The Brosnahan Legacy

Fr. Donovan says BC's 10th president set an enduring tone for American Jesuit higher education

By Mark Sullivan
Contributing Writer

A century after he served as the University's 10th president, Timothy Brosnahan, SJ, a stylish literary defender of classical liberal education, is little remembered today at Boston College.

But University Historian Charles F. Donovan, SJ, believes Fr. Brosnahan's intellectual contributions to Boston College and American Jesuit higher education deserve recognition. Fr. Donovan examines Fr. Brosnahan's career and legacy in "Rev. Timothy Brosnahan, SJ: Boston College President, 1894-1898, National Spokesman for Jesuit Liberal Education," the latest in a series of occasional papers Fr. Donovan has authored on the history of Boston College.

Fr. Donovan said his paper on Fr. Brosnahan was inspired "because he's forgotten. He is not an insignificant person in our history. We're not talking just Boston College here, but the history of Jesuit higher education. He impacted that more than any other subsequent president."

Fr. Brosnahan had already left an imprint on Boston College as a scholastic in 1883 when he founded Stylus , the University's literary magazine, Fr. Donovan said. Only 38 when he became president, Fr. Brosnahan soon crafted what became his enduring legacy, an essay titled "System of Education" that he wrote as an introduction to the annual course catalog. The essay remained a part of the catalog for 57 years, serving as a manifesto for the Jesuit education Boston College offered.

In the latest of his series of occasional papers on Boston College history, University Historian Charles Donovan, SJ, says Fr. Brosnahan was a staunch defender of the Jesuit academic tradition. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Echoing Cardinal John Henry Newman's classic The Idea of a University , "System of Education" emphasized a balance of moral training with intellectual exercise, Fr. Donovan said. Fr. Brosnahan wrote that while Jesuit education might serve in "energizing and refining imagination, taste, understanding and powers of knowledge, it has always held that knowledge and intellectual development of themselves have no moral efficacy. Religion only can purify the heart and guide and strengthen the will."

Fr. Brosnahan's essay influenced similar catalog statements at St. Louis University, St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia and Xavier College in Cincinnati, among other institutions, Fr. Donovan noted. Although it was well known he had written it, Fr. Donovan said, Fr. Brosnahan was too modest to claim authorship of the essay and only after his death was this official acknowledgment given.

"A four-page introduction on a system of education is rather long," said Fr. Donovan. "The point is, most catalogs don't have so long a statement of mission as that. It was really rather unique." The fact that so many other Jesuit colleges picked it up showed he struck a common chord, Fr. Donovan said.

A year after he stepped down as Boston College president to teach at Woodstock College in Maryland, Fr. Brosnahan became embroiled in the controversy which earned him prominence in Catholic circles as a spokesman on higher education. He penned a reply to Harvard University President Charles Eliot, who had criticized the Jesuit academic tradition in an Atlantic Monthly article. The retort, published in the Catholic magazine Sacred Heart Review , was "a very cogent, a very literate, very urbane slap on the wrist to Eliot," said Fr. Donovan, although the rebuke was never publicly acknowledged by the Harvard president.

Fr. Brosnahan "was reiterating in Catholic terms what the other major college presidents were saying against Eliot for 30 years," Fr. Donovan said. "Jesuits and Jesuit college alumni felt vindicated by Brosnahan's able presentation and in some Jesuit rhetoric classes for a few decades afterwards the article was admired and studied as an example of polished dialectic."

Some facets of the Boston College curriculum gradually changed as new models for higher education took hold, Fr. Donovan said, and "System of Education" was no longer included in the Boston College catalog after 1952. But Boston College upholds the tradition his essay evoked, Fr. Donovan noted, pointing to the University Academic Planning Council's emphasis on Jesuit and Catholic heritage in planning for Boston College's academic future.

As Boston College seeks to advance a legacy Fr. Brosnahan helped fashion, Fr. Donovan said, "his contribution shouldn't be forgotten."

Click here for the full text of "Rev. Timothy Brosnahan, SJ. Boston College President, 1894-1898: National Spokesman for Jesuit Liberal Education."

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