What the University Can (and Cannot) Do
Randy Boyagoda, principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, where he also holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters and is professor of English, in conversation with Comment managing editor Doug Sikkema.
Decembers in Toronto can be bleak. Vibrant summer streets are made drab, coated with an ash-grey mess of slush and salt. If you could feel anything, you might feel the hostility of a city being numbed, slowly. Even the people seem to change. Hatted, scarfed, gloved, balaclava-ed, puffy-jacketed Torontonians waddle about, heads down, in search of somewhere, something warm.
It was on one such December day that I ambled northward from Union Station to the University of St. Michael's College to talk about the state of higher education with Professor Randy Boyagoda, who was now in his second year as the college's principal. As my face and hands thawed, I couldn't help but wonder how many others shared this peculiar delight of a frigidly indifferent Toronto street melting into warmth, light, and stimulating conversation simply by opening a door. Did Robertson Davies or Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Maritain feel this? I suspect they did. And much more than once. And I suspect in such moments they treasured one of the (many) good things the university is equipped to offer.
I believe we have a deep longing for integration, the life of faith and the life of the mind began to come together then for me at university.
Doug Sikkema:When you assumed the role of principal at St. Michael's College, you said something about your undergraduate education at the University of Toronto that struck me. You said, "I had a devotional life and an intellectual life, because I didn't think the two had much to say to each other then. Because of the richness of the study at the University of Toronto I became a more serious Catholic."
This story might come as a bit of a surprise to those who think the "secular" university pulls one away from his or her faith. What was going on at the University of Toronto that had the reverse effect, that brought you into a deeper faith?
Randy Boyagoda: I had an excellent undergraduate education in literary studies as an English major at the University of Toronto. The fact of the matter is, independent of the ideological positions of the faculty (about which I can say more), I was studying T.S. Eliot under a T.S. Eliot scholar.
It came down to that moment in The Waste Land where one of the characters says, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." The professor read it as a recognition of the mortality we all face. I had felt that fear, but through this class I had been brought to a refinement of intellect and feeling. I wasn't looking for it. I wasn't pursuing an English major at U of T to become a better Catholic by any means.
In unexpected ways, and because I believe we have a deep longing for integration, the life of faith and the life of the mind began to come together then for me at university. It was many years before I could articulate it in that way.
DS: The professor wasn't, then, being preachy or moralistic.
RB: Not at all. No, he was teaching T.S. Eliot, and I was learning how to close-read T.S. Eliot, and understand why he was saying what he was saying about the conditions for human dignity in the modern age. A lot of that has to do with a mundane worldview. One of the consequences of a mundane worldview is that we are just a handful of dust.
DS: One thing that strikes me about St. Michael's College as a Christian college is that it is quite different, structurally, from a Redeemer, a Notre Dame, a Wheaton, or a Baylor. What I mean is that you can be distinctly Catholic, distinctly Christian, distinctly different, yet you're still within earshot of a much larger institution, the University of Toronto, that doesn't share your beliefs, doesn't share your views, and might even at times be openly hostile to some of them. What is that like?
RB: As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing like St. Mike's anywhere else in the world, in that you have the combination of a religiously serious liberal-arts-based college that is federated with a globally ranked public research university. To my mind, that maps very well onto the very reality of what it means to be a believing Christian in the world today.
I like to tell people that I'm not a Catholic. I'm a Roman Catholic. The way I gloss that is to see it as the permanent interplay of the sacred and the secular. To pretend otherwise strikes me as foolish and myopic. The fact of the matter is, a place like St. Mike's has as its mission to form and provide opportunities for students to integrate the life of faith with the life of the mind.
We have an active two-thousand-year tradition of doing so within the church. To do so in ways that are interesting and relevant in the twenty-first century means to have a chance to do so as part of this great big fantastic thing called the University of Toronto. That is really what's interesting.
As I tell prospective students, if you are looking for a university education that forms and protects you in the faith, then don't come here. That's not what we offer. If you've discerned, though, that your education has more to do with the interplay of the sacred and the secular, having a community of fellow believers that you're part of while also engaging people from all over the place, from all different vantages, then this is a great place to do it.
DS: Last year, in our "Rethinking Civil Religion" issue, Jonathan Caplin talked to us about the end of Christendom. He argued that there's actually something liberating for Christians in this, contrary to what some commentators think. When you're no longer in the majority, or you no longer presume yourself to be in the majority, you are free to be more distinct as a community. Yuval Levin told us a similar thing: that the Jewish people in North America and Europe had known this for years. It seems like St. Mike's is a good microcosm for what Christianity can and should be in a late-modern society.
RB: It could be, but that might be grander than I would phrase it. I think often about things like Ratzinger's "creative minorities," which is one of his, as it were, predictions from many years ago. He thought that religious seriousness under the conditions of late modernity would result in a smaller, more consistently orthodox church. That's not quite our model, nor is it, to quote Joyce, "Here comes everybody." But in fact, it's both/and.
DS:So there are some marked differences here from what other institutional models of Christian higher education look like. Here is a chance for students who are serious about their faith to pursue a fantastic education alongside those who are not, or who claim not to be religious at all.
RB: Right. And I should add that not everyone who comes to St. Mike's to pursue a degree has to be able to discern and make sense of the Catholic intellectual tradition. You just want to be a statistics major? That's fine.
The other part that matters is that we do not and never will teach apologetics here. I'm not going to give you five ways to deal with an atheist. That's not what St. Mike's is about. I think it's also important to recognize that St. Mike's is the kind of place where you have, in a microcosmic way, every sort of possible iteration of observance or otherwise, even within the Catholic tradition. You have everything from progressives, conservatives, to non-practicing. As long as it isn't, "In order for me to be here, you can't be here," as long as that's not the practice, then I think we're in a good spot.
DS: Right, which reminds me of something Charles Taylor talks about in terms of secularism. His argument is, partly, that it's not helpful for Christians to see a secular world out there, one that we're fighting against. Rather, secularism is the age in which all of us live. I wonder if one of the accidental dangers in other institutional structures of Christian university is that you quite literally have the diverse array of the public square kept outside the walls.
The combination of a religiously serious liberal- arts-based college that is federated with a globally ranked public research university. To my mind, that maps very well onto the very reality of what it means to be a believing Christian in the world today.
RB: But there is no outside the wall. You're sitting in there with all your stuff in Costco watching Netflix on your Apple computer, like everyone else, right?
RB: Our implicatedness in the consumerist patterns of contemporary first-world life has no real strong distinction when it comes to most Christians who are serious.
DS: But I wonder: are there habit-forming practices at St. Mike's that help students push against these dominant consumerist impulses, ones that we're all implicated in?
RB: There are a couple of things. The first is to acknowledge the fact that you are implicated in the very thing that you're pretending to be against. The second is to engage the world around us in ways that I think are distinctively Catholic and intellectual. An example is that in the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, one of our flagship first-year programs at St. Mike's, we read Laudato Si', the pope's encyclical on the environment and the stakes for human dignity as it relates to care for the planet. We also watch Mad Max: Fury Road, and we discuss them together in the same class.
What I propose to the students is that there are lots of people who read Laudato Si'. There are lots of people who watch Mad Max. You are distinct because you do both, and you can read one into the other, and place them together in your head. Because that's the world we live in—a world in which a technical teaching document of the papacy has a cultural effect well beyond that genre, and that cultural effect is in the same vague area as a big loud action movie about the stakes for human dignity under conditions of extreme climate change.
You can see how those things connect together by bringing a total vision of the person and of the culture to bear on it. That's the kind of habit that I'm seeking to form in our students.
DS: So it's less, like you said, apologetics. But it's more cultural analysis.
RB: Yes. I'd say cultural engagement. And a cultural engagement that, again, acknowledges our own implicatedness in it.
But there are two things that prevent us from being fully implicated. One, belief. We are not of this world. Two, the fact that we're part of this tradition that is global and local, historical and contemporary. It's two thousand years of an intellectual tradition trying to make sense of human experience across any number of different categories out of a fixed deposit of faith and teaching. That's where I see a lot of interesting opportunities for habit formation.
Your church is not your local suburban parish, nor is it even St. Mike's, but you're part of this amazing thing. There's this great moment in Laudato Si' where Pope Francis quotes from St. Francis of Assisi, some South American bishops, and Thomas Aquinas. The point is, he can do that because it's all within the tradition. What I really try to suggest to my students is, "This is your tradition. Make it your own."
DS: Can it be part of my tradition as a Protestant? [laughter] I love Laudato Si', and one of the unfortunate things I've found as a Protestant is that we never grew up reading encyclicals or knowing about them. There's this wealth of the Christian tradition that has been kept off our radar.
RB: I always wonder about that. What does the tradition mean for you before the sixteenth century? What does that even look like? The thing that I lament, perhaps, about our Protestant brethren is that they don't have the continuities we have as Catholics, so that we can go all the way back to Peter and all the way forward from there, with complications and footnotes.
The point is for us, I don't claim anything. It's just all there. I don't go, "This, this, this, this." The burden and the opportunity is, it's whole. There's a coherence to it that I can say I like x over y, or for this particular reason, but it's that wholeness that I take a great deal of consolation in. So much has been done before me.
There is that greatness of tradition, again, that I really want to encourage our students to engage. It's felt autobiographically if you are a practicing Catholic.
The last thing I'll say on this is that at the beginning of the Gilson Seminar, I tell the class: "You almost all will be wondering, ‘How does this relate to the question of whether or not I'm Catholic?'" I say, "On one side, please don't commit the autobiographical fallacy. Never start a sentence, ‘Because I'm Catholic . . .' because that's not a publicly available argument for anything. I can only hear you, respect you, but I can't agree with you if the substance of your argument is autobiography."
So I tell the Catholics in the room not to do that. The flip side is, "I can't engage with this because I'm not Catholic." My immediate response to those students is to say, "Do you really think the Sistine Chapel is just for Catholics? Even though the Sistine Chapel has a very specific technical purpose related to the workings of the Catholic Church, would you really think to yourself, ‘Oh, I can't go in there and enjoy that or make sense of it or respond to it or experience it because I'm not Catholic'? You're not going to tell me that." And everyone kind of agrees right away.
DS: That sounds like the sweet spot that Cardus and Comment try to fit in. We want to have publicly accessible language from platforms that can be overheard. There's something humane about not, straight out of the gate, cutting non-Christians off by implying, "This isn't actually for you. This is for the tribe."
Now, you were asking, "Do Protestants have the same sense of a cohesive tradition [as Catholics]?" We recently published an issue on ancient friendships. And I think one of the things we do confess as Protestants is that we're part of one holy catholic church that extends through all the generations back to Christ. I wonder if there's just this presentism that cuts across Protestant and Catholic territories. The failure to think within our larger tradition is actually more of a generational thing.
RB: Maybe the difference is that, as I'm sure you know from any day in the news, the Catholic Church is constantly in internal debates between liberals and conservatives, between those from the global elites and those from the first world. There's any number of different kinds of debates.
But with very few exceptions is anyone ever read out of the Church, as it were. Splintering isn't really part of my sense of what it means to be Catholic, other than the great breaches, centuries past, represented by the Reformation and, before that, by the split between Catholicism and the Orthodox traditions.
DS: That was a pretty big splinter. [laughter].
RB: I noticed this when I wrote the Neuhaus biography and I was looking at Lutheran churches in the Ottawa valley in the nineteenth century. What was amazing to me was that a great number of them reflected demographic differences in the arrival of German Lutherans as they did confessional debates. "Nope, you're not actual Lutheran. I am. No, that pastor doesn't go all the way back to Augsburg. That one does." You're in the Ottawa valley, and there are three or four different little Lutheran churches there because of doctrinal differences.
DS:Right. If you go to Redeemer University, you drive down and see there's a Christian Reformed Church, a Canadian Reformed Church, a United Reformed Church, and more, all on the same road.
RB: Sure. Whereas our version of that is Catholic, Catholic, Catholic, Catholic, Catholic, with various sorts of cultures and perspectives attached to each one of them. But we all sort of eat and fight at the same table. That's a major difference.
DS: Which might be a good metaphor of the ideal university life. I want to share a passage with you from Robertson Davies in Rebel Angels—are you familiar with the novel?
RB: Yes! it was written about Trinity, just up the road.
DS: Right, exactly. Well, Davies creates this brilliant character, Maria Magdalena Theotoky. She's a precocious graduate student at the University of Toronto, and she says:
It's not that I wanted to know a great deal in order to acquire what is now called expertise, which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don't know as much as you do about the tiny little corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish. I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university, if you ask for knowledge, they'll provide it in almost any form, though if you ask for out-of-fashion things, they may say, like the people in shops, "Sorry, there's no call for it." But if you ask for Wisdom, God save us all. What a show of modesty. What disclaimers from the men and women whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom, not so much the gleam of a single candle.
I think one of the things that Davies, writing in the '70s, is observing is that the modern research university is often antithetical to the pursuit of wisdom. This isn't new, of course. Chad Wellmon's recent work traces such observations all the way back to Nietzsche's first lectures on education. And Nietzsche feared that the rise and increasing importance of Wissenschaft—specialized knowledge found through "scientific" research—was supplanting Bildung, the transformation, the formation of virtuous, moral people.
How do we balance those today? How do we teach and research specialized knowledge and also concern ourselves with a student's moral formation? Can we teach new skills alongside wisdom and virtue?
RB: It begins with not making category errors about what courses should be doing at various levels. For instance, you can go back to the Gilson Seminar. On one level is this engagement of politics, literature, science, and the environment from within the Catholic intellectual tradition. On another level, it's an introduction to university-level studies: what it means to write a paper, what it means to pursue a close reading, very practical things.
When it comes to questions of wisdom, the university is not by its nature capable of providing wisdom. However, the university by its nature can be capable of creating the conditions for students to gain wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is ideas tested by experience. How does that come across in a university? By virtue of community. By virtue of an eighteen-year-old having a chance to be taught by a seventy-year-old with all of the other people in between: post-docs, graduate students, teaching assistants.
When it's working, it is a wonderful thing. But we also live in a publicly funded education system, and the government of Ontario has understandable expectations about providing the workforce and society with literate and competent people. I think our hope is to balance that necessarily mundane vision with a commitment to forming students for lives of excellence: vocational discernment, higher-order questions that have answers. I think that's how a place like St. Mike's figures in this story.
What I often tell students is, "Any university you go to these days, you're going to hear various people saying, "The whole purpose of university is to question, question, question." I agree. But there are also answers, and we can believe there are answers even if they don't map perfectly onto the questions or completely erase the questions. But there are answers to learn at university.
DS: Right. It's not just staying in a perpetual state of agnosticism.
RB: Yes. Or just asking the question for the sake of asking the question. That's such a sterile exercise. Where does wisdom come from? Wisdom comes from asking a question, believing in the answer, and testing the relationship. Wisdom is that space in between.