Vice Column: Toward an academic culture

Clem Harrold

Student Government Vice President

For more or less the entirety of my time at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I have been devoted to promoting the academic culture on campus.

Freshman spring I founded what has gone on to become the largest intellectually-oriented student group on campus: the Veritas Society.

Sophomore year I became involved with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life, helping to coordinate its outreach to the student body as well as presenting a paper at its academic conference.

Junior year I organized Peter Kreeft’s visit to campus, and even during my Austria semester I got together with my close friends to establish an Inklings-style group devoted to the intellectual life.

I have sought to excel in all my classes, developed personal relationships with some 20-plus professors and picked up a couple of extra majors along the way.

It has been an amazing few years, and, with the bulk of senior year behind me and graduation fast approaching, now felt like a good time to offer some passing reflections on the kind of academic culture which exists on campus and what more might be done to nurture it.

Before proposing solutions, an evaluation of the predicament is in order.

Despite the impressive credentials of many of the university’s faculty members, the sobering reality is that a considerable portion of my peers have little or no interest in academic pursuits. For these students, college is purely about having fun and getting a job, with any thought of a liberal education, or truth for truth’s sake, deemed to be stuffy, boring and generally useless.

I am, of course, not without sympathy for this position. Having fun and building a career are worthy goals; my college years have been the most enjoyable part of my life to date, and I know that the friendships I have made here will be lifelong.

Nevertheless, I am certain that my college experience has been immensely enriched by the academic opportunities Franciscan has given me. Indeed, it is precisely through our intellectual endeavors — studying for a test at 2 a.m., speaking together at a conference, sparring with one another on the debate floor — that my relationships with my friends have been deepened and strengthened.

As such, I am firmly convinced that to the extent that Franciscan fails to inspire its students in their academic pursuits and instill in them a love for truth and wisdom, it is letting them down and preventing them from reaching their full potential.

So what can be done? First, steps should be taken to begin implementing a classroom-wide dress code over the course of three to four years.

An easy way to initiate this process would be to encourage professors to begin by offering extra credit to those students who consistently wear business casual or business formal, and then in time move to institutionalize the extra credit incentive across the board before eventually making the academic dress code a full-on requirement.

Though sweatpants and (I am told) yoga pants are quite remarkably comfortable, it doesn’t take a genius to see how they are unconducive to creating a serious academic atmosphere.

Admittedly, in the throes of senioritis, even I have at times succumbed to the call of the ‘athleisure’ lifestyle, but whenever I do, I am reminded why enforcing an academic dress code should be an important (indeed, common sense) step for any university worthy of the name.

Secondly, measured consideration must be given to a reforming of the core curriculum. Though a clear improvement on the system before it, still it is hard not to see the present formulation as a political compromise inadequate for attaining its goals.

Concrete proposals would necessitate a far more in-depth discussion (most of which I would lack the competence to engage in), but suffice to say that foundational changes would be beneficial.

In particular, greater emphasis should be placed on supplying the student with the key principles and skills needed to apply oneself in a variety of fields. The goal of BIO 110 is not to provide undergraduates with rudimentary facts which they should have learnt in high school.

Rather, its purpose should be to offer students of any major an overview of the principles of biology and its interconnectedness with the other branches of knowledge, and to imbue in them a sense of wonder at the human body and the natural world more generally.

Fundamental apologetics should also be made a mandatory part of the core, perhaps replacing THE 101.

Thirdly, far more attention should be paid to fostering and developing academic community on and off campus. This is something the Veritas Society has sought to promote for years now, but a solitary student club can only do so much.

At an institutional level, the university ought to be creating, sponsoring and funding activities that bring students together for wholesome and enjoyable cultural events.

Students should also feel able to develop mentoring relationships with their professors outside of the classroom. Certainly we do a decent job at this already, but much more could be done, including exploring ways to imitate a University of Dallas or Christendom College-style system of having faculty routinely share lunch with students in the cafeteria.

St. John Henry Newman once described a university as “a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an alma mater of the rising generation.”

With my foregoing remarks, I do not purport to have any special competence or unique insight into the best way to develop such a creature. I can readily recognize the many challenges involved, and, as my own experience attests, I certainly realize the long and arduous nature of attempts to change even just one small aspect of the culture on campus.

In reality, I am little more than a graduating student with a few thoughts to share and a platform with which to do it. Nevertheless, I hope the above may be, if not wholly convincing, at the very least thoughtfully expressed, and I trust the reader will appreciate that whatever criticisms I have levelled stem from none other than an enormous love of, and deep appreciation for, this Franciscan University of Steubenville, soon to be my alma mater.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *