In 1999, when the then-Vancouver NBA team drafted University of Maryland star player Steve Francis, he immediately, forcefully demanded to be traded. Michael Wilbon in The Washington Post wrote, “My bet is Francis, like a lot of urban kids whose vision is limited to what happens on a court or playing field, couldn’t even imagine how he would survive in a place as different as Vancouver.”

This reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s vignette of the big-city child who turns down a chance to spend a week at Brighton Beach because he is unable to “imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

I think often of this image. Students come to Georgetown. What for? An education, most people would say. What is that like? I think of Lewis’s “offer of a holiday at the sea.” This wonderful world awaits the young men and women who show up the last weekend in August every year. Oh, Georgetown is not the wonderful world (though it could be): No, what I have in mind is the world of the life of the mind, the excitement of learning, the expansion of horizons, the joy of coming to insight, the growth in imaginative capacity, the call to intellectual emancipation, the constant flowering of the human potentiality Aristotle called wonder.

So when I recently (finally) worked through the “Intellectual Life Report, 2006-07: The Undergraduate Experience” produced by the Main Campus Executive Faculty’s Committee on Intellectual Life, I was dismayed. I found little in the report that might suggest the excitement and freedom one associates with the life of the mind. It seemed to be all stick and no carrot. What it said about intellectual life seemed to me to focus on “research,” as if that were coterminous with what intellectuals do, or as if the committee wants principally to turn our students into research scholars.

Indeed, students themselves make only shadowy appearances in the report. They get too many A’s for too little work. Jobs, internships, volunteer work and partying distract them from what they should be doing. And so on.

Except for the statistics in the section on admissions, I looked in vain for any consideration of who our students are.

First, they come to us at a crucial stage in the process of neurological development, the point in intellectual and, above all, imaginative growth, when the prefrontal cortex, in response to environmental stimuli, is developing, and we learn to project a future, realize consequences of choices and actions, put ourselves imaginatively in the place of others. But none of that is within the scope of the report, even though the “environmental stimuli” are what the university is supposed to be providing as our students are shaped intellectually and morally.

Where do they come from? The Americans, at least, emerge from a well-defined culture, a totalizing environment that embraces every aspect of their lives. It might be called “teenagedom.” I think of it as a bubble. Inside that bubble, young people are taught to imagine themselves and their futures in certain ways. They are led to think of themselves as finished, complete. Outside the bubble, “grown-up” pursuits and interests have only a vague existence, and youth is not so much dismissive as incurious about them. The high school experience very often forms a transactional approach to learning: fulfill certain tasks, you get grades; get the grades, you get into the college of your choice.

The report does not show awareness that the task of faculty (and of the university in all its activities) is to invite our students into a larger world, to make it respectable for them to be interested in new stuff. The report seems to long for students who from day one will be interested – indeed fascinated and wholly attentive and engaged – in what we offer. One hears faculty say, “I want good students in my classes,” and it comes out both plaintive and querulous; something of that resentment comes through, to my ear, in the report. If we paid attention to where our students are coming from, we would have a more realistic understanding of the task, and privilege, that is ours as faculty: to make the seaside holiday attractive.

The report has lots to say about grades and grade inflation. As faculty, we are all familiar with students’ tendency to fetish-ize grades. The report pretty much does the same. It treats grades abstractly, calling for a distribution of grades such that there is a certain percentage of A’s, of B’s, . . . down to the odd D and F. That students get an A or an A-minus because their work is good and they are outstanding – that the A or A-minus is an accurate analog reflection of their ability and industry – and that assigning grades involves questions of justice does not seem to trouble the thinking reflected in the report.

We are also familiar with the complaint, “But Professor, I spent so many hours writing that paper, don’t I deserve an A?” as if the time spent working on papers or studying for tests, not the quality of the work done, is the basis for the grade assigned for the work. Unfortunately, the report shares that misapprehension and would confirm the confusion. And that so many hours of study per week per credit hour be required for each course? That quantification of work seems mechanical, even Stakhanovite.

Though the motto cura personalis (care of the individual student in his or her personal uniqueness) is often invoked in Georgetown’s boilerplate promotional material, the report touches on it only in the context of academic advising. I remember when each entering freshman in the College had a faculty adviser. Students met with their assigned adviser throughout first and second years. We would get together to select courses for pre-registration and at other times just to see how things were going. Students in each adviser’s group of advisees got to know one another. Advising involved befriending.

What happened to change this hands-on, interactive system of advising in the College? Two things. Computers were invented; hence, on-line registration. And new faculty proved disinclined to volunteer to serve as advisers, so to fill the gap the dean’s staff took on the task of advising: Cura personalis is still provided, just not by faculty as before. The university made scholarly research and publication its prime desideratum for faculty, and this affected how faculty think it worthwhile to spend their time and energy. Teaching became secondary. The teaching “load” or “burden” (note the metaphors) was reduced, classes got bigger and bigger, lecturing became synonymous with teaching, and increasingly, students found themselves dealing with teachers’ assistants. This relatively recent change represents a real departure from Georgetown tradition.

The report’s view of students, both exigent and incurious, is of a piece with these trends. I detected in it a certain failure of imagination. The vision of education as exciting and potentially joy-filled did not come through to me. I kept hearing the disapproving voice of Sam the Eagle in the old “Muppet Show.”

Fr. James Walsh, S.J., is a professor in the theology department.

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