Welcome to a new academic year, students! You are fortunate to readjust to homework and campus life in an inclusive, caring community, rooted in Franciscan values. Alvernia is no utopia, but it sometimes seems like a safe haven when we consider the divisive tone of our politics, reflected in some popular attitudes about religion and the value of a college degree. 

There is little doubt that higher education and religion get criticized harshly because of some extreme abuses. Fair enough, but both are often stereotyped and misunderstood. And both are underappreciated for their positive potential to foster individual and social progress.

Pundits and politicians, liberals and conservatives, sadly see political gain in deriding higher education as an overpriced, overrated product, purchased without a warranty--a guaranteed job upon graduation. They sound as if they are shopping for a lawnmower or, perhaps, a used car.  

Some colleges are overpriced. They cost much more than regional and national averages and are far from a “best value.” But many schools have limited tuition increases and provide significant financial aid. Such schools, like Alvernia, continue to be places of opportunity for students of diverse backgrounds.

Lost in the media-fed harangues about higher education’s cost is sound reflection about its purpose.  College should prepare students not simply for a first job, but for multiple future careers. Higher education also should prepare you for life as well as for work and to be engaged citizens in a democratic society. Students need to understand history and psychology as well as to develop technical knowledge. They need the analytical ability taught in philosophy, the insight into human nature unfolded in literature, the logical approach to problems found in mathematics, the appreciation for beauty and creativity revealed in the arts. Above all, students need to confront and learn how to respond to unpleasant ideas, sharply stated disagreements, viewpoints that challenge, even offend them.  

Differences of religious belief especially need understanding and respect from today’s students. For it is not just in the Middle East that religion is used to divide, even polarize, societies. History provides a sad encyclopedia of examples, including the long history of religious prejudice in the United States. Protestors at the entrance of our campus did not object to the content of Senator Casey’s recent lecture, but instead felt that, because of some of his opinions, he should be barred from speaking at a Catholic university. The appearance on campus of Eboo Patel, a distinguished Muslim advocate for interfaith dialogue, also drew objections from some outside the university who objected to the mere appearance of a Muslim. 

It is ironic that the subject of both talks was the need for civility and respectful discussion about religious and political differences. And ironic, too, that both men sought to motivate students to be active citizens. Such controversies help explain why religion sometimes gets a bad rap.

Too seldom do we hear voices emphasizing that religion, like the university, has potential to unite rather than divide us, especially in a country that has a far stronger tradition of tolerance than of narrowness and prejudice.
It is in the university that differences of opinion about religion, politics, or social issues should be engaged—disputed strongly, sometimes stridently, yet always responsibly.  The university should model the democratic culture envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and others. It should be a “sacred space” for dialogue. And for those colleges and universities shaped by distinctive religious traditions--be they Catholic, Lutheran, or otherwise—there is the added responsibility to ensure that ethical and values-based perspectives infuse intellectual inquiry and the campus culture.

Before his convocation address to the Class of 2017, Patel and I discussed his observation that Catholic universities are ideal places for Muslim students since such schools support the personal and spiritual growth of all students. Interfaith dialogue that celebrates differences of belief and the common ground of shared values models the ideal that the contemporary university be a place fostering “personal and social transformation.” Such universities provide a much needed model of civility for emulation in our nation’s capital and throughout our country. And they also provide a return on investment that is well worth the cost.

Peace and All Good, Tom

Flynn Files