Politics & Policy

The Idea of a University

Living a mission.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the text of Michael Novak’s commencement address at Ave Maria College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, delivered on May 3, 2003.

ANN ARBOR — Let my first words of congratulations today go to the parents of the graduates. This day is for you! Today is a tremendous step in the life of your daughter or son. It is the crowning day of an enormous gift that you have given them — a college education. That is a privilege only a tiny fraction of the parents who have ever lived on earth have been able to give their children — the best gift, next to life itself, next to the faith.

And today also means one less year of tuition payments! My wife and I will never forget the discovery we made the month after our last child had completed university — a whole month without tuition payments! Discretionary income! We had forgotten what it was like.

But today belongs especially to the graduates of the class of “ought 3,” the first class to celebrate all four of its springs in the New Millennium, 2000, 2001, 2002, and now 2003. You are our finest, our best, and you are the ones God chose to launch the next thousand years of Christian history.

What a difference you are going to make in the world! We don’t yet know where. We don’t yet know how. Think of it, though. Just in the last few weeks, we have seen thousands of other young men and women your age offer their lives to bring freedom to the people of Iraq. Some of them gave their lives, young as they were, and some were wounded and badly hurt. All of them together performed one of the greatest military feats in the history of the world. In slightly more than three weeks, they sped inland more than 500 miles, and they freed a whole people.

Some of you may do even greater things. There are souls to be healed, families to be started or nourished to maturity, good work to be done, discoveries to be made, businesses and new technologies to be started, young minds to be taught and inspired, the sick to be cared for, the poor to be lifted up — beginning with graduating students with big debts to pay off!

I want to say a word or two about the Patron of the Church in which this commencement takes place. The Feast of Christ the King was established only recently in church history, in 1925. The feast of Christ the King was established during the very decade in which nearly every actual Christian king was swept from their thrones of Europe by revolution, war, murder, assassination, or exile. The Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Bourbons, and many other royal families abruptly disappeared from public power. Mussolini at that very time was seizing supreme power in Italy, driving the Pope deeper into Vatican City. Not kings but dictators ruled.

The Feast of Christ the King, then, symbolized the end of worldly kings and queens. It also transferred the kingly office to all ordinary laypersons, not (as you might think) to prime ministers and presidents, but really to every baptized person. Over our own lives, by baptism, we are sovereigns, as we are over those entrusted to our care. Christ the King was designed, therefore, to be the feast day of laypersons. Christ the King is the Patron of the lay vocation in the world. We are to be, in our humble domains, Christ the King.

That is why it is so auspicious for the commencement of this new college, Ave Maria, to be held in this church. As Cardinal Newman explained in his famous lectures, The Idea of a University, the reason for calling for a new Catholic university in his time was to prepare young women and men for positions of rule and responsibility in the lay world, to furnish and shape their minds with a sense of method, wisdom, measure, and sober and subtle judgment. The key to kingly rule is judgment. For a king rules by the force and wisdom of his mind, by understanding, by intellect. Similarly, the kingly role each Christian inherits with Baptism calls for the exercise of rule by intellect. The lay vocation is a vocation of the mind.

What is a university? No question is more important for this community, Ave Maria. For we are building a new university, in a new millennium, and at a crucial moment, when the history of the last 50 years showed such a rapid decline in the Catholic universities all around us that Rome itself ex corde Ecclesiae has had to call for radical reform.

It is crucial that we, above all, should understand what a university is. For we at Ave Maria are conducting an experiment in the name of the whole Church, and for the good of our whole country. We are building a new university. We need to know what a university is.

The best answer to that may be to ask today’s graduates: What changes have been wrought in you by your four years at this university? What is a university? It is what has changed you. And you, fellow parents, you may want to know what is a university — what is it that you have so sacrificed to pay for?

A university is not a library. Were that all a university is, you graduates could have gotten it free, for the cost of a connection to the internet. A university is also not, although you will find this harder to believe, the search for a parking place. It is not, really, classrooms and laboratories. It is not a basketball court and a music hall and a chapel.

A university is a blessed place, a sacred space in which persons converse in the pursuit of universal knowledge. In universities, mind speaks to mind, and (over time) heart speaks to heart. For what we learn from one another in our talks together, our lectures and seminars and discussions and question periods and exchanges, is how individual humans go about making judgments, what they count important, what they set aside as trivial or irrelevant, what they laugh at and what they take seriously, what is false even if it seems attractive, what is true and to be clung to even if it is unpopular and despised, and what is worth dying for.

In a university we are always working with guides-students need the guidance of professors, more experienced in some fields than they; and professors need the guidance of students, so that they can learn more quickly which aspects of their subjects to bring forward for the learning of this year’s students and where the latter’s individual difficulties and personal enthusiasms lie. Learning is a conversation. All in the room must take part in it, if learning is to leap upwards like a fire in the mind and heart. Think back on it, fellow graduates. Do you remember the conversations? Do you remember the intonations, the jokes, the methods of proceeding? Do you recall the illuminations, the aha’s!, that changed your life?

George Bernard Shaw once sneered that a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms. On the contrary. The term “Catholic university” is a redundancy. Catholic means universal, and universal is another way of saying Catholic. The pursuit of universal knowledge is in fact the pursuit not only of catholic knowledge [small “c”]. It is also the pursuit of Catholic knowledge [large-“c”]. To say Catholic is to say university.

As a matter of historical fact, the University of Paris at the same time as it was the first fully universal university in the world, embracing more subjects than did earlier attempts at Bologna and Salamanca, was also one of the choicest expressions of the Catholic spirit. That university was as towering in its aims as any of the tallest gothic spires of Chartres, or Rouen, or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The very idea of the university was invented by Catholics, as an upward aspiring expression of the Catholic spirit, Fides quaerens intellectum, Faith seeking understanding, Faith consumed with the desire to know.

The Creator of all things knew even before He made them, before Time was, what he would make, and already before He made them He both knew them and loved them. At the appointed hour, He made them with loving care for every detail. It is well said: “God is in the details.” Have you ever studied a baby’s ear, your own baby’s ear? At that moment, you know that Someone lavished a loving care on that child even before the child came into your arms.

All the things that are, and all the things that have been made, and will be made, come from the understanding and choosing and loving of God. That is why those possessed by Catholic faith long to know more about every detail of created things. Every detail is, as it were, a sign from God, every idiosyncrasy a way of learning about God. Nil humanum mihi alienum. Nothing human is foreign to me. Nothing created is alien from me.

This is the spirit that first imagined universities, and built the first homes and lecture halls of universal studies. This is the spirit that animated the omnivorous, universal, humanistic collections of the Vatican Library, first established in 1451, that birthplace which spawned new empirical methodologies for sciences such as archaeology, biology, botany, geology, and medicine. You can view this in the catalog at the Library of Congress’s recent exhibit, Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture.

Those of you who graduate today from Ave Maria College have been beneficiaries of this spirit and are now embodiments of the definition of a university. You ought to know grammar, and spelling, and how to diagram a sentence, to build one, and to add sentence to sentence in compositions of clarity and beauty and persuasiveness. You ought to know the forms of argument and persuasion, and how to detect fallacies and false arguments that are disguised in sentences that might have beguiled you four years ago. You ought to know at least the simplest rules and styles of musical composition, and how to read sheets of music, and how to scan poetry, and how to declaim some of the most famous and long-cherished orations best loved of the human race.

You ought to know what an ode is, and what an epic, and how to compose a sonnet, and the difference between a lyric of love and an elegy. You ought to know stories, lots of stories, the stories that formed our people — the story of Abraham and Isaac (and three or four different ways to interpret it), the story of the slaying of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, and the death of the beautiful Cleopatra of Egypt, and the story of Tristan and Isolde, and the Song of Roland, and the Tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a lot about Lancelot and Guenivere. You ought to know the story of Odysseus, and Homer’s tales of the heroes of Troy, and the conversion of the great African Father of the Church, Augustine, and how Thomas Aquinas was locked up in the tower of his family’s castle to prevent him from leaving to become a Dominican priest and scholar, and how his favorite sister helped to lower him down to the ground in a basket, to run away from home.

You ought to know how to do arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and some other elementary methods of mathematics. You should have had some exposure to — and perhaps a specialist’s full drink of — the marvels of physics, from the laws of motion and entropy to the latest brainbusters of astrophysics, chaos theory, and magnetic waves.

You ought also to have learned a great deal about the biology, anatomy, cell structure, chemistry, and psychology of the human body, and also about the spiritedness, understanding, choosing and loving that we point to when we use a word like “soul.” Those sciences that gain their power and clarity by concentrating solely on knowledge that can be gained through the senses, it should one day have become clear to you, do not explain everything we want to know. But they do raise questions of great importance for the higher human sciences and for the humanities as a whole. If in our age, we have not yet learned well enough how to put these two divergent methods together, the positivist sciences and the humanities, we have certainly moved closer than we were a generation ago.

For instance, unless I am mistaken, it is a matter of empirical research that patients who pray and who are surrounded with prayer tend to recuperate more quickly and thoroughly from a broad range of sicknesses and operations than patients who do not. Whereas two generations ago, a controlling hypothesis in mental health was that religious belief was a sign of neurosis and underdevelopment, recent empirical research seems to show that people of faith tend to be more balanced and better able to recover from trauma and stress than people without faith.

Our scientific inquiries are moving us, it seems to me, to see that Christian-Jewish faith and reason are not in opposition, as earlier generations seemed to posit, but are astonishingly complementary. Only two generations ago, when I was a graduate student at Harvard, it seemed that the Darwinians who dominated the field of evolutionary biology were thoroughly in command, and those who questioned them were to be laughed at. Today, if I am not mistaken, a crippling bias has been discovered in Darwinism by many different researchers coming from many different points of view, and with quite different intellectual commitments. This bias is a radical imposition of a materialist philosophy upon the empirical findings of science, and these findings can no longer be made to fit under that philosophy.

You new graduates from a college education ought to be aware of enormously important intellectual perturbations of this sort. For turmoil of this kind is like a great, rolling intellectual earthquake, which will change dramatically the landscape of many coming centuries.

Crowning the circle of universal knowledge that you graduates ought to have wrestled with in the past four years, and will continue to struggle with during the rest of your lives, you ought to have learned of the tireless efforts of the Creator of all things to burst in upon the awareness of his rational creatures, of us poor women and men of his creation. About how He has tried to extend to us His friendship, if we will freely receive it. About how He does not want the friendship of slaves, but of free women and men. About how He knocks upon our hearts, and how we keep running away, we are too busy, and how He pursues like a hound down the years and months and days, and down the corridors and halls, and down the meadows and valleys of our heart. And how He sent us His Son to die for us, to show us how to love one another, and to fall at last into the arms of our merciful Father at the end of days.

Not to know this last part of universal knowledge is not to know the reason for this whole blooming, buzzing, soaring, immensely vast and cold cosmos of all the galaxies and stars and its immeasurable light years of time. Why? What is its purpose? Why was it made?

Some around us answer that question this way, “Well, it wasn’t made, it happened by chance, it’s all meaningless. It’s absurd.” But that answer is itself absurd. The world certainly looks as though science can understand it, as though intellect works, as though everything is connected with everything, as if it’s wiser to try to understand it than to give up as if it’s all absurd. Otherwise, we are certainly paying an awful lot of tuition for a giant scam, a fraud, a great masquerade. What a waste of four years that would have been!

We Christians and Jews, at least, believe that reason and faith go together; that the Creator of all things is intelligent, wise, and loving; that He suffused His creation with gobs and gobs of sheer intelligence, there for us to discover it; and that He designed us to pursue the truth wherever it leads; to pursue knowledge; to build universities-for such activities would not be contrary to His nature, but on the contrary in keeping with the way He made the world, and with His own way of Being. For He taught us to use of Him this name: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”

To learn more, is to walk more in His light. If the Catholic faith is what it says it is — if it is true — no other university is worthy of its name but a Catholic university. Secular universities exclude Catholic theology, and by that exclusion are less than universal, and not quite full universities. By that exclusion, they also cut themselves off from the heroic efforts of the Creator to tell human beings why He created this cosmos, and to offer human beings His friendship.

The idea of a Catholic university is to be all a university can be.

That new power that has grown within your mind these past four years, your mind’s new range and scope, its precision, its ability to make balanced, clear and reliable judgments-all this is now forever yours. Thieves cannot steal it from you. Moths cannot eat holes in it. You carry in your heads and hearts a treasure for the human race. It is a gift to you from many others, and a gift you also earned yourself. Enjoy it always! Use it well for others.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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