The Catholic University of America

Sept. 16, 2009

Provost Addresses Freshmen on "The Peace of the Reasoning Soul"

The Class of 2013 gathered in the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday, Sept. 16, for the annual Freshman Convocation. Provost James F. Brennan gave a speech titled "The Peace of the Reasoning Soul." His address is reprinted below.

Freshman Convocation, 2009
"The Peace of the Reasoning Soul"
James F. Brennan, University Provost
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 16, 2009

 
 

Provost James F. Brennan

Now that you have survived two and half weeks, I would like to welcome you to The Catholic University of America on behalf of the almost 400 fulltime faculty, 300 adjunct and part-time faculty, and 400 academic support staff. It's my fervent hope that you are discovering in The Catholic University the special place that we on this stage and among your faculty think it is.

First of all I would to thank staff in the Office of the Provost, particularly Ms. Catherine Sullivan, Cindy Tenuta, and Ms. Jackie Tindle, as well as Dr. Michael Mack and Dr. Patricia McMullen, for the countless hours that go into planning the Convocation and the reception that follows. I want to especially thank Prof. Leo Nestor and the talented students who are leading us in the musical program today. A special debt of appreciation goes to Msgr. Walter Rossi, Rector of the Basilica for letting us use this beautiful and impressive venue. This edifice is an international symbol of the American Catholic Church, yet at the same time it is our university church, and the staff of the Basilica is consistently welcoming and supportive of the university throughout the year. Finally, I want to thank the members of the faculty and staff that make the academic heart of this University beat strongly and vigorously. Members of the faculty are drawn to this institution from all over the nation and the world, and they are truly committed to your success.

At some point over the last 18 months, you had indicated an interest in The Catholic University of America, you applied, you were accepted, and then you made a final deliberate choice in selecting this university as your academic home, supporting the next stage of your lives. And, The Catholic University chose you. This 2-way relationship is central to your success, and your success defines the university's success. It's as simple as that.

We're happy that you're here, and today's convocation, a "calling together" of this community of scholars, is intended to welcome you in a formal way to the University, complete with symbols to mark our bond together. As you can tell from the academic parts of the Orientation, Orientation Extended, and the First Year Experience, our expectations for you are quite ambitious. We do have very high expectations of you. As Father O'Connell said to you on that very first day of orientation two weeks ago, we will expect much from you, and by right you should expect much from us. The notion of a "match" in choosing the right college or university, on your part, and the University choosing the right mix of students, on our part, makes for what we hope will be a mutually constructive relationship.

What can you expect from The Catholic University? Stated quite simply, the kind of academic community that exists at this University is centered on students and our ability as a community of scholars and practitioners to provide our students with the pathway to elevate your dreams, by opening the life of the mind for each and every one of you. Your success brings vitality to this institution.

Each fall, the University begins again the renewable cycle that truly remakes us each academic year. This August, we welcomed over 800 members of the Class of 2013, as well as about 150 transfer students, and over 900 new graduate and law school students to this community of scholars. We also welcomed about 40 new full-time faculty members to the university community. Our students are taught by faculty selected, not only for their cutting edge scholarship, but also for their commitment to bring students into the excitement of that scholarship. At the same time, we don't live in isolation - we need to link our educational programs to the realities of life, and this faculty are adept at sustaining those linkages.

But, for you members of the Class of 2013, this convocation marks, and indeed honors, your initiation into the community of learning that we call "the university." So, while we welcome you to this university, we are also inviting you to enter a doorway or portal to a life of intellectual curiosity and intellectual satisfaction.

"The Peace of the reasoning soul" is a line that I've taken as the title of this brief presentation from a very beautiful image offered by St. Augustine in his famous work, The City of God. St. Augustine lived from 354 until 430, during a time of transition as the Roman Empire was well on its way to fragmentation, and the early Church was plagued with various heresies. St. Augustine wrote the work partially in response to those who linked the decline of the Roman Empire to the rise of Christianity. But in the second half of the work, Augustine addresses a positive vision of human society, and he offers a contrast between an earthly city and the city of God. The former is composed of people who love the bodily and material things of the world, with its own set of values. In contrast, the City of God consists of people who live and act within the love of God and are led in that love to devote themselves to seeking truth and goodness.

The 13th chapter of the 19th book of The City of God opens with a sentence that I quote:

The peace, then of the body lies in the ordered equilibrium of all its parts; the peace of the irrational soul, in the balanced adjustment of its appetites; the peace of the reasoning soul, in the harmonious correspondence of conduct and conviction; the peace of the body and soul taken together, in the well-ordered life and health of the living whole.

There's a lot packed into this quotation, and I suspect that if you pursue your interests in philosophy through courses offered in our School of Philosophy, you probably will spend a lot of time on quotations such as this one. However, for our purpose now, I want to suggest a few points of emphasis. First, at the heart of Augustine's definition of peace we find harmony, balance, and equilibrium, concepts that underscore their opposites, which define strife, violence, war, tension, and so on. Second, if we focus on what Augustine says about the peace of mind that he calls the peace of the reasoning soul, then St. Augustine tells us that we need to find "the harmonious correspondence of conduct and conviction."

What does that phrase mean? Conduct and conviction - our acts and our beliefs. What we do and what we aspire to do. Surely, we have heard that distinction before. And, that takes us to this additional dimension of welcome.

Since you chose The Catholic University of America, and we chose you, one of our major responsibilities is to introduce you to pathways that lead you to the harmonious correspondence of conduct and conviction. This journey is one of self-discovery, and that part of yourself that you will discover is your mind. You will discover vast intellectual landscapes that will attract you with their beauty and challenge you with often difficult terrain.

Opening up these intellectual horizons is one of the chief purposes of the group of courses that most of you are taking in learning communities over the two semesters of the First Year Experience. The courses in the First Year Experience have multiple goals as they try to help you in your transition to university study. They will help you adjust to how you manage your time, how to listen to lectures and take notes more effectively, and how to study efficiently. They will also provide you with a rich array of readings that will get you to think about the big questions - and to explore and clarify your own thinking through writing. These courses will also help you extend your classroom experience to the living laboratory of Washington, DC and the richness of this international city. All of these outcomes are good and intended parts of our expectations.

But, our hope is that you will get something else from this foundation. We want you to learn to love learning as a way of life. You will need to discover this love if you're going to be happy in the world of work that you'll find over the next 40, 50, or maybe more years of your work life. You will change jobs, and you will change careers. Some of this change will be driven by your own changing interests and passion; some of this change will come from opportunities that evolve through emerging technologies. If you have a genuine love of learning, you will approach changes not as threats but as occasions for learning - as opportunities for personal growth. If you have a genuine love of learning, even the most unfortunate events will be occasions for growth. As Augustine well knew, certain kinds of wisdom are only born out of suffering. The peace of the reasoning soul, then, is not complacency, but the ability to encounter challenges and changes without losing your peace. It is the ability to transform the discordant notes that change always brings into a new and richer harmony. That is the purpose of this journey that is college - to discover the peace of the reasoning soul that will allow to you voyage into seas of change without fear of capsizing.

What, you may ask, do a couple of philosophy courses, one called the "classical mind" and one called "modern" (where "modern" starts with Descartes in the 17th Century) have to do with the future? What does understanding my faith have to do with future success in my career? What do writing assignments teach me about real life? Of course, my answer to those questions is everything. But, to discern for yourself how this academic foundation prepares you for a life-time of peace and courage in the face of change, you need to exercise another important virtue, and that is patience. As I mentioned earlier, this journey toward the unshakeable harmony of the reasoning soul cannot be rushed. You can't cut corners.

I'm reminded of a story about an Amish family who lived entirely within their community in rural Pennsylvania. Well, a new shopping mall was built not too far away, and somewhat contrary to their beliefs, the father of the family decided to take his wife and brood of children to see the mall. They drove for several hours in the buggy, parked in the outer reaches of the vast parking lot, and the father took his eldest son with him to check out the mall first. He and the boy entered the main entrance and came to a series of three steel doors lined up side-by-side, each with lighted numbers above. As they watch, an elderly lady using a walker slowly made her way to these steel doors and pressed a button. Soon a bell rang, one set of doors opened, and the elderly lady walked into a box. Then the doors closed. The father and son looked at each other, and then the bell rang again, and the same doors opened. Out of the box and through the open doors walked this young, absolutely beautiful woman. The father turned to the boy, and said, it's a miracle box, hurry quick, go get your mother.

Well, there are no such miracles here, and no short cuts. This journey you are undertaking covers a vast terrain, and you advance one step at a time. But in the end, you will come to a place where you will know yourself, you will know what you believe and why, and your conduct will be in harmony with your convictions. You will have peace of the reasoning soul. This is an exciting journey, and these years when you can focus almost entirely on the foundation of that journey are years that you will look back upon as the best.

Catholic University provides you with a special opportunity to achieve these goals, to grow in grace, wisdom and truth, and I believe it does so within a climate of excitement and anticipation. We have a rich curriculum that you need to explore. While we of the faculty are continuing to developed new programs and update existing ones in response to the accelerating growth of knowledge and information, as well as changing opportunities in the workforce, we have not done so at the expense of the fundamentals, what is at the core of the liberal arts and sciences. And, "liberal" here is taken from its true meaning of freeing the mind, which is to be open before the world. We never lose sight of the fundamentals, which include critical and creative thinking, clear communication in written and oral expressions, honesty in actions and thought, and respect for and genuine interest in other members of our diverse learning community. By learning from people who are different from you, you will be preparing for the world of work of the 21st Century, which requires well-educated people who can solve problems, work with others, and truly appreciate the wonderful variety of cultures that participate in the global economy.

As you begin your journey, I have three recommendations to offer in support of your academic success.

First, don't close yourself off from the wealth of disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas represented in our curriculum - both in the liberal arts and sciences and in the professions. You will be going to school, in one form or another, for the rest of your life. Don't be in a hurry to overspecialize - with our rapidly changing world of information, the details are going to change anyway. You can pursue a major in French and still go to medical school. You can major in civil engineering and still go to law school. You can major in Nursing and still pursue an MBA. Explore this place and soak it up. Go to concerts and plays. Attend lectures about politics. Work for a political party or a candidate as we approach the 2010 elections. Get into ministry, join a club, volunteer for the little Sisters of the Poor across the street. Grow your mind - this is your big chance.

The second point is: ask for help. Academically, this is a very complicated university, but size-wise, it is small as universities go. The Catholic University has a human dimension to it in the sense that not only do we care for you in the abstract, we want to know and support you as an individual, thinking person. Don't be afraid or too proud to let us in. No one has all the answers. You (and everyone else here) will have questions, doubts, crises in confidence - let us in. We understand. We can help.

The third point is have fun. Back in the stone age when I was a college freshman, the president of the institution that I have my bachelor's degree from once remarked that 95% of all learning in college takes place outside of the classroom. I thought then, as I do now, that it is a very radical statement, one that would never appear in a university recruitment brochure because it implies that this structure of 120 or so required course credits to a baccalaureate degree is really unnecessary. Yet there is some truth to what he said. We learn through interactions with others. We bounce off ideas on our friends and colleagues. We test ourselves and our convictions by raising arguments, which might be only exaggerations of what we start off as a belief. Yet, these arguments often lead us to insights. Scholars have recognized this mode of learning, and it is valuable. So learn together, talk, goof off, play games, but in the end listen to each other - in class and outside of class.

You bring so much in talent and intelligence to this academic community, and we want you to learn and nurture those gifts so that you grow in the peace of the reasoning soul. Participating in nothing less than God's own reason, you have the confidence to feel at home - and to help others feel at home - in a world of constant change.

Welcome again to The Catholic University of America.

Thank you.