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eColloquia Newsletter


Boston College Sesquicentennial: Weighing in on religion, education

By Alex Spanko

A pair of fall symposia exploring the relationship between education and two American institutions, democracy and religion, kicked off a series of events marking Boston College’s 150th anniversary.

On October 5, Lynch School professors Dennis Shirley and Marilyn Cochran-Smith organized “Education and Its Role in Democratic Societies,” a daylong symposium. And Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy Henry Braun cohosted “Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education” with the University’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life November 8 and 9.

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Pedro Noguera

Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, offered a pointed dissection of the politics of education in “What Community Provides: The Role of Partnerships in the Transformation of Schools,” the keynote address to the first symposium. Noguera dismissed warring camps of “naïve optimists” who latch onto single solutions—such as firing bad teachers or increasing the number of charter schools—and “radical pessimists” who insist that education can’t be improved until society solves the larger problem of economic inequality.

Some schools that serve students living in poverty perform well, Noguera noted, pointing to Brockton High School, among others, where teachers across all disciplines banded together to help their students with literacy, and 90 percent of high school seniors passed their MCAS exams last year.

“[Kids] can’t wait for us to figure out how to fix capitalism,” said Noguera. “And they can’t wait for us to elect the right president, or the right governor, or the right superintendent. Their time is right now.”

Fifteen distinguished scholars, writers, and higher education leaders—including six current or former college presidents—convened on campus for the November symposium, a wide-ranging exploration of the singular contributions that religiously affiliated colleges and universities can offer to the educational enterprise.

Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch and Teagle Foundation President Richard Morrill gave keynote addresses. Other highlights included “The View from the Top,” a panel discussion among three college presidents—University of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.; Bryn Mawr College President Jane McAuliffe; and Wheaton College (Illinois) President Philip G. Ryken—led by Mark Massa, S.J., dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

Noting that “most of the great institutions in the country were started as Protestant institutions to train ministers” and are “now avowedly secular,” Massa asked the three how “places like Wheaton, or Notre Dame, or Boston College, or Georgetown hold onto their identity and remain true to it while navigating the treacherous rapids of being elite institutions and looking for the very best students.”

“One thing that helps to distinguish Christian institutions is the awareness of our history and the fact that we are now more distinctive than we were 50 or 100 years ago,” said Ryken. “Now, that is why students are coming to us, precisely for that distinctiveness.”

Jenkins portrayed religious affiliation as a kind of bulwark against the treatment of a college degree as simply a means to a high-income career. “For all the challenges, the hope is that perhaps a kind of religious identity can give a balance to those tremendous pressures, to give some depth and richness to the concept of education that goes beyond simply talk about a return on investment,” he said.

Bryn Mawr College President McAuliffe noted the similarities between her current, Quaker-founded institution and Jesuit Georgetown, where she previously served as dean of its College of Arts and Sciences. The concept of holistic education—teaching the whole student as opposed simply to tending to his or her intellectual development—runs deep in both schools’ cultures, she said.

Read about upcoming Sesquicentennial events.