Dr. David Sylvester, Principal of King’s University College in London, Ont., believes today’s Catholic university has much to learn from its predecessors. This will allow students to be prepared for the difficult challenges of an increasingly complex world. Photo courtesy of King’s University College

Keeping faith with past — and future

By  Dr. David Sylvester, Catholic Register Special
  • March 23, 2013

LONDON, ONT. - What does it mean to be a Catholic university in this day and age?

The Catholic university remains academically significant because it is a place that consciously cultivates an education linking the best of what we have learned in the West in conversation with the Rest (to paraphrase Niall Ferguson) with what is yet to be discovered. Far from antiquated or dated, the wisdom of the great minds of the past can speak to issues of our day and offer an invaluable point of departure for current students and future leaders. In other words, a Catholic university education does indeed look to the past, but its eyes are focussed squarely on the future.

Moreover, Catholic universities embrace essential principles that position students and faculty to transcend this historical content to take up the big questions of our own day and tomorrow. Here are just three ingredients essential to Catholic university education:

Truth in all things: The very DNA of an institution like King’s University College in London requires it to be more than a place to acquire job skills and training. Ex corde ecclesiae says it best: “It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”

All faculty and all students, in all disciplines, are challenged to make this their goal, to seek truth in whatever subject they choose to study. This commitment to seek the truth in all things is why Catholic universities are unreservedly committed to the principle of academic freedom; it is the cornerstone of the serious questioning that must take place on a university campus.

Dignity of the Human Person: A Catholic university begins with a foundational understanding that human beings are inherently worth something. This starting point has profound implications for how we approach research questions and the types of programs we offer.

This respect for the human person is also behind an institutional commitment to diversity, to accessibility, to social justice and to building up the common good. It is also why Catholic universities have been leaders in service learning and outreach programs, which connect the classroom with communities in greatest need. All members of the Catholic university community are continually challenged to build professional and personal relationships based on integrity and respect.

Integration of Knowledge: Catholic universities around the world are known for their excellent interdisciplinary programs, notably in the humanities and sciences. Such programs are informed by the two principles mentioned above. People are not the sum of their parts, but whole individuals. Truth is not the reserve of any particular subject area, but rather can be discovered through different courses of study.

Put these ideas together and you have an education program — Catholic higher education — that breaks down the walls between disciplines in order to achieve a deeper, more holistic understanding. History, psychology, sociology, mathematics and so on shed light on a subject or problem in their own way. Bring these disciplines into dialogue and together they can inform each other and, ultimately, provide greater knowledge and even wisdom.

An educated woman and man is one that can participate in this wide-ranging conversation, mastering a particular subject and also appreciating how other scholars approach problems.

Finally, there is a dimension to a Catholic higher education that we cannot ignore and that makes it arguably the most relevant and appropriate education available today. We need ethical leaders today, whether in business, politics, education or in our neighbourhood associations. Catholic universities do not shy away from the proposal that they are called to help shape the character of their students; it’s about the formation of the whole person, after all.

This education includes the intellectual, spiritual, physical and moral aspects of the young people who come to campus. It is not a doctrinal exercise where students are told how to behave, but an invitation to reflect upon the ethical and moral implication of actions and ideas, through study, reflection, action and even prayer. Ethics should hold a place of pride in every Catholic university.

We believe that our Catholic character provides us with an inside advantage on educating intelligent, reflective, courageous and compassionate graduates: young women and men who are not only prepared to achieve academically and find meaningful employment but who are not afraid to take on the difficult challenges offered up by an increasingly complex world.

(Dr. Sylvester is the Principal of King’s University College in London, Ont.)

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