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Core Strength

The world is a different place than it was when I began my undergraduate work 35 years ago. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal that summer, China’s economy was one thirtieth its current size and Kodak was the safest of investments. The internet was a generation away from public consciousness. But other things seem the same now as then – Iran and Afghanistan were significant sources of world concern, the new pope was enormously popular, and the Detroit Lions were terrible. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Those of us charged with shaping St. Norbert’s curriculum are tasked with the academic preparation that will best ready our students for the next six or seven decades. We are not alone in this quest – the higher education academic community worries about it incessantly, producing uncountable studies and reports. Sometimes the prose is sufficiently dense with higher ed jargon as to be reasonably mistaken for Elvish. While there are valuable insights to be had from these efforts, it is more important for us to ask, “What specifically does a St. Norbert student need to learn during his or her four years with us?”

Of course, students need to be appropriately prepared for a career, but there is more to the good life than just a job, even if it is an especially fulfilling calling. Enjoying life means living it fully, valuing that which truly matters. A great source of inspiration can be found in the Norbertines’ 900 years of living the difference between the immutable and the fleeting. They have given us our mission statement, which places communio at the center of the institution. It is through this lens that we understand our Catholic, Norbertine and liberal arts traditions, and it guides us in preparing our students for their lives.

From an academic perspective, the ideas and values that make our institution and our students unique live in our major programs and the Core Curriculum. Since every single student who graduates from St. Norbert must satisfy the Core requirements, it is fair to say that the Core in particular is the backbone of a St. Norbert education. When the faculty started the process of defining those requirements a few years ago, we addressed exactly that question: What does a St. Norbert College student need to know? After years of dedicated and passionate discussion, we agreed upon a set of general education goals that reflect communio and our three traditions. They are:

  • The acquisition of intellectual and cognitive skills.
  • Understanding the world and one’s place in it.
  • Understanding religious and spiritual dimensions of life.
  • The development of creativity and self-expression.
  • The development of personal character and virtue.
The first of these seems fairly obvious – students are supposed to study and learn things. But “learning” may not involve the same set of skills that it did back in my day. Technology has had a profound impact on how our incoming students – who soon will have been born in the new millennium – acquire and assimilate information. The internet gushes material very quickly and cheaply, but usually without any reliable indication of its credibility. This makes an essential skill out of the ability to evaluate and assimilate into coherence any given set of disparate and contradictory sources. In the future, “being educated” won’t so much mean being able to access a canon of factoids from memory, but will be the facility to make meaning from a cacophony of voices that threatens to overwhelm.

Understanding the world and one’s place in it has always been an important element of a St. Norbert education. But Walter Cronkite’s once highly packaged and easily digested nightly presentations have since yielded to about a hundred 24/7 cable and satellite news outlets. Even these pale next to the nearly infinite number of websites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and whatever else will come next with the tap of a few fingers. As much as the world seems small and connected now, it will just become more so, and our students are citizens in a global society that comes to them in utterly raw feed. Preparing them for a world in which “the revolution will be tweeted” means developing the cultural competencies necessary for them to understand on-the-ground contexts of events, and the critical thinking skills required to understand their moral and ethical obligations.We do not believe that this can happen absent the development of a personal spirituality. Young people may not have the same kind of experience with organized religion as they did a couple of generations ago, but they still seek meaning in what they do as much as young people ever did. We are obliged to help students launch their adult spiritual journey, and we do so both by formal academic inquiry and by providing an environment in which their deepest questions are encouraged and addressed as part of their daily lives.

Paul Johnson is a member of our philosophy faculty, and is thusly in the business of making pithy points, and at a recent faculty conference, he did not disappoint. “Why should the college use resources making the campus such a beautiful place?” he asked. “Why not spend the money on more practical ends?” He answered himself, in effect, by reminding us that our students need to learn the value of the aesthetic, and that beauty and creativity are essential elements of a good life. Engineering and economics might be indispensable, but anthropology reminds us that art emerges as soon as a culture is able to provide barely enough to feed, clothe and shelter itself. Creative self-expression not only bestows a society with necessary beauty, but is a deeply rooted human drive and source of true personal joy.

The good life requires one to explore the world, to understand one’s place in it, to find and follow a spiritual path, and to develop one’s own sense of creativity and expression. But these are meaningless without character and integrity – a good life is also a virtuous life. By increasing our connectedness, technology has exponentially increased the number of communities in which we interact. Our students need to appreciate why their comportment in those communities matters, and to think deeply about the consequences of their words and deeds.

College is one of the most important and expensive investments a young person will ever make, and there is only one shot at how she or he will spend their time between the ages of 18 and 22. Our students (and their families) are entrusting us to make the best use of those four years and to be good stewards of the resources they sacrifice for this purpose.Our job is to help them understand that which will make for a good life, and to start them working on the skills needful for that to happen.

March 31, 2014