06 November 2007

Red herring in the fish bone diagram

My first class at the University of Washington was Physical Chemistry. As the professor walked into our darkened lecture hall, I opened my notebook eager to start taking notes. But, I wasn't prepared for what came next. The first thing the professor wrote on the overhead consisted of a series of triple integrals. Even for me, someone who relished math, this was intimidating...terrifying. In the next 45 minutes, the prof took us at light speed into quantum mechanics and never looked back.

In my course review at the end of the year, I suggested to him that maybe he could save the triple integrals until the second day because it was like being hit with a 2x4 on the first day.

Recently, the University of St. Thomas, my other alma mater, has been having a time of it, primarily because of the mishandling of the Archbishop Tutu talk. The publicity on this completely eclipsed the decision of the university to discontinue its current endeavors into building a medical school focusing on primary care.

Freshman english, however, is still a topic bubbling in the local community.

The university has come under fire for wanting to require The Handmaid's Tale to be used in their freshman english classes. On the surface, I'm not opposed to using the book, but that's not the whole story. (Cathy had a good post on the topic and I couldn't resist chiming in.)

Many folks who have attended St. Kate's or St. Thomas are either dead set against their kids going to either school (and I'm not lumping them in together saying that the problems are across the board) or have some serious reservations about letting their kids go there. This begs the question: why? Why should a parent be concerned about sending their kid to a Catholic university.

When I attended St. Thomas, I got the lecture, probably during orientation, that all the bits and pieces of what we were to learn in the liberal arts curriculum at St. Thomas would one day meld together. Upon completion of four years of coursework, "all would become clear." The whole would become greater than the sum of its parts.

St. Thomas identifies itself as a "Catholic" university. The coursework "parts" are not supposed to be islands unto themselves, turning a blind eye on what is learned in other departments. The classes are to build on each other and reinforce each other. One might assume that the foundation that all of this is to be built on centers on Catholicism, but if this were true, why would there be a reservation to letting your child attend here?

As much as I am critical of St. Thomas, I will have to say I never learned any bad theology...at least not from the theology department. I had to take two philosophy classes and three theology classes. As it was explained to me in freshman orientation, these two subjects were the core of the liberal arts education. Everything else followed from them.

So, here's part of the problem. I had six quarters of calculus and advanced math behind me when I met up against the triple integrals in P-Chem. It still knocked the air out of me. As a freshman entering St. Thomas, is the typical freshman ready for The Handmaid's Tale? Certainly, some students will be. But, I can say I wasn't. Nowadays, many students who attend St. Thomas are of other faiths or are poorly catechised like I was. While it's not the goal of St. Thomas to indoctrinate students, it is its goal to provide a good liberal arts education.

Father Corapi has said that you can't really understand theology without first learning philosophy. That philosophy gives you the "arms" to grasp theology. I don't know if this is strictly true, but the further I have gotten in school, the more I appreciate the foundational work I have to build on.

To dump The Handmaid's Tale into the lap of a freshman their first semester might not be the best course of action. I would argue that the book, or other books like it, should be part of the curriculum, but students need to have a basis to draw from to be able to critique the book as a social-political commentary instead of seeing it as just a story.

I also wonder about the context in which this book will be read. If the course was taught by a person who has a axe to grind or personal agenda, instead of a person who is no more or less Catholic than the Pope, then there is a problem. Back when I was attending St. Thomas, the theology and philosophy departments were orthodox, but venture out into another department and you had better be able to see what was coming at you.

There needs to be an integration of Catholic thought in the coursework. Students shouldn't view the philosophy and theology courses as just something they need to get through, something unrelated to their major, or even unrelated to their lives. It should be the foundation that their coursework builds on and the measure by which they see and critique the world around them.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I am sending my oldesr off into the college world next year. I hope he will be ready for the challenging material he will no doubt encounter, but mostly, I pray he will receive a truly Catholic college education- why else would we send him to UST or any other Catholic university?

swissmiss said...

Although I'm critical of St. Thomas on occasion, I did get good, even great theology instruction there. I don't know if this is the case today, but haven't heard any bad things. The other departments had some problems, but all in all, UST did give me a good liberal arts education. I hope your oldest has a wonderful college experience!

And you better not be sending them to St. John's :)

Cathy_of_Alex said...

swissmiss: You make an excellent point. Our kids need to be well catachized BEFORE they got to college. I, certainly, was not and, unfortunately, my college only reinforced my already bad formation.

Anonymous said...


Interesting post from an alum. I currently work at UST and I do not know if I would send a kid of mine there. UST to me is a "CINO" University.


swissmiss said...

I do consider UST a CINO University. I plan to homeschool my kids and hope they would be well catechized and prepared for the assaults on their faith. I would consider sending them to UST if I felt they were solid in their faith, but would probably send them to some place like the U of M since I've experienced less heresy at public schools than I did at UST!

I wouldn't send my kid to St. Kate's even if it was free.

Hidden One said...

Swissmiss - I agree with the principles which you expressed in your post. On that note, good post. It, combined with many a commentary on American -Catholic- postsecondary institutions leaves this Canuck with a question.

Is the only safe Catholic uni/college in the USofA Steubie?

swissmiss said...

I think I may have to do some back peddling on this particular book. Adoro had a good comment on Cathy's site about how pornographic it is. I was only told about the book by two friends who failed to mention the graphic details. If this book is like that, I don't support using it in any way. There is no need to use this book when there are mountains of other books that "question" your beliefs or present different thoughts/philosophies. That was what I was posting about, but should've been more familiar with AHT to really speak to it.

And, Steubie is having a time of it too, maybe you heard. Students gathered signatures on a petition requesting the TLM and "supposedly" (don't know this for a fact) were told they needed psychiatric help by the priest they presented the petition to. At Steubenville of all places!!

Hidden One said...

Wow. I didn't know that about Steubie. Yikes. Think I'll fire off a Q to a Steubie student blogfriend.

swissmiss said...

I have a lady who graduated from Steubie a few years ago in my bible study. Haven't talked to her about it. If you hear anything, please let me know!