A late-night visit to Lauinger Library anytime during the next couple of weeks will reveal mobs of students working hard. Students studying intensely. Alone.

I’m interested in the last: the solitariness of the endeavor. Of course, much of the work at the end of the semester must be done alone; except for the occasional group project, the tasks of papers and exams that lie ahead for students are personal and individual. However, my sense is that too much of the intellectual labor here on the Hilltop is of a solitary kind, and I think that fact contributes to the problems noted in the recent Intellectual Life Report.

By now most are aware of the report and its concern that the undergraduate culture is insufficiently intellectual. We are also aware of student complaints about the report: e.g., it ignores the good and exaggerates the bad, wrongly sees grade “deflation” and student research as solutions to the problem and, generally, reflects faculty frustration that students are not more like us.

That said, I agree with the report’s view, to put it positively, that we can do a better job in creating an academic culture here on the Hilltop. One of my colleagues has described dorms as “intellectual dead space,” which seems to me uncomfortably close to the truth. Residence Life has worked hard to change that, but the fact remains that television, video games and Facebook surfing are more common features of dorm lounge culture than anything dealing with the life of the mind.

So I agree with the report’s main concern. However, I am not yet sold on the solutions it offers. Besides the two mentioned above, grade deflation and student research, the report also recommends we recruit a slightly different, more intellectually inclined student body (for example, by redoing the pitch given by campus tour guides, revising the literature sent out to prospective undergrads and, in general, giving a higher profile to the virtue of academic excellence).

The last solution seems backward. Instead of asking how we might attract the “right” student body to fit our intellectual ideals, we should focus on creating the best academic culture possible given the particular (fine) student body we already have.

What characterizes that body? Presumably all would agree that our students are smart and hard-working. Some would add they are broadly political and often concerned about matters of the nation and world; others would lament that they are too pre-professional (i.e., too concerned about future careers, too focused on stuffing résumés, too utilitarian about coursework).

I would highlight a different feature: Our students are socially gifted. They are fun to be with, comfortable in social interactions and enjoy doing things with their fellow Hoyas. Their intelligence and social adeptness make Georgetown undergrads a delight to teach. No offense, but I don’t want Chicago undergrads.

The problem, I think, is that we don’t do enough to build on those strengths. Specifically, we don’t create enough opportunities for students to engage in intellectual enterprises with their friends and acquaintances, with their “group,” with housemates and floor mates in the dorms. Students can talk about the last basketball game because half of them were at it. They can talk about “Lost” or “Grey’s Anatomy” because many of them watch the show. What they can’t talk about is the book they are reading in course #8351 because the only people reading that book are the 35 other students in that class.

There are exceptions, and they are revealing. If one enters a dorm lounge and hears a conversation on intellectual matters, it’s likely to be about orgo, math, micro/macro economics, map of the modern world or the elections – all subjects that have a critical mass of students engaged in them. Less likely are conversations involving the traditional humanities (e.g., literature, philosophy and theology), in part because courses in those disciplines do not typically use common texts or progress through a shared set of concepts.

y sense is that our students enjoy doing things with each other (a lot). It almost doesn’t matter what they’re doing (service projects or video games) as long as they’re doing it with one another (witness the stunning success of the recent Relay For Life). They will attend academic lectures if there’s a public “buzz” about them (e.g., the McGrath-Hitchens debate in Gaston Hall) or discuss novels if they can do so with their friends.

How, then, can the intellectual life be “de-privatized,” i.e., made so that it more readily appears within the various social networks that engage our students? The key, I think, is to create common intellectual experiences among a critical mass of students. One approach: Each semester designate an author, book, article or ethical issue (or a set of the same) that can be adopted by faculty (optionally, of course) in a variety of courses, coupled perhaps with high-profile lectures, performances or other events that create a campus “buzz” around the selected topic.

If we de-privatize the campus’s intellectual life and build on our students’ natural enjoyment of engaging one another, I think we’ll be in a better position to achieve the worthy goals of the Intellectual Life Report.

Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J., is an associate professor in the theology department.

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