The Benedictine value we are focusing on this year is stewardship. As the Benedictines like to say about their values, stewardship is not a Benedictine value; it is a human value that Benedictines have adopted. But the Benedictines do have a special claim on stewardship. Sister Margaret Clarke notes in her little monograph on the Benedictine heritage:
In 529 the Emperor Justinian closed the Academy at Athens which had been founded by Plato in the fourth century B.C. and which had preserved the tradition of classical thought for over eight centuries.
In 529 St. Benedict founded his monastery at Montecassino to be a 'school for the Lord's service,' and which was to provide the beginning of a new effort to preserve the treasures of human culture in the centuries to come.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that during the Middle Ages, Benedictine monasteries were "the workshops where precious manuscripts were collected, preserved, and multiplied…. The monks preserved and perpetuated the ancient writings which, but for their industry, would undoubtedly have been lost to us."
So, this notion of preservation or stewardship is intimately involved in Benedictine history and identity.
What does "stewardship" mean? Literally, a steward is the ward of a hall. A steward guards and manages. A steward is a custodian, a preserver. The steward does not own that which is being cared for. The hall does not belong to the ward; it belongs to the owner of the estate, and the steward takes care of it.
What does stewardship mean here at The College of St. Scholastica? There are many ways to understand and so to answer this question. We are stewards of human, physical and monetary resources-and so there are a lot of directions a discussion of stewardship can take. We could talk about managing money-how we've done a good job the past several years, and the challenges that lie ahead. We could talk about the natural beauty of our buildings and grounds and the effort we put into maintaining and preserving them-a point that visitors to our campus invariably make. We could talk about environmental issues, and our responsibilities to mother earth. Our keynote speaker this morning will talk about stewardship of the self, and at lunch we'll consider various practical ways that we can be good stewards here at the College.
But I want to talk about a different dimension of stewardship. I want to talk about the stewardship that is specific to higher education. Colleges and universities are the institutions in society that are charged with the stewardship of the life of the mind. This is the hall of which we especially are the wards.
What does stewardship of the life of the mind involve?
We can begin by saying that higher education has two main purposes: to prepare students for the workforce and to pass along from one generation to the next the very best thinking about what is most important in life. These two purposes may be summarized as the transmission of knowledge and the transmission of wisdom.
What's the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is understanding something; wisdom is knowing what is worth knowing and why. In this information age, we can know practically anything. We are awash in data and blogs. So, the important question is not what we can know; it's what is worth knowing-and why. The distinction between knowledge and wisdom is important.
My thinking about stewardship of the life of the mind has been shaped by two events this summer. One was the meeting of the Benedictine college presidents. You'll recall that our College hosted the annual meeting this year, where we focused on the question of what is distinctive about Benedictine higher education. Our discussions have caused me to think about what stewardship of knowledge and wisdom means in a Catholic Benedictine context.
The other event is the tragic spiral of violence in the Mideast-this has caused me to think about whether our work here at the College has any relevance to what is going on in the world. Increasingly, I find myself unable to speak publicly without asking how higher education can contribute to resolving the major problems confronting our world. In the end, if education does not lead to a better world, of what use is it, really? What does stewardship of knowledge and wisdom have to do with helping diminish the sectarian violence that is tearing our world apart?
The causes of sectarian violence are, as we know, complex, involving geography, history, politics, memory, and ambiguity. But the structural logic of what I will call "tribalism" is pretty clear. Whether we are talking about Shiites and Sunnis, Hutus and Tutsis, Sikhs and Hindus, Israel and Hezbollah, or Islamic fundamentalism and modernity-the tragic point is always the same: The particular agenda of one side overwhelms the commonalities of both sides. The tribe trumps the race.
In a sectarian world, the competing demands of different groups are not resolved by appeal to an independent higher standard, because each group makes itself into the higher standard. This is why religion is so often involved in tribal conflict. If God is on our side, then who can be against us, except the Devil? And the Devil must be killed. This distortion of true religion is illustrated each time an ayatollah invokes the will of Allah to justify barbarous acts of violence against the innocent; it can even be echoed in the innocuous phrase, "God bless America," when this is invoked as an assertion of American supremacy. (Please understand: I do hope that God blesses America, but I do not interpret this to mean that our interests are more important than the interests of other nations and peoples. God bless them, too!)
Our poor world today is roiling with competing claims to ultimacy---including the so-called clash of civilizations. This is bad enough when tribes have spears and nations have gunpowder. It's even worse when superpowers have nuclear weapons. But at least superpowers understand mutual destruction. In a world where stateless shadow cells have access to nuclear weapons, we have indeed reached a critical point. If mutually assured destruction is no longer a deterrent, and if martyrdom is the gate to Paradise, then what?
If we human beings are going to evolve successfully beyond this dangerous moment in our history, it will be because we decide to make our human commonalities more important than our tribal particularities. As U.S. General Peter Pace put it last month in testimony before Congress, "Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other."
This is where our work as educators becomes relevant and important. Our college is a steward of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Benedictine wisdom tradition-and both of these traditions deal with human commonalities. My observations here are either drawn from or sparked by the excellent talk that Bill Cahoy, the dean of St. John's School of Theology, gave at the Benedictine presidents' meeting.
Of all the world's religious traditions, Catholicism has the most positive regard for human reason. There is such a thing as truth; the human mind is hungry for it and is capable of knowing it. Human reason is common among human beings, and it distinguishes us from other types of beings. Reason and faith are compatible-even harmonious. Faith may go beyond reason, but it cannot contradict reason. If faith and reason collide, then either we are not believing correctly or we are not understanding fully.
If we take this foundational understanding seriously, then students should learn from studying with us what the life of the mind means and how its disciplined exercise unites us with other rational beings. Following a line of reasoning or a trail of evidence is a discipline: it requires attending to something outside the self. In this sense, academic freedom is a form of obedience: I follow the evidence where it goes, not where I want it to go. The life of the mind also requires listening to others, entertaining viewpoints I have not considered and may not particularly like. A truth-seeker is keenly aware of his or her own finite perspective, and tries to transcend it. If I am really after the truth as we can best know it, then I will subordinate my perspective, my penchants and my pride to the pursuit itself. Properly taught and properly honored in practice, the life of the mind can be a powerful antidote to tribalism. Our stewardship of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the human commonality that it implies, is one insight that I took from our summer conference.
The other insight has to do with the Benedictine wisdom tradition, of which we are also stewards. The wisdom tradition itself predates the Benedictines; in the west we can trace it back to the Greeks. The essential insight of the wisdom tradition is that knowing is not a neutral activity; it is value-laden. It involves loving something or other. If, for example, we seek the truth in order to win arguments, then what we really love is power, not the truth. Socrates, by contrast, loved the truth for its own sake-and he gave his life for that love. The word "philosophy" means precisely, "the love of wisdom."
In the wisdom tradition, the point of education is not only to pass along information and technique, but also to help us learn to love the right things, and in this sense to shape character. Education directs human knowledge to good ends-this is the ancient wisdom tradition that shaped monastic education and the great medieval universities. Our College stands squarely in this tradition of education as character-formation; this is what we mean when we say our mission involves the intellectual and moral preparation of students. We are stewards of the wisdom tradition.
On other occasions, I have suggested that part of the wisdom tradition is the cultivation of moral imagination. By "moral imagination" I mean the capacity to feel the feelings of others, the ability to move beneath differences in policy or perspective and grasp the underlying emotions that are common to human beings. As 21st century Americans, we may find the practices of other historical periods and other cultures strange and confusing, but just as human beings we understand what it means for other human beings to be afraid, to be jealous, to fall in love. Young soldiers from Troy to Gettysburg to Vietnam and Iraq know the emotions of the killing fields. Mothers from Africa, Afghanistan and America know-emotionally know-what it means to protect their young. These feelings are the ties that bind us as members of a human family, and an exquisite sensitivity to these commonalities is what we must cultivate among our students.
The 1996 Nobel prize winner, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, has a poem that begins:
And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little boy!..
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk…
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To a garden, to a school, to an office, to a bride?
The shock of human recognition we feel in so regarding Hitler's first photograph-not to mention the penning of such a poem by a Pole-is a vivid example of what I mean by moral imagination.
A wise teacher once counseled me: When you disagree with a difficult opponent, try to understand why he is sitting so heavily on his conclusions. Suspend for the moment our judgements about Iran's development of nuclear technology and try to imagine what it feels like to live in a country that is surrounded by other countries that do have nuclear arsenals-Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India, an American-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. Both self-defense and national pride are at issue. Moral imagination puts us in touch with the humanity of our ideological opponents, and so provides the opportunity for understanding, and perhaps even the possibility of reconciliation. We develop character by cultivating our capacity for empathy. This is part of the wisdom tradition.
Let me summarize: As an educational community, we are the distinctive stewards of knowledge and wisdom. In our Catholic Benedictine context, this stewardship involves disciplined cultivation of human reason as a means of transcending special interests, and it involves the development of character that directs human knowledge to good ends. In a world that is being torn apart by tribal particularities, we are the stewards of human commonalities. Upon these commonalities the well-being of our planet depends. Our mission is to educate students who can help heal our world.
What does stewardship of knowledge and wisdom mean, practically speaking, in our daily work? That's something I want to talk about with you in our follow-up conversations this year, and I look forward to your observations and insights. Here are three thoughts to get us started:
An important curricular implication of what I am saying is that the general education program should be the center of the undergraduate experience. In a strong general education program students learn how to think outside their major and they expand their moral imagination through the study of literature, art, culture and history. In the name of stewardship, I urge the faculty to continue building the best possible general education program for our students.
All of us-staff as well as faculty-should also model the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in our professional work here at the College. Students may learn from what we say, but they will certainly learn from how we behave, how we do our jobs, how treat one another.
As I say, these are just a few practical implications of the notion of stewardship that I have explored this morning. As we begin this year, let us remind ourselves that our stewardship of knowledge and wisdom is good and noble work. Let us support one another in carrying out our mission. And let us work hard to graduate students who will serve and transform our fractured world.