Inaugural Address

Benedictines and the Liberal Arts

Good afternoon and welcome to Saint John's and to this gorgeous part of central Minnesota.  You are sitting in the Abbey Church, one of architect Marcel Breuer's masterpieces which, despite its modern feel, just celebrated its 50th birthday last year. 

I'd like to extend a special welcome to three of my predecessors joining us today: Fr. Hilary Thimmesh, OSB, trustee Dan Whalen (our true first lay president) and Fr. Robert Koopmann, OSB.  Each of these men left Saint John's a better and stronger place than they found it.  I am exceptionally blessed to have these three men as sources of wisdom and support.

We also remember with gratitude Brother Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, Saint John's 11th president, who in many ways re-made the university during his 17 years of service prior to his untimely death in 2008.  He laid the groundwork for the important transitions the university has undergone during the past year.  His efforts made it possible for a lay president in a stylish fuchsia robe to be standing here today.  I hope he is smiling down on us today.

I'd also like to extend heartfelt greetings to the delegates from over 40 universities and colleges from across the country. Thank you for coming to Collegeville today and reminding us that we are linked to many other individuals and institutions around the world as we pursue our educational mission.

We also warmly welcome our dear friends from closer by - literally just through the woods.  President MaryAnn Baenninger and her colleagues at the College of Saint Benedict are an absolutely essential part of our past, present and future.

Elizabeth, Cameron and I offer a special thanks to our family and friends.  Your presence is a powerful reminder of the many blessings we have in our lives.

We in higher education are living in interesting times, and facing many challenges.

There are numerous criticisms, but the primary concern focuses on what is often called "the value proposition in higher education."  Simply put: do the benefits of higher education merit the substantial and increasing costs?  The short answer is a resounding, "Yes," but to do true justice to this question might require an economics lecture - and no one wants that to happen! 

I want to shift the focus of this question slightly and examine the benefits of a college education. 

Most current discussions of this value question take a very narrow view of benefits and make the purpose of higher education purely instrumental.  Specifically, benefits are defined only in economic terms: job prospects, career opportunities and lifetime earnings.  Now you might wonder, "How could an economist object to that?"  Well, if you are a Benedictine-trained economist, you instinctively recognize that not all benefits are pecuniary!

Of course I care deeply about the economic returns that a Saint Ben's and Saint John's education provides, but, as Harvard President Drew Faust said in her inauguration address five years ago, "...just as we need jobs and seek education to better our lot, so too we as human beings search for meaning. We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why."[1]

Faust was articulating an educational objective that has been around for as long as men and women have sought to educate themselves.  Saint John's Dean Robert Spaeth, channeling Socrates, rephrased the goal for entering freshmen, telling them: "Discover thyself."[2]

Thomas Jefferson included another educational objective, namely character development, among his the goals for the University of Virginia.  He described two of his primary goals as follows:

  1. to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order;
  2. to form ...habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves.[3]

So a full accounting of the value of an education must include the search for meaning and the character development that have always been part of a fully realized undergraduate education.

If we acknowledge that these non-pecuniary benefits matter, the next question is how education helps individuals "discover themselves" and develops character.  I would argue that there are three important ways education contributes to self-discovery and character development. 

First, and most obvious, is through the academic experience and interactions with faculty members.   The liberal arts curriculum is designed to expose students to new ideas and broaden their minds.  As former Dartmouth President James Freedman writes, liberal education produces "an opening of the mind and spirit to a symphony of different persons, cultures, traditions and languages." [4]  This process of discovery takes place at every educational institution where curious students meet committed teachers.[5] 

I would argue that the second important builder of character and promoter of self-discovery is more specific to residential liberal arts settings.  This component is the extra-curricular part of the undergraduate experience.  These learning experiences can take place on playing fields, in practice rooms, on stages, in newspaper offices and any number of other settings.  Through competition, practice, self-discipline, winning and losing, entertaining and working with others, students find meaning and build character beyond the classroom.  This is an underappreciated aspect of residential education and is almost completely absent in discussions of the pros and cons of alternative educational models.  But all good residential liberal arts colleges provide these experiences.

There is, however, a third aspect of self-discovery and character building that takes place at Saint John's which is unique to this place.  This feature is the Benedictine Catholic nature of the institution.

Now I want to be careful about what I am claiming for the Benedictine Catholic tradition.  I am certainly not claiming that other fine educational institutions do not have their own cultures, histories and unique characteristics that aid in self-discovery and character building beyond their academic and extra-curricular programs.

I am making a simpler claim: the Benedictine Catholic tradition at Saint John's University exerts a powerful influence on students during their four years here.  The degree to which students find meaning here and develop praiseworthy characters is due in no small part to the monks and the abbey, and the ethos they create on campus. 

As I reflect on my own experiences, on many conversations with alumni, faculty and staff, and even observations from those outside the community, I think there are three aspects of the Benedictine tradition that make an education here unique and special.

  1. Vocation.  The first lesson from living with monks is about vocation, in the broadest sense of that word.  College is, ideally, a time for reflection and self-discovery, a time for young men and women to examine their values and to make choices that will often affect them for the rest of their lives.  On a daily basis, at Saint John's students encounter monks who have thought long and hard about their vocation.  Monks have, in the most obvious fashion, made a vocational choice that is counter-cultural and very hard.  To give up the material pleasures of our rich 21st century, to choose celibacy and to submit to an abbot may appear to be the height of folly to the average undergraduate.  Yet it is nearly impossible not to respect that choice AND not to take your own choices a bit more seriously.  To think just a little longer and harder about the purpose of one's own life.  To seek your own calling.
  2. Hospitality.  The second lesson one learns among monastics is about how to treat others.  One of the most well-known chapters in the Rule of Saint Benedict begins, "Let all...be received as Christ."[6]  This, of course, is not a theological injunction but rather a profound statement about hospitality and the respect due to all persons - friends and strangers alike.  Students sense this warmth and welcome almost from the first minute they are on campus and respond in kind.  This past week three different visitors to our campus commented to me on the warmth and friendliness with which they have been greeted by students.  While we trust that Benedictine hospitality on campus is often reinforcing what our students learned from their families, this response to others, ideally, becomes habit and carries into their lives and interactions long after they have left here. 
  3. Community.  The third lesson of Benedictine life is the importance of community. In some ways the role of community is obvious to students.  We quite naturally refer to "the monastic community." There is community prayer four times a day, the monks eat and live in community.  But for non-monastics in our community, the Abbey is a subtle reminder of the value and need to look beyond ourselves, to find a meaning and purpose that is bigger than our own desires.  Students learn over their four years that a monastery is not just one big happy family with Abbot John as father.  It is a complex social organization filled with imperfect men, yet it continues to work after nearly 1500 years because each member knows they must, as The Rule reminds them, "serve one another."[7]  Students come to realize that though few will be serving their confreres in a monastery, they will have their own communities to serve: families, workplaces, churches, local communities and even the world.  Students don't leave Collegeville completely denying their own needs and desires, any more than monks do, but rather they have absorbed the Benedictine lesson of community: that one has obligations and responsibilities to others, in addition to oneself.

Vocation, hospitality and community: through the subtle and quiet influence of the monks of Saint John's, young men leave here knowing themselves better and are prepared to continue that life long journey of self-discovery. They also go into the world exemplifying a more Benedictine character than when they arrived in Collegeville four years earlier.

As we go forward into this new era at Saint John's, I pledge, with the support of many others, to continue to help our students take a bit of the Saint John's "Benedictiness" with them as they go into the world to lead productive and meaningful lives.

I began this address acknowledging the criticisms of higher education. Of course, education must change and adapt over time - pedagogy changes, subjects are transformed, new knowledge is created and discovered, and new models of education are offered. Yet, through this change, the values of a Benedictine, residential, liberal arts education not only endure, but are essential.

Nearly 60 years ago Abbot and our longest serving President Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, described the mission of the university.  "It has...been our aim to not merely impart intellectual training, but also to develop character...and build habits which are the mark of a Christian gentleman."[8]  I affirm this mission and the values that support it - liberal arts, residential, Benedictine. This foundation defines our identity, guides our decisions, and will determine our destiny.  I enthusiastically embrace my new role, and I ask for your help and support as we move forward together.

Thank you.

Michael Hemesath
20 October 2012


[1] "Installation address: Unleashing our most ambitious imaginings,"   Harvard University, 2007.  (http://www.harvard.edu/president/installation-address-unleashing-our-most-ambitious-imaginings)

[2] Robert L. Spaeth, Exhortations on Liberal Education, A Dean Speaks His Mind (Collegeville MN: Office of Academic Affairs, 1988),  p .15

[3] The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), p.334-35

[4] James Freeman, Idealism and Liberal Education.(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1999), p. 63.

[5] See for example Freedman, 1999 or Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) or James William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2010) or Robert Coles, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

[6] The Rule of Saint Benedict (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1982), p. 73.

[7] The Rule, p. 57

[8] Colman Barry and Robert Spaeth, eds. A Sense of Place: Saint John's of Collegeville,  (Collegeville, MN: Saint John's University Press, 1987) p.45.