Community

Our theme this year is community.

Where does one start in discussing such a large and fundamental topic?

Philosophically, we may say that "community" expresses the inescapable truth that human beings are social: No person is an island unto him- or herself. We live in relation to others around us. We live in relation to our parents and in relation to our children. We live in relation to our own past and in anticipation of our future. In this sense, space and time are communal concepts: space is how we have neighbors; time is how we have ancestors and descendants. We are in community the way fish are in water.

The question, then, is not whether we will live in community, but rather what kind of a community we will live in.

What kind of a community is St. Scholastica? I noted that the student speakers at commencement mass this spring all mentioned what a special community CSS is. One said that it is "the best college community in the country."

I think that many of us have felt the "specialness" of this community, its celebration in good times and its support in difficult times. Certainly, I have experienced many such moments here.

There are multiple ways to talk about what is "special" about the St. Scholastica community. This morning I would like to discuss two essential features: We are, in the first place, an educational community, a community of teachers and learners; and, in the second place, we are a Benedictine educational community. To paraphrase Fr. Charles Curran, the noun is "college" and the adjective is "Benedictine."

So, I will frame my remarks this morning around these two questions: What does it mean to be a college community?, and What does it mean to be a Benedictine college community?

I. What does it mean to be a community of teachers and learners?

This summer I read Parker Palmer's book, The Courage to Teach, which I highly recommend. (You may recall that he spoke here a few years ago, and was well received.) I very much like how he approaches the question of what it means to be an educational community, and my own remarks this morning draw heavily on his.

Palmer points out the importance of models in understanding community. For example, there is the intimacy model that sees community as the overcoming of disconnectedness. This is the model of lovers, parents and children, good friends. While intimacy may be part of an educational community, Palmer argues, it cannot be the basic model or the central truth for one simple reason: "When intimacy becomes the norm, we lose our capacity for connectedness with the strange and the stranger that is at the heart of being educated. We lose our capacity to entertain people and ideas that are alien to what we think and who we are" (91). Mother Theresa was intimately related to the suffering of the poor in Calcutta in a way that most of the rest of us never will be. But our lack of intimacy does not mean that we cannot learn about poverty.

Another model of community is the civic model that is the essence of liberal democratic society. The common good is determined by discussion, debate, negotiation and compromise. Obviously, public discussion and debate are important in the academy, but the academy is not fundamentally a civic community-again, for one simple reason: "Truth is not determined by democratic means" (92). There was a time when all intelligent people agreed that the sun revolves around the earth-and they were all wrong.

A third model of community is the marketing model that is well summarized in the department-store saying that "the customer is always right. Even when the customer is wrong, the customer is right." On other occasions I have argued that students are customers in many aspects of their lives here: When they pay their bills, when they use the bookstore, when they eat in the Greenview Dining Room, and so forth. But, when it comes to the heart of the matter-their work with the faculty-students are not customers, and their satisfaction is not the best measure of our success. Many of life's great truths unsettle us and make us feel inadequate. The beginning of wisdom is often discomfort and displeasure.

To these three models of community, I want to add a fourth: Community as therapy. In this model, which applies, for example, to support groups of various types, the point of community is to affirm and legitimize the individual person. Therapeutic communities can be very important, indeed, even life-saving, for people. But an educational community is not a therapeutic community. I do not believe that the essential point of college is to help a student find his or her voice, although that may be a worthy byproduct of the essential point. Similarly, we do not give a gift in order to feel good about ourselves, although feeling good may be a byproduct of trying to make someone else happy.

So, if an educational community is not best understood as a community of intimacy or a civic community or a community of customers or a therapeutic community, what is it? What's the best model for understanding the distinctive community of the academy?

Palmer offers his answer by weighing in on the current conversation about "student-centeredness." Many educators today speak of their profession as being "student-centered," and they think of the academy as a "student-centered community." What is appealing about this sort of talk is that it is intended as a corrective to what we may call "teacher-centeredness," a notion that conjures up the image of the droning professor reading from yellowed pages to a sleeping class.

But is "student-centeredness" the correct antidote to "teacher-centeredness"? A wise person once observed that people are usually right in what they deny, but wrong in what they affirm.

Every once in a while I read something that makes so much sense and seems so simple that I wonder why everyone-including me-didn't see it from the start. Thus it was with Palmer's discussion. Here's what he says: Student-centeredness is not the only or even the best alternative to teacher-centeredness. An educational community should be neither teacher-centered nor student-centered; it should be subject-centered.

The defining mark of an educational community is its commitment to the subject matter it is studying-the calculus, the double helix, the golden mean, E=mc2, the Ode to Joy, the face that launched a thousand ships, the "invisible hand," the voyage of the Beagle, stories of love and loss, of helping and healing, of war and peace, of brokenness and redemption. These are what Palmer calls "the Great Things," the love of which should dominate the college campus and determine what its community means.

So, a college community is not, at bottom, best understood in terms of intimacy, democracy, customer satisfaction, or therapy-although it may include aspects of these various models. A college community is best understood in terms of conversation: disciplined, sustained, devoted discussion about important things. A college is a community whose way of life is shaped by devotion to understanding the Great Things.

I say "devotion" deliberately, because religion provides a helpful analogy for the kind of community that a college should be. Judaism and Christianity, for example, are radically theocentric (God-centered) religions. The first commandment, "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods beside me," may be translated: I am the central reference point for your life and for your community. I am the center of meaning, purpose, and value; you shall have no other center but me.

The fundamental sin in Judaism and Christianity is idolatry: regarding anything other than God as the absolute center. Every time religion is justified for its utility-we believe in God because by so doing we will live forever, or because our nation will thus vanquish its foes, or because belief will bring success to our children-we put something other than God at the center. The televangelists' promise that belief in God will make you rich is a particularly crude expression of the logic of idolatry.

True religion is theocentric. All great religious thinkers have seen this. Jesus said, "Who sees me sees the Father." Augustine said that our hearts are made for God, and are restless till they rest in God. John Calvin said that everything should be for the greater honor and glory of God. The prophet Mohammed said simply, "There is no God but God."

Likewise, a true college community is radically subject-centered. The truths we are studying are the center of attention and the center of gravity. We measure our success in terms of the quality of conversation we have, in terms of how well we actually learn about the Great Things.

Conversely, every time we ask a student to summarize an author's point of view, and the student responds with what he or she personally thinks about an issue, we have missed the mark. The center of attention has shifted from the text to the student.

Every time students give up on a text, we fail as educators. I once asked a student to explain David Hume's criticism of the Intelligent Design argument as he outlines it in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and the student said simply, "I couldn't understand his style of writing, so I quit reading."

What happens when we look at our St. Scholastica community through the lens of subject-centeredness? That's a question I am posing for you to think about and talk about in our subsequent breakfast/lunch discussions this year. But here are a few starter thoughts:

  • In a subject-centered community, the best teachers, like the best windows, are invisible. They draw students' attention, not to themselves, but to the subject. Students coming out of a good class discussion should be talking about the issues, not about the teacher.
  • In a subject-centered community we respect one another as learners. We are drawn here by our love for the subjects we are studying. Because I love the Great Things and you love the Great Things, we respect one another.
  • In a subject-centered community, we practice humility. The point of learning is not to be right, not to win, not to save face, not to feel good. The point of learning is to understand important things, and we are humble in the presence of great ideas and great thinkers.
  • In a subject-centered community, we value diversity because we really want to know the truth. Understanding the Great Things is so important that we are willing to have our assumptions, our worldviews, and our interests challenged if the challenges help us get closer to the truth.
  • In a subject-centered community, staff members-although they are not normally in the classroom-are teachers in the broad sense. They will exemplify the love of learning in their jobs-how to integrate students of color into our community, how to distribute financial aid fairly and effectively, how to design networks and systems that serve our goals. Staff in a learning community will connect their specific jobs to the overall mission of providing "learning to touch the world"; they will model respect and humility. In these ways staff will help build community, and students will learn from them.

As I say, these are starter thoughts. I encourage all of you to think more about this "subject-centered" model of community, and to talk with one another and with me about it throughout the year.

II. This brings us to the second question: What does it mean to be a Benedictine college community? What does "Benedictine" add to the subject-centered model of community?

This is a question that the Benedictine college presidents and their sponsoring abbots and prioresses have been studying at their annual meetings for the past two years.

We have been wrestling with the question, What will it mean to be a Benedictine college/university with greatly diminished involvement by-or in the absence of-professed religious? What are the distinctive marks of Benedictine colleges-and how can lay people pass them along efficaciously?

What does it mean for higher education to say that it is in the Benedictine tradition?

Is there such a thing as "Benedictine pedagogy"?

In this context, the presidents asked a group of Benedictine monastics to address the question of the "Benedictine Intellectual Tradition." The monastics presented their report in April, and we began discussing it at our annual meeting in June. View the report as a Word document here.

Each president has made a commitment to conduct a campus-wide discussion of the paper, and I will make it available to all of you through email.

I've asked each of the vice-presidents to lead discussions of the paper with their staffs, and I also think the paper can be the subject of conversation at the breakfast and lunch sessions I will set up this year. I'd like to pull your observations and insights together in time to present them at next summer's meeting of the Benedictine presidents-which, by the way, we will host on our campus in late June.

In the paper, the monastics list 10 hallmarks of Benedictine institutions. Rather than rehearsing the entire list here, I will highlight just a few passages that I think reinforce Palmer's notion of the "subject-centered community." I invite you to reflect on the hallmarks and draw your own conclusions when you read the paper.

Here are a few examples:

  • "A special characteristic of Benedictine life is lectio divina." "Lectio" refers to careful reading and reflection on texts (where "text" is broadly understood).
  • "Just as Benedictine life is unthinkable without obedience, so also teaching and learning are impossible without it. The first word in the Rule is 'Listen,' and listening is a necessary skill and attitude for Benedictine wisdom."
  • "Stability….is characteristic…of the faculty, staff, and students of Benedictine educational institutions. They are not distracted by a restless search for the novel and surprising, but persevere in seeking true wisdom in this particular place with these particular people at this particular time."
  • "Although asceticism may be regarded as archaic, no learning takes place without discipline."
  • "Humility: acceptance of the demand for realism and accountability."

What I see here is a nested set of virtues or attitudes that I believe have profound pedagogical implications. A Benedictine community is marked by listening to the Great Things, by careful attention to texts that reveal the Great Things, by stability and discipline in seeking to understand the Great Things, by humility in face of the Great Things.

If Parker Palmer has offered a fruitful model for understanding what a learning community is, the Benedictines are describing the attitudes and practices of learners in a subject-centered community.

In a Benedictine educational community learners respect texts, they listen carefully, they stick to the tough task of learning without giving up in frustration, they appreciate the difference between ordinary minds and extraordinary minds. Faculty and staff model these virtues, and students learn to practice them.

To summarize: An educational community is neither teacher-centered nor student-centered; it is subject-centered. A Benedictine educational community practices the virtues of a subject-centered community: obedience, stability, discipline, humility.

In a Benedictine educational community, the individual subject is obedient to the subject-matter. In this sense, Benedictine education is the triumph of the Subject over the subject.

Larry Goodwin
August 2005