The Catholic University of America

"Structures of Intellectual Revolutions"
James Brennan, University Provost
The Catholic University of America
Class of 2014 Convocation
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church
Sept. 15, 2010

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, 350 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 like to thank the staff in the Office of Undergraduate Studies, particularly Dean Michael Mack, our MC for today, and his associate Mr. Nick Kruckenberg, for the effort in 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 of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music 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 who make up the academic heart of this University and permit it to 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.

So, 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, and so by right you should expect much from us.

What can you expect from The Catholic University? Stated quite simply, you can expect an academic community that is centered on both you, our students, and our cohesion as a community of scholars – as you are now and as you will be, thanks to your Catholic University education. Our goal is to provide you with pathways that will lead you to discover your noblest dreams and to realize them.

We seek to open pathways to the life of the mind. As you journey along those pathways, each and every one of you brings renewed vitality to this institution.

Every fall, the University begins again the cycle that truly makes us a center of learning. This August, we welcomed over 850 new graduate and law school students to this community of scholars. We also welcomed about 30 new full-time faculty members, selected, not only for their cutting edge scholarship, but also for their commitment to bring students into the excitement of that scholarship. Of course, we also welcomed 1,000 members of the Class of 2014, and it is primarily because of you that we are gathered here today.

For you, the members of the Class of 2014, this convocation marks, and indeed honors, your initiation into the community of learning that we call “the university.” As we welcome you to this university, we are also inviting you to enter a doorway or portal to a life of intellectual curiosity and satisfaction.

As you have undoubtedly already noticed, you will hear a lot about Reason and Faith at this university. In fact, we promote the Catholic University through the terms Reason and Faith, along with Service, through our functional motto. But for us, Reason and Faith are more than buzz words that look nice on a poster – rather for us, these are foundational concepts with which we do our thinking. Furthermore, they are the terms we use to mine the treasures of our heritage and, in particular, our inheritance of what we call the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. It was out of this Catholic Intellectual Tradition that our University was born, and it is in order to preserve and extend this living tradition that our University exists.

In brief, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is what sets this University apart. While we hold our own in terms of reputation and accreditations – and, indeed, in some areas, exceed other fine American universities – we also bring something more to the table. That something more is 2000 years of history, which itself was founded upon the even older tradition of Abraham. Since the writings of the evangelists and St. Paul in spreading the Good News in Jesus’ Name, the Church has promoted the growth of the human spirit through the harmonious interaction of faith and reason. The development of this interaction through the centuries has nourished countless minds and cultures. Faith and reason are not opposed, they are complementary. It is thanks to reason that we can explore our faith and enter more deeply into the truths that God has revealed. And, it is the faith, as reflected in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, which gives us the confidence to trust reason as an able guide in the search for truth in the world.

The scientific revolutions that accelerated with the Enlightenment in the 18th Century would not have been possible without the prior teachings of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas on the created universe, revolutionary teachings that drew on the rediscovered works of Aristotle. It is also commonly acknowledged that Darwin’s data collection in the Galapagos Islands would not have led him to his conclusion about evolution by natural selection without the precedent of the Franciscan Roger Bacon.

I use these two examples to underscore the growth of knowledge through some giants in the history of human progress, who were also wrestling with some big questions. In fact, it is the opportunity for you to wrestle with big questions that is the hallmark of what this university offers you.

I’ve entitled this talk “The Structure of Intellectual Revolutions.” In doing so I’ve borrowed a phrase and some ideas from a major historian of science from the 20th Century, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996). Described as an analytic philosopher, he was a professor for over 20 years at MIT and is remembered well for a book called The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). Very briefly, Kuhn argued that scientific progress proceeds when an observation is made or discovered that doesn’t fit into the prevailing theory or intellectual framework. He calls this observation an anomaly. The anomaly creates a need for a revised or new intellectual framework, and so a theory comes about which explains what the old theory included plus the anomaly. This process he called a ‘paradigm shift.’ The new intellectual framework or theory then persists until another observation becomes an anomaly, and the process is repeated with yet another paradigm shift. According to Kuhn, this is how science progresses.

The example that he liked, which seems to demonstrate this process, is the work of the Polish astronomer and cleric, Nicholas Copernicus. The prevailing theory of planetary organization in Copernicus’ time was the Ptolemaic or earth-centered universe, which held the earth as the center of the universe, with the planets, including the sun, revolving around it. Copernicus took the same data and focused on the anomalies that weren’t explained very well. However, in reworking the data with the sun at the center and the earth revolving around it, along with the other planets, he found a system that accommodated the anomalies within a sun-centered paradigm framework. Copernicus conceived this game-changing paradigm shift without new instrumentation; he simply found a better way mathematically to accommodate all of the data. Indeed, it was left to later astronomers who had the benefit of telescopes, namely Galileo and Kepler, to prove that Copernicus was right.

A similar example comes from the story of evolution. There were several versions of evolution prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These focused on explaining how a species adapts to the environment – for example, a giraffe develops a long neck to reach to the top of the trees for more and better food. As Charles Darwin journeyed to various exotic locations aboard the research vessel called the Beagle, he saw the diversity in nature and the overabundance of production. He was fascinated for example about why a turtle lays hundreds of eggs after each mating – why so many? These anomalies -- tremendous diversity and routine overproduction -- led him to natural selection as the principle governing evolution. Those survivors from all of those eggs or other offsprings continue to adulthood, mate and pass along their attributes to future generations of survivors. His theory accommodated the data better than evolution by environmental adaptation. Later an obscure Czech monk named Gregor Mendel completed the paradigm shift by proposing the mechanism for natural selection – namely genetic transmission.

This overview of paradigm shifts may be heavy stuff for a Wednesday afternoon in your third week at this university. What is the take away – what do I want you to get out of these examples of intellectual revolutions? Do I expect you to redesign the universe? To extend evolutionary principles to an ever-expanding universe? Probably not -- at least not this week. No, what I want you to get out of this beginning phase of your educational journey is a greater readiness to think critically. Ideas are building blocks of a structure that is never complete. What I want you to take away for yourself is to not be satisfied just because of what you read in a book or heard in a classroom. You are not computing robots, reducible to input and output. You are thinking persons who need to wrestle with the big issues so you can find yourself within the big picture.

Since you chose The Catholic University of America, and we chose you, one of our major responsibilities is to introduce you to the journey of self-discovery. You will find vast intellectual landscapes that will attract you with their beauty and challenge you with often difficult terrain. Pay attention to the anomalies. It is in addressing them that you will make discoveries about the world and about yourself. You will make observations along the journey that don’t seem to fit into what you’ve been told. Remember that you will arrive at many destinations along your journey, but you will never reach the end point. That is because learning is a life-long process.

Opening up these intellectual horizons is one of the chief purposes of the group of courses that all 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 50, 60, or maybe more years of your life. You will change jobs, and you will change careers. Some of this change will be driven by your own interests and passions; some of this change will come from opportunities that evolve through emerging technologies. If you have a genuine love of learning, you will approach anomalies 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. That is the purpose of this journey that is college – to discover in yourself who you are.

What, you may ask, do a couple of philosophy courses, one called the “classical mind” and one called “modern” mind (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 these questions is everything. But, to discern for yourself how this academic foundation prepares you for a life-time of intellectual growth in the face of new observations, of anomalies, you need to exercise another important virtue, and that is patience. This intellectual journey begins here with more questions than answers, and you can’t rush to the finish line. You can’t cut corners.

You will have insightful moments when ideas will all come together, and you will have other times, when your progress is slow and painful. Sometime you may think that you’ve figured everything out – and then make the even bigger discovery about just how wrong you were. Despite our special link to the Catholic Church, we have no miracle pill – there are no short cuts, no guarantees that we’ll come up with the right answer every time. As I said, this journey you are undertaking covers a vast terrain, and you advance one step at a time. But in the end, if you persevere, you will come to a place where you will know yourself. You will know what you believe, and why. 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 some of your best.

Catholic University provides you with a special opportunity to achieve these goals, to grow in grace, wisdom and truth, and 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 develop new programs and update existing ones in response to the accelerating growth of knowledge and information, we have not done so at the expense of the fundamentals, of what is at the core of what we call liberal education. 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 for 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 specialize: 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 go on to get 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 mid-term elections and the 2012 election. 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’s 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 ideas off of 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 reason and in faith. Participating in nothing less than God’s own reason, you’ll 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.


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