Doctor Robert Kennedy: "On Learning in a Challenging Time"

Doctor Robert Kennedy: "On Learning in a Challenging Time"

On September 1st, convocation speaker Dr. Robert Kennedy spoke to those gathered in the Student Union Ballroom about the challenges facing institutions of higher education in our time, and about how to respond to these challenges by upholding the pursuit of learning as a good in itself.

Kennedy, who serves as Professor and Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, and who is also a member of Ave Maria University’s Board of Trustees, prefaced his address by speaking about challenges in a general way. He went on to name a number of the challenges facing institutions of higher education, and he also discussed some of the specific challenges that Catholic universities face. Kennedy concluded his address by challenging Ave Maria University students to make the most of their time at AMU with the idea that the pursuit of learning is a worthwhile end in itself. 

Speaking about challenges generally, whether they are due to political upheaval, social unrest, economic sluggishness, or even natural disasters, Kennedy said that we can answer them in one of two ways. Either we can cower in fear and lament our fate, or we can rise with courage and meet them. “This is what the great men and women of history have always done,” Kennedy said. When faced with difficulties, they have responded with courage. Challenges demand the best of us, and they push us to develop into better and stronger versions of ourselves. The reward is great, Kennedy summed up, when we do the right thing in the face of difficulties.

With this attitude of courage as the lens with which we ought to view the challenges facing universities today, Kennedy went on to spell out the situation. Since their establishment in the Middle Ages, he explained, universities have been institutions where teachers and students were able to associate free from the pressures of external forces—political, social, economic, and so forth. Universities were left to follow a single purpose—the pursuit of knowledge—and they have more or less steadily stayed on this course for the past eight hundred years.

Today, Kennedy went on, universities are faced with an “unprecedented” number of challenges, some of which attack the very idea of a university. Many “question the legitimacy of its activities,” he said. One such challenge is the demand for utility, the demand that universities be ordered towards getting students jobs, or being an answer to social problems. Kennedy insisted that universities should not be “ivory towers,” but neither should they loose sight of their proper goal: the life of the mind and the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. Universities “cannot allow themselves to become expensive trade schools,” he said. “We are preparing students for vocations, not merely occupations.” The proper goal of a university—the pursuit of learning—is something valuable in and of itself. Those who think a university education is simply an instrument for some other end (landing a job, for instance) attack the heart of the university.

Another similar challenge the university faces in today’s world is the notion that universities should be centers of political engagement. Such concerns turn the university away from its proper object, Kennedy said. Yet another challenge is the expectation that they keep up with and implement the latest advances in technology. Oftentimes, implementing new technologies when older methods worked just as well is a waste of time and a deviation from the university’s purpose. “Can we resist the temptation to embrace new technologies for their own sake?” Kennedy asked. Universities should use discernment in the technologies they adopt, finding ways to be “masters” of technology, and “not its servants.”

Kennedy moved on to examine the specific challenges presented to universities that embrace “the complementarity of faith and reason in an aggressively secular age.” These challenges are rooted in a disbelief in the harmony between faith and reason. In response to these challenges, Kennedy made two points. First, believing as we do that “truth has one Author,” there cannot be contradictory truths; we must “press forward when conflicts occur,” confident that the conflict will dissolve with careful examination. Second, faith can “purify and enrich other disciplines,” he said. It can offer answers where other disciplines, like science and technology, fall short.  A final point Kennedy made is that universities flourished for hundreds of years with vibrant departments of theology. The question that should be asked is not “How can they have theology?” but “How can they not?”

Kennedy concluded his address by offering some challenges of his own. He challenged the students gathered to do three things that will help them get the most out of their education at Ave Maria University:

  • First, he urged them to commit themselves to finding and establishing balance in their lives. Now is the time, he said, before the demands of life after college take over, to “unplug” and focus on discipline. 
  • Second, he challenged the students to seek the good, the true, and the beautiful, “surrounded by faculty and staff who can help you discover these things.” 
  • Finally, Kennedy encouraged them to open themselves up to being formed by their time at Ave Maria. “You will rarely again in your lives be surrounded by so many good people,” he said. “Let them have an impact on you.”

Concluding his address, Kennedy affirmed that, yes, we do live in challenging times. But, if we remember the examples of the great men and women of history, who rose up and seized the opportunity challenges presented, we can remain confident that these challenges, when answered with courage, will only make us stronger.

“I believe that AMU…will meet our challenges,” he said. “We will adapt, and we will thrive.”

Dr. Robert Kennedy, husband and father of 12, received his Ph.D. in medieval studies with a concentration in philosophy and theology from the University of Notre Dame, and also holds master’s degrees in biblical criticism and business administration. He is the author of some 200 essays, book reviews and articles on a variety of topics, including corporate social responsibility, professionalism, spirituality in the workplace, wealth creation, ethical investment, and other issues related to culture and public life.