Making ‘the connection’: A Steubenville education
by Regina Schmiedicke
The core curriculum debate has once again highlighted the curious atmosphere of Franciscan University. There would be a great difficulty in making FUS into another TAC or Christendom College. The reason is not just that we are larger, less homogenous, or whatever, but the University is unique in that a significant percentage of those who come here choose it for one reason: because the Youth Conferences are held here every summer. It may be an odd recruiting method, but there you have it. I myself and all my siblings, and many others from my hometown area, are alumni of that mammoth gathering of hand-clapping, yelling, energetic teenagers in colored T-shirts from across the USA. Not a few of us credit our conversion to those conferences. But for this University, most of us would have ended up at Generic State U or Anytown Tech College. Instead, here we are, at the “bastion of Catholic orthodoxy,” the “college at the forefront of the New Catholic Renaissance.” We had no idea what was in store for us.
Religious enthusiasm aside, most FUS incoming freshman are average American teenagers. A good portion of us arrive here with something like the following intellectual apparatus:
A) Moral understanding: knowledge of at least some of the ten commandments, including, don’t do drugs, don’t drive drunk and don’t sleep around
B) Liturgical foundations: the ability to sing “Let there be peace on earth,” some awareness of the timing and meaning of the Lenten and Christmas seasons.
C) Socio-political foundations: more or less conscious commitment to the imbibed maxims of political correctness, such as “don’t litter,” “recycle,” “don’t be racist” and “don’t sexually harass anyone or you’ll be sued out of everything you own and never get a job.” If we come from activist Catholic families, we might add, “vote pro-life.”
D) Spiritual preparation: at least one confirmation retreat (where we sang “Let there be peace on earth” and lit candles).
E) Cultural education: we are admirably well-versed in the content of all the television shows airing since 1970, the lyrics and singers of every pop-rock song of the past four years, the main attractions at Disney World/EPCOT center, various sports statistics and literally hundreds of advertising jingles.
Some of us were not even this proficient in the areas A, B and D, until recently, when, by a mysterious movement of grace, we were made to realize our desperate need for the Infinite. We arrive here enthusiastic, but often rather confused—sometimes burdened by guilt, abuse, depression and other serious problems. But now, many times as the result of those conferences, we otherwise typical teens have stumbled onto the first glimmers of the big secret: THERE IS OBJECTIVE TRUTH! And His name is Jesus Christ. But in our disjointed world, we have a hard time getting beyond the bare salvation of our souls, so recently in dire jeopardy.
In contrast to what I would guess is the case with the average Christendom or TAC student, the typical FUS freshman is comparatively unfit to tackle a true liberal education. We have a hard time trying to figure out why we need to be educated at all—apart from learning the foundations of the Faith and principles of biblical study while we’re getting ready to get a job. We don’t (at first) see why we need philosophy, history and literature at all. “What does Plato have to do with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” is how we might phrase the classic question.
The incredibly wonderful thing about Steubenville is that we do have many solid, often homeschooled, culturally and intellectually superior students, who come here serious about perfecting their minds, side-by-side with us casualties of modern American society, who hardly know why we came here. (Also, we have international students, whose varied perspectives and experiences further spice up the mix.)
It is entirely understandable that those of you who enter FUS on a higher intellectual plane might feel impatient with those of us who are more interested in Lord’s Day celebrations, confession and silent retreats than in Baroque music and Aristotle. Many of us, having arrived in Jerusalem only recently, are confused about why you seem to be so anxious to have us leave the stuff of heaven for the things of earth. Often we charitably or uncharitably suppose you to be some new brand of pagan. The University’s unique vocation is to help bring the strengths of each group together—to be a sort of highway between Jerusalem and Athens—to help us make the connection between our religious life and our studies.
I will never forget an incident during my sophomore year, in acting class with Miss Luke: one day, in the midst of a discussion, a fellow student suddenly burst out excitedly, “Miss Luke, it all makes sense to me now!” She recounted, “This morning I went to theology class, then I went to literature with Dr. Holmes, then noon Mass, then philosophy class, and now here in acting, and I just realized: you’re all talking about the same thing! It’s all connected!” Miss Luke looked at her and said quietly, “Now you understand. That’s our whole goal, you know. To bring each student to that understanding.”
Those words, “It’s all the same thing!” haunted me for the rest of my college career, and gradually helped open my protestantized eyes, with their dichotomous vision, a little wider. And by my own senior year, I too had “made the connection.” Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, and both are Christ. To “put on Jesus Christ” is to open the soul to everything else. To study what is true and beautiful in all the disciplines, from sociology to drama to astronomy to botany, is, ultimately, to draw nearer to Him. It’s all the same thing.
But until that connection is made, the average student is in the dark, and often suspicious of everything not explicitly religious. My freshman year, I remember students whispering about professors during registration. “Oh, Professor so-and-so, he’s not a Christian. He criticized the Church. I don’t know how they can allow him to teach here.” “Yes, I felt it a matter of conscience to drop his class.” (With this particular teacher, the charges of anti-Catholicism were totally unfounded.)
On the other hand, by my senior year, I knew that some teachers, exasperated by this type of ignorance on the part of some students, were at times tempted beyond the bounds of charity to “shock the godly.” But by vehemently insisting that they let down their hair and get down and dirty into the classics, such teachers only hardened students’ resolve to be martyred academically. (“They’re trying to make us into pagans! I knew it! Begone, Satan!”) Naturally, no connection was made. This problem is magnified by the inevitable “students who don’t want to be here,” who, annoyed by the sometimes overbearing zeal of their peers, often would cluster around the “pagan” teacher and cheer on the efforts. (“Someone needs to wake up these charismos to the real world!”) But these students failed to make the connection between Truth and Beauty and Christ as well.
The unrefined religiosity of so many of our students partly explains why theology is such a popular major on this campus. The student who is suspicious of talk about Socrates, Brecht and Nietzsche feels safe in the FUS theology classes, where he is sure there is no conflict between his studies and his Faith. Perhaps part of the solution would be for the theology professors, by deft suggestion, to continually point out that truth is also to be found in the other disciplines. Some of them do this already. I think of Regis Martin, whose frequent references to T.S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor drove me to read those authors out of sheer curiosity, helping me to find my home in literature.
Would a core curriculum assist students in making “the connection?” I think it definitely would. The University has been (and still is) gifted with teachers whose profound faith pervades their instruction on “secular” subjects. Elsie Luke had that priceless gift of merging the sacred with the profane without irreverence. I wish I could recall the exact words she used to explain to us drama majors why it was legitimate to portray a prostitute or a drunk on the stage. The students who complained about The Visit of the Old Lady would have been pacified and perhaps enlightened by her explanation.
As Adam Tate wrote in a letter in Concourse issue 4, perhaps some students come here for a four-year retreat. Well, then, let’s gently encourage them to see that studying the struggles of the soul portrayed in the novels of the Victorians or admiring the wonders of God’s creation via the natural sciences are valid activities on this particular retreat. Besides, the student who sees education as a retreat is at least a step closer to the truth than the student who sees education as merely a means for getting a job.
My senior year I was talking to my history teacher, James Gaston. I confided to him that as I finished my last semester at the University, I was amazed at how much there was in the universe and how little I actually knew. “I thought I would feel educated by the time I graduated,” I reflected, “but I feel like I’ve hardly begun.” He smiled and pointed a finger at me. “That,” he said, “is how an undergraduate education is supposed to make you feel.” Meditating on that odd statement since that time, I realize that when you make the connection, you feel as though you have only scratched the surface of Wisdom. The walls and ceiling of the narrow room of materialistic success and your own soul-searching have collapsed open onto infinity. When you’ve made the connection you leave here seeking more. If every University student graduated having had that experience, I think the University’s mission would have succeeded admirably. For that is what an education is supposed to do. It is supposed to engender a spiritual awakening in you—not just a narrowly religious conversion, but an ever widening and deepening awareness that everything has its place in what C.S. Lewis calls the “Great Dance” of the universe.
Regina Doman (‘92) is a mother and freelance writer living in Steubenville with her husband Andrew Schmiedicke, who studies in the MA Theology program.