At Notre Dame, like many other universities, we want our students to receive training that is second to none. And, unlike others, we aspire to help them grow in faith and moral character. Many elements contribute to achieving these goals. So, asked for six things I’d like students to take from here, I offer this unsystematic, partial and perhaps idiosyncratic list of activities and experiences that I hope are valuable parts of the education every student receives at Notre Dame.
Ask big questions. Every student, I hope, will wrestle with questions. Does God exist? Why is there evil? What is a truly good, worthy human life, and how do I live it? Our University forums of recent years have tried to focus our students’ attention on such issues — interreligious dialogue in our world today, extreme poverty and global health, the contentious issue of immigration, and the problem of energy and the environment.
The demands of the workplace have created pressure to move higher education more and more toward technical competence, and we certainly want our students to acquire professional skills. But a Catholic university should be a community that asks the big questions of human existence and of our world today, and invites our students to ponder them seriously.
Make mistakes. Notre Dame students are highly talented people, and they do and should strive for excellence in all they do, for in doing so they will make the best contribution they can to the world. Yet the commitment to excellence can make an individual excessively concerned about blemishes on their record and can lead them to avoid risky situations where mistakes occur. Though they are often painful, our mistakes — whether academic, professional, personal or of any other kind — are often the greatest sources of insight and motivation.
We recently welcomed to campus Chief Justice John Roberts, a man who has known a great deal of success in his life. He once said, “Failure is a more effective stimulus than success — because you don’t get to do it over, but you do get the chance to do it better next time.” I hope our students take risks, make mistakes and seize the opportunity missteps provide to grow and learn.
Learn to read, think and write. I am a philosophy teacher, and I tell my students on the first day that their philosophy class can be the most practically useful class they will take. For if I do my job and they do theirs, the class can help them read and understand dense and difficult material; they will get better at understanding and evaluating the arguments of others and constructing their own; and it will help them write with precision, cogency and elegance. And if they have those skills, they can apply them to whatever profession or task they take up. I make these claims for my philosophy class, but I hope and believe they are true for the whole course of education our students receive. Our students cannot predict what they will be doing 30 years after graduation. But if they can learn to read, think and express themselves, these skills will serve them whatever they do.
Come to know the joy of service and the joy of community. I hope each of our students experiences the truth of Jesus’ claim, “In giving we receive, and in dying we are born to eternal life.” Genuine service and a commitment to community make demands on us and require sacrifice, yet they provide a joy greater than any other. One must experience that to believe it, and I hope our students experience it.
Pray. Prayer is accomplished in quietness and authenticity, in an openness to the mystery of God. One grows in prayer through a lifetime of struggle with it, and yet even the simplest beginning effort is genuine prayer. I hope our students have the experience of prayer at Notre Dame and of the way prayer can sustain and guide them.
Love ND but be eager to get out into the world. After a lifetime of being associated with the University and four years as its president, I continue to be impressed at the depth of affection students and alumni have for Notre Dame. Yet Notre Dame is not a final destination but a place to prepare students to lead, inspire, serve and change the world. While loving Notre Dame, I hope our students are eager to go forth and use what they have learned, and to live the life for which we have tried to prepare them.
Father John Jenkins, CSC, who has lived in student residence halls, is president of Notre Dame