore that complexity, whether that exploration is done through research in a chemistry lab or the slow labor of crafting a poem. I hope that sense of awe and wonder makes you thirst for the rest of your life to know more and understand more; that during your time here your sense of curiosity is kept alive and fostered. In short, I pray that you become a person with an intellectual appetite. Saint Mary’s did that for me. I was an English Literature major. But I was fascinated by what I learned by dissecting my fetal pig. Sure I learned something about anatomy, but the hours spent pouring over that complex little body also gave me time to think about the force of life that once coursed through it. During my year in France I took a year-long course in art and architectural history, and another in music history. I saw for the first time how interrelated art and music are with each other, and also how both of them were shaped by the political and philosophical trends of the same period of time. I began to understand how culture is formed out of all those trends and how the way we humans live together is influenced by them.

Deepen your understanding of and empathy with all human beings. Second, I hope at the end of four years here you have a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and a greater capacity to put yourself in the shoes of another and have empathy for her situation. As I have watched my own daughters over the past several years (they are now between the ages of 28 and 32) their experience has confirmed my own. In the world of work (whether that is the corporate world, the non-profit world, or the volunteer world – and they are or have been in all of those), learning to be competent at the assigned job is the easiest part. The more difficult challenges come from the quirks and failings of the human beings with whom you work. The ability to work with, supervise, or lead others depends very much upon your ability to understand them. Some people call that emotional intelligence, but I think that under-describes what I am talking about. I don’t mean to diminish emotion, but what I am talking about requires more than that. It requires knowledge of different cultures, it requires knowledge of human experience. You can acquire a lot of that knowledge here. As a literature major, I believe I learned a great deal about human experience from reading literature. All of you, whether you are studying biology, or mathematics will have literature thrust upon you here. Immerse yourself in it and think about the lessons conveyed. History, sociology, anthropology, all of these and many other fields provide windows into the human experience. And so do the very special women we have assembled here to be your classmates. We very purposely create a student body from different socio-economic classes, from different racial and ethnic groups, and from different countries. Take advantage of your peers, move out of your comfort zone and get to know Saint Mary’s women who are not like you. Not only will you learn, but you may begin a lifelong friendship. We also encourage study abroad, and we offer many courses that expose you to cultural realities other than your own.

Develop your spiritual life. Although we are very obviously a Catholic College, I want this for all of you whether you are of a different Christian religion, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or of no faith tradition. I truly believe that there will be a hole in your life, a sadness, and an emptiness if you do not find a sense of purpose that calls you beyond yourself, calls you to the transcendent. This is the time to explore how, as an intelligent adult, you can integrate faith and reason. You should take advantage of courses, especially in philosophy and theology, that expose you to the depth of thinking that underlies your religious tradition. Do not be content with the answers that sufficed in childhood. The answers of childhood will not be sufficient when your beliefs are challenged in the years ahead or when you yourself experience times of doubt. I took twice the number of required theology courses during my time here, because I hungered for more knowledge and for exposure to professors who had spent a lifetime pondering these matters. I found a variety of liturgical offerings, some of which were very like my home parish, some of which were very different. I sampled and learned from the variety.

You are here to learn many things. If your goal is to be an accountant, or a teacher, or a scientist, you will have a curriculum that prepares you for work in those fields. But you chose to attend Saint Mary’s, not the local community college or your large state campuses. Why? I hope that at least part of the reason you chose to be here is that we offer you some things that are not available there. I have urged you before to take advantage of all that we have to offer. Tonight I have been a bit more specific about what I think is unique about Saint Mary’s. Please plunge in to all of it.