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.
In the first part of their conversation, What the University Can (and Cannot) Do, Professor Boyagoda suggested that one of the gifts of university, or St. Michael’s at least, is that it introduces students into a tradition through which they can know where and when they are. Whether they pursue philosophy, engineering, or computer programming, the university should strive to be a place where students can start to appreciate the riches of their intellectual inheritance.
In the second half of their talk, this theme returns, but with a bit of a different focus: what do we make of a university satisfied with the adrenaline rush of cultural iconoclasm? If the university is only a place where tradition is disparaged, does it even merit saving? And if so, how? Refusing to give in to the status quo nor indulging in naïve nostalgia about some golden age of the university, Boyagoda works through some important insights about just what a university is today in the twenty-first century and, more importantly, what it is for.
Doug Sikkema: When I think of the big universities—my experience has been as a student at Redeemer, but also Ottawa, Toronto, and Waterloo—I notice that the sheer size of the “community” is dehumanizing. University is often quite socially isolating, and the community conditions for wisdom you talk about are rarely met. And the change that I’ve witnessed in the last five years suggest that it’s just getting more and more disembodied and dehumanizing. There are more of these massive open online courses. First-years enter larger and larger seminars, which are all taught by adjuncts and parttimers, who often don’t have the air of a wise, seventy-year-old, tenured expert. Is this the price of university as business? Is there something that St. Mike’s can do to buffer that?
Randy Boyagoda: Well, we are. This year, we started a first-year seminar program, the Gilson Seminar I mentioned, and next academic year we are introducing two more new first-year seminars. One is the McLuhan Seminar in Creativity and Technology, which will draw on the best of the humanities in engaging with questions around technology and innovation. The second is the Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories, which will look at medieval manuscripts and language acquisition. These three courses allow for smaller group discussions, and balance against the massive nature of this university.
I would also add that the University of Toronto recognizes that meaningful undergraduate experience is something we can do better, especially because so much of our time as professors has to do with advancing research. I see the colleges at U of T as places where you can still have those small-scale learning experiences.
Again, as long as we don’t make a category error and see every single thing as a chance for wisdom formation. Or vice versa: we shouldn’t do anything just because we need to figure out how to make some more money. As long as we can keep those two things apart, I think we’re doing pretty good.
DS: That’s helpful. Roger Scruton had a 2015 essay in First Things about the end of the university. He provides a helpful exposition for some of the problems facing it, but I think what he did not address—and what you’re getting at—is that sometimes we want to recover some golden age of the university that never existed.
RB: I am always deeply skeptical of the golden age arguments. I suspect it’s of a piece with human nature, that if you were to go back to the 1950s they’d be lamenting, “Why isn’t it like it used to be in the ’20s? Why isn’t it like it used to be in the 1870s?” They would go all the way back to Aquinas, and there Aquinas hears Albert and others lamenting, “Why couldn’t it have been like it was in the eighth century?”
Wistfulness is a permanent feature. It’s really a statement about our own longing for something more than we already have.
DS: Longing for Eden.
RB: Yes. But do you just complain about it, or do you try to make it happen? We’re working to make it happen at St. Mike’s.
DS: I think one of the things that intrigues me is that your own career shift from Ryerson, which is self-described as progressive and cutting-edge—
RB: Very much so.
DS: —to being here now, at St. Mike’s it’s rooted in this—
RB: Great tradition.
DS: Yes. And you’re saying we can’t simply go back to recover the past of what the university was. Nor would we want to. This great tradition must be a living thing. So how do you do that? How do you make this tradition fit the needs for life in 2018?
RB: You start by understanding that university students are eighteen-year-olds who are coming to university for a whole variety of reasons. Whether it’s a vocational discernment or how to be a fully alive person—mind, body, and soul—or, “My parents want me to get a good job, and they’ve done a lot so I would be able to come here,” or any number of things in between and beyond.
I think all of us are probably motivated by various reasons that depend on our family lives, our economic positions, our interests. In all this, probably one of the small, wonderful things about a university education is it remains the case is that you can pursue knowledge for its own sake. The university still offers this. All the stuff that you read about in the news is the bright and shiny disagreements, articulations of various kinds of cultural studies and identity considerations that seem to be far away from the true, good, and the beautiful. But they’re still seeking knowledge for its own sake, regardless of those other matters.
It can be the smallest thing. One course we taught this past year at St. Mike’s is called The Middle Ages at the Movies. My hope was that it would be a gateway course for, for example, an economics major who is looking to fulfill a few humanities requirements. Maybe he takes this course and then realizes how fascinating the Middle Ages are, and then decides to maybe take a course on the medieval tradition. Suddenly, alongside economics in all of its very strong and important and jobfriendly opportunities for education, maybe he also reads a little bit of Aquinas for fun, or Dante.
I always point out to students, frankly, that there’s also a pragmatic good to knowledge for its sake, which is that you’re the more interesting person at the dinner party. Everybody at the dinner party went to law school or is an economist. You’re the one who’s read something interesting and can talk about it. That seems to me like it’s a good advantage for life.
DS: Right. Charlotte Mason has this beautiful metaphor of a school being a sort of room you walk into. She says that education is not about how much you know. It’s actually about how much you care and, more, how many different orders of things you care about. The real crisis of specialization seems to me that the room we enter, and have our students enter, becomes much too small.
RB: It wouldn’t necessarily be so at a place like the University of Toronto. It could. You could choose to make it so. You would have to find a smaller liberal arts college, more likely in the United States, to pursue that kind of broad-room, liberal arts foundation. I think King’s College at Dalhousie, in Halifax, still has a Foundation, as they call it, which is a great books program.
DS: A great books program, like a core curriculum.
RB: Yes, like that.
DS: In line with this, though, you mentioned “ideology” earlier on, and I want to return to that point. In terms of the tradition, one of the good things happens in the university is the passing on of wisdom and of knowledge about what this culture is. But it seems that a lot of education today is more about deconstructing it, or just destroying it.
Education in the university often leaves one in a place of not just healthy criticism but unhealthy, diseased cynicism. Everything gets broken down and nothing gets built back up. You know what I mean? Do you face that with this relationship with U of T and St. Mike’s?
RB: Maybe that relates partly to the category of the question from earlier. The purpose, especially for first-year students, is to engage their earnest and very good interest in knowledge for its own sake, the excitement and the allure of a university education. We do need to engage that interest, cultivate it, instead of quickly making it cynical.
I recently had a conversation with a student about the Gilson Seminar, where we spend about a month on Augustine’s Confessions, and he was taking a course at the same time with another professor that was basically the deconstruction of the great tradition. He was amazed by the professor’s takedowns of great names of the past.
I pointed out that the adrenaline rush of breaking something is so much more immediately gratifying than the patience it takes to build something or the greater patience it takes to learn how something was built and how it works. But then think about the marvelling and how you’re inspired when you learn the patience to do and appreciate such things. Then, maybe later, you want to take something apart. Well, you’ll know how instead of just smashing it for the for the sake of smashing it. Often, students don’t even know what they’re smashing.
DS: I never thought of that in terms of an adrenaline rush. But you’re right. There is something when you’re eighteen, nineteen, hearing these takedowns . . .
RB: But even when you’re seventy there’s still a rush when you’re smashing something. It’s part of the human experience. It’s especially true for young people and for small children, but also for adults and the aged.
DS: Have you ever read The Rector of Justin?
DS: It’s not a well-known book, or very great on literary merits. It’s by Louis Auchincloss. What’s interesting is the story he tells of a rector who starts a Christian college of sorts, and he does so because he wants to form students to stand against the dominant culture of materialistic, consumeristic America. Then what his school ends up becoming is just another vehicle for the consumer culture. After all of his work in thinking through liturgical rhythms of the day, where students attend chapels, have tight-knit communities, strict codes of conduct, he looks back on his school and sees it as a failure.
At the end of it he sees that the cultural momentum is such that even though he’s trying to create some bastion of difference, it was futile.
RB: But I think it’s the wrong metaphor, because right away, bastion suggests what? A kind of embattled mentality. “They’re against us. They’re against us. They’re against us.” Actually, they don’t really care about us, is what is more often the case.
Make good use of that indifference or that incapacity to recognize that we are interested in higher-order questions.
I’m trying to cultivate a space here for students who are seeking integration, are seeking a meaningful discernment of what it means to lead an excellent life, mind, body, and soul. What does all of that mean, and how can a university education inform that while at the same time preparing them to go get jobs and go to graduate school?
It would be an abdication of my responsibility as the principal of St. Mike’s to only think of one of those two things. I’m always thinking about both. Even as a teacher, at the right moments I’m always thinking about both. That seems to me the right way to do it.
Some people saw the Gilson Seminar syllabus and wanted more Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. But I said, “That’s the point. We’re not reading Chesterton because we’re watching Mad Max and reading Laudato Si’. We’re reading Augustine for a month. We’re not reading C.S. Lewis.” There’s a reason for that. It’s substance. It’s seriousness. The Lewis, Chesterton version of things is fine, but it doesn’t make sense at the University of Toronto. A more rigorous and intellectually serious and unembattled vision is what I think is guiding our efforts here.
DS: Right. Which goes hand-in-glove with the argument you made in your article on being “sick of Flannery O’Connor.”
DS: At a certain point, there’s a healthy understanding of our tradition and how these voices are part of it, but there’s almost a failure of hospitality when you can’t—
RB: When you’re scared to read anything else, right?
DS: Yes! Someone like David Foster Wallace needs to be welcomed into the canon of intellectually serious Christians.
RB: Exactly. He was one of the people we read in the Gilson Seminar. He went over really well.
Recently, I was giving a talk at a conference to what I believe was a pretty conservative crowd. I was making connections between Aquinas and Dante and the movie that came out that’s based on Stephen King’s It. I was suggesting that while the movie obviously has nothing on Dante, we need to engage this out of this tradition. I want to bring Augustine and Aquinas to bear on some of the problems the movie articulates. Because otherwise, all we’re doing is reading Chesterton and Lewis over and over again, while the culture just keeps on moving past us. It didn’t go over well, I could tell.
Now, this is the other thing. I’m not going to punch downward on people interested in that sort of thing. That seems to me uncharitable and stupid. It’s right discernment. For some students, places like Redeemer or Our Lady’s Seat of Wisdom are the right places. The undergraduate world for religiously serious people in Canada should be big enough that we can have that and then a St. Mike’s and then a this and a that. That strikes me as a much healthier model for pursuing varieties of religiously informed education at the postsecondary level.
DS: It’s not either/or.
RB: No, that’s unproductive.
DS: Yeah. I think too, it must be ideal if students cannot just interpret culture, but they’re actually making meaningful contributions to it. You know what I mean? That they’re actually adding to the tradition.
RB: Absolutely. They are by virtue of even having the conversation, but also by being excellent math and computer-science students, and demonstrating in their very persons that you can go to the Mass and code. It shouldn’t be a surprise.
DS: So, does the university need saving? I’m thinking of the university, again, as an institution that’s unique to the social architecture. What is its broader public function? When the students come here, they’re here for four years, maybe more, and then they go out into the world. What’s the value added? Because I think there’s so much misperception in the public now about the university as a place where there’s no longer free thinking. It’s all safe spaces and heavy-handed censorship.
RB: There’s a third category, which is composed of the reasonable people who think, “Why do we spend so much money on this thing? Why do we allow hundreds of thousands of people at optimal working age, eighteen to twenty-two, to sit around and read for four years?” It is ridiculous, if you think about it in the context of global history. This would be the kind of thing that would have been available to 0.1 percent of people five hundred years ago.
DS: Yeah, the leisure class.
RB: Yes, and now it’s extended everywhere. I think we have to be able to demonstrate to the reasonable public that there is far more to what goes on at a university than pronoun battles. That’s just the red-meat stuff, but it’s cheap and passing as a subject of debate. But the public doesn’t want to read a whole lot of Augustine in a first-year seminar, and that’s all right as far as I’m concerned.
Instead, if we’re able to demonstrate to the public that the function of the university is both to form young people for lives of excellence by preparing them to discern their vocations, and also make a meaningful contribution to society at large through the advancement of knowledge, that’s the ideal both/and. For me, the discernment of vocations has much to do, of course, with family life, but also professional life.
You’re in this time and place with these gifts. What are you called to do with all of that? Okay, maybe you want to someday have a family, great. How will you provide for that family? How will you be a contributing member of this society? You go to university as one way to ask questions and find answers, and we’ll let you do that.