Academics Must Matter Now

Jon, a close friend of my brother, died last semester in a car accident, coming from pro-life work in Georgia. He had been graduated for only one summer and most of one semester. He had gone to the same University as I and my brother go to currently, Ave Maria University. The community at Ave Maria was hit by the death in a variety of ways. I did not know him extremely well, I met him three times, so the event was distanced for me. It did seed a thought for me. What is the purpose of academics? Was Jon’s experience of academics a wasted effort?

What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
– C.S. Lewis, Learning in War-Time

It seems that academics are meant to make possible a career, or open doors to research and financial wealth. Perhaps even, to a radically old fashioned man, academics could be seen as deepening a person’s experience of life, and enriching their mind. But even were this so, this man’s seemingly premature departure would appear to frustrate this end. If he was unable to share what depth he had swam in does that not make it merely a selfish end? Was his life’s purpose stopped? Was his end premature?

I dare not write on this. Mainly because I’m arrogantly prideful of my own opinion most of the time. I do not desire to hurt this topic with my own subjective force. So i’ll preface this with: I cannot answer any of these questions. What I can do is bring my experience to this event, and give the fruit away.

I have been at Ave Maria University for one semester. My experience may not be particular, but it is mine.
I arrived with a competitive vitality to give to my academics, eager to prove I was the best and brightest in the University. My pride  and determination let me believe that it was healthy to eradicate a social life from my experience. I used social encounters to argue my opinions, further my own understanding of how to defend them, and to boast about my “great” accomplishments (they were not great and whatever accomplishments they were, they were diminished by boasting about them). I learnt to trust the text of these books, how to write papers, how to cite reference works, and how to decline Latin. But all without context.

I had deliberately cut myself off from the community which made my learning possible.
While I was working at an essentially Christian humanist education, I had cut off the end for which it had been tailored. I was not learning how to operate within a human community. I was literally doing the opposite. I was starting habits of isolation and making impossible to form intimate friendships with anyone. Almost all of my conversations were academic. I evidenced, and indeed felt, no interest in other’s lives, nor in their own academic efforts. Their lives were cursory until they overlapped into mine, their efforts minimal as long as I felt no competition.

As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge — our knowing — more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking our the right eye has arrived.
– C.S. Lewis, Learning in War-Time

That is why I sang to a girl at 8:15 in the morning. I wanted to ask a particular girl to a dance at the end of the semester. I hadn’t talked to her all semester, mainly due to circumstance. Two of my friends encouraged me to sing to her on my mandolin. They made me shake their hands to commit to doing it. I stayed up till 1am writing the awfully campy song, singing it to her the next morning. My legs shook, and my voice was tenuous. I was vulnerable for the first time the entire semester. And that was when I entered into a community at Ave.

How does this relate to Jon’s death? Well the question put at the beginning was whether his experience and efforts in academics was pointless. It’s an uncomfortable question.

I can firmly say that if I died now, my efforts in academics at Ave would be mostly, if not entirely wasted.
Did I honor my debts to the community that made my efforts possible?
Did my efforts in academics result in fruit that others benefited by? Did my academics go beyond myself?
Was I a better servant?

Only at the end of the semester did I manage to understand how my role must change from how I was acting (as described above). Instead of Oedipus tearing out his eyes, Oedipus must now beg Tiresias’ forgiveness. Servitude instead of oblivion.

Jon, from his friends and fellow students, was by all accounts a servant. He served the pro-life cause while in college, continuing when he graduated. There is now an award named after him offered by the pro-life club at Ave Maria for the best pro-life volunteer during the semester. Jon, so I have heard, entered into the community with vigor and a humorous humility.

Academics must have purpose now, and they can. But the context of the community must be humbly served.

Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.
– C.S. Lewis, Learning in War-Time

The community which we are in must be recognized, dependencies on it must be acknowledged, and duties to it must be fulfilled. Most of all a community must be loved.

In order for one to find one’s meaning and vocation in the now, the present, we must find and serve the community we are in (academic or otherwise). Our daily bread is not imported. It is made at home, can only be made at home, and until we find where it is made we will settle for ‘wonderbread’ imitations. Jon’s efforts in academics was deeply rooted in the community of Ave, one which he served fervently, and one which remembers him warmly and with eagerness at a reunion. I will quote C.S. Lewis for a final time, in reference to Jon’s death:

We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.
– C.S. Lewis, Learning in War-Time

And so, my reflections prompted by Jon, and the ideals disappointed by my first semester, lead me to demand practical ways to engage in the community at Ave. I have decided the start student gardens at Ave, as a way to enter into and help the student community grow. I’m also working with the philosophy club, to add my effort to foster an academic conversation outside the classroom (but one that doesn’t invade the lunchtime conversations). But ultimately, I hope that these projects I am committed to will form a habit of being aware of the person in front of me. That by practicing habitual service in these, I will bring that habit to every personal encounter.

Serving the community quite soon distills into serving the individual from the community in front of you.

So also, must academics serve the person in front of you. Until they do, their end is frustrated.

Unless you give humbly, you cannot integrate humility, and thus cannot receive humbly. Therefore it is through that service that I not only make other’s “daily bread,” but that I receive my own “daily bread.”

4 thoughts on “Academics Must Matter Now

  1. What you write is true! I see this need for meaning now in my experience too.
    Fr. Giussani often said “we live for love of something happening now!”

  2. I came across this post on I am a student from Franciscan University. I identify with many of the same struggles that you experienced at Ave Maria. I have also come to many of the same humble realizations concerning loving knowledge and loving self…and still do…and still will I’m sure. This is a great post and a question, as you mentioned, that is uncomfortable and often dismissed. I appreciate your time to write on such a topic and to speak of your fellow classmate, Jon with such esteem and love. It’s very thought provoking. God Bless you and the rest of your time at Ave. I’ll be praying for you.

  3. How I wish I had learned this lesson 40 years ago. It is so true. You have a lot of insight for someone so young. I am certain the environment (people and philosophy) of Ave Maria University provide intensely fertile ground.

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