Chaminade University is part of a rich Catholic intellectual tradition that not only seeks to educate and inform but also ask tough questions, prompt opportunities for reflection, create space for new ideas and assist the next generation of leaders in looking for ways to build a more peaceful and just world, said renowned Catholic education leader Fr. Dennis Holtschneider in a recent talk at the university.
“Higher education is complex and rarely possible without the assistance of charitable donations. We do it as a gift to the world. Why? Because ideas matter,” Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told attendees at the March 15 address at Chaminade.
“Our graduates are gifts to a world that needs that gift for its improvement.”
Holtschneider’s talk was entitled “The Core of Catholic Intellectual Life,” and he spoke to university administrators, faculty members, staff, and others about the importance of embracing and admiring the intellectual, creative, teaching, and human development work that happens every day at the university.
Catholic universities, he noted, serve many roles. As a home for evangelization through campus ministries. As a place to offer opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But first and foremost, Holtschneider said, “they’re in service of the intellectual life where ideas matter.”
And as the largest non-governmental provider of higher education in the world, he added, there is no shortage of ideas at Catholic universities. He pointed to just a few of the impressive projects happening at these institutions, from advancements in medicine to breakthroughs in economics or political theory.
“We prepare the next generation of teachers, social workers, nurse practitioners, business leaders, accountants, political advisers, communication professionals, counselors, scholars and more,” he said.
And this modern landscape of education is no “accident of history,” Holtschneider added, “but an expression of a Church that has welcomed, built, and supported the intellectual life for millennia. This is important work for us. This is one of our ministries. Now make no mistake, it’s a fray. If you hire an organization of independent thinkers, you get a lot of independent thought.”
In other words, he said, intellectual work means “intellectual upset.”
It means debate. Disagreement. Growth. Reflection. And it means change.
Holtschneider pointed to the many scholars at Catholic institutions who helped present new ideas whose time had come. They were and are at the forefront of the civil and women’s rights movements, of the push to end poverty and of the monumental work to address the climate change crisis.
“It’s not a set of ideas. It’s a project. Catholic intellectual life is a project,” he said.
And importantly, Holtschneider said, while scholars in the Catholic intellectual tradition have no predetermined answers, they do have non-negotiable starting places that reflect a common set of values and ideals. “Our vocation as educators is to prepare the next generation, hoping they might even improve upon the world as we know it now. If that’s all we did, it would be enough,” he said.
“We care that our students become experts in the fullest sense of their chosen professions. We also care about who they become as they spend a life wielding the education that we have given them. We explore things with them and how they’re thinking about the world. We may not be ethics professionals all of us, but we dare not avoid ethics when teaching if we care about our students’ lives ahead.”
Holtschneider himself speaks as a Catholic scholar who believes strongly that robust academic environments help to drive positive change. He received a doctoral degree in administration, planning and policy from Harvard University, holds eight honorary degrees, and serves as a member of the faculty at several higher education leadership programs, including at Harvard and Boston universities.
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea that breaks through and changes everything,” he said.
Holtschneider’s presentation at Chaminade was part of a series of lectures that were made possible through the Association of Marianist Universities. He is set to speak at Chaminade’s sister universities—the University of Dayton in Ohio and St. Mary’s University in Texas—later this year.
After his presentation at Chaminade, attendees were given a chance to follow up with questions or reflections. Several people said they were moved and inspired by Holtschneider’s message and wanted to seek out ways to share it with a broader audience. Holtschneider applauded those efforts while noting that the intellectual tradition offers a pathway without a set endpoint or destination.
He called the process of searching out ideas “humbling” and full of exciting discoveries.
And it’s not just scholars on that journey; students are there, too.
“We ask them to look long and hard at the world for four years. But we also ask them to look long and hard at themselves and think about how they want to be actors in that world, about what they will value, what they will fight for in their lifetimes, and what they will work for,” he told attendees.
“Most importantly, we give them questions that matter and to think about in the lifetime ahead. And that is the Catholic intellectual tradition. All of it. Not a pre-determined answer that one generation passes onto the next but a constant searching for what’s true, what’s good and what’s holy.”