The Catholic University of America

 Theology and Religious Studies New Graduate Student Orientation 2010

 Dean's Welcome

     When I was a junior in high school I was struggling with Chemistry.  My grades in General Science and Biology were not bad, but the periodic table and all those abbreviations and valences were getting to me.  That spring I met with the guidance counselor to plan my courses for my senior year.  In what turned out to be a long remembered moment of almost defeat and yet good insight he said to me “Kevin, for your sake and ours, don’t take Physics.”  I was chagrined because that was what everyone else was doing and I was told I was not up to the task. But I surrendered, enrolled in Advanced Spanish and an additional American History elective and in my last year of high school went from being in the middle of my class academically to one of the top ten.  Ever since then, I have been far more partial to the “Arts” side of “Arts and Sciences” than I have been to the “Sciences” side.

     Imagine my chagrin when I realized that a required course for all freshmen in the college I attended was Physical Science.  How I dreaded the thought!

     But as it turned out the life lessons from that course were not about science, they were about education, about the educational process in general and about reading in particular.

     The professor started each and every class by saying “few people alive know how to read!” And then he would invite one of us to read, reread and reread (again?) paragraphs of the textbook until we had parsed, sliced and diced each and every word.  Some days it was torture. Other days it was a breeze.  But he made his point – you need to know how to read. And you should come to love reading.  Or if you are a Sondheim fan, as Fosca sings in Act I of Passion, “I read to live.”

     The same message is true in graduate school, especially in this day and age in a blogosphere culture of sound bites, endless repetitions of factoids on computer, iPad and cell phone screens, not to mention how “facts” are used in blogs or how research is conducted with Wikipedia judged a reliable source!

     What I want to urge you to do today is to read carefully, critically and widely.

     Carefully. I use this word to invite us all to allow the words we read to make their intended impressions on us, and to seek beyond sound bites to “the story behind the story.”  Watch out for the glib headline or summary which may or may not reflect the truth.  Watch for editorializing which masks as reporting.  Be aware that at a time when reporters are fewer and fewer that we may be getting “news” that is recycled by news services whose stock in trade is to get news out fast and not to worry about details.  While we say that the devil is in the details, in Theology and Religious Studies the truth is often in the details, not the Internet induced summaries that run across our computer screens, even as we are meant to be doing other work.

     Critically.  In reading theologians and documents from the church’s teaching I often say that one way to understand what is really being said is to read what the author or the office said on that particular topic before the document you are reading and any subsequent documents.  Here “context” helps us to discover what the real “text” is saying.  Just as we need to be careful about sound bites in summarizing today’s news we also have to be careful is allowing someone else to summarize what we need to read on our own for our knowledge and growth in wisdom.  While in theological circles “hermeneutics” may be a discipline and even a course we teach and take, it is imperative that we assess genres of theological literature and realize that most of us bring our own hermeneutic to texts.  Be aware of your own. Be aware of those of the authors we read and study. Be critical. Do not be theologically naïve. Let what we read influence our thoughts. As John Locke put it “reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” 

     Widely. As I reflect on the American educational scene today I am concerned about over specialization.  It seems to me that we run the risk of being too narrowly focused too early in our education today given the availability of focused Internet searches for what we query about, or the tendency to select majors far too soon in college, or even high school.  I still think there is a value to paging through an actual newspaper and scanning all of its contents, even if we pick and choose the articles we read.  (At the same time I admit to getting my out of DC news on my now precious iPad!)   When it comes to Theology and Religious Studies the very structure of higher education and its important specializations can itself mitigate against the kind of broad education I am arguing for.  But in the end while doctoral students will specialize and write very focused dissertations, most of you will then be hired to teach general courses in Theology and Religion on the college level, the “God 101” course, and only on occasion be able to offer your specialized expertise in coursework. I would urge you to make friends with the reading room in the Theology section of the John K. Mullen of Denver Library.  I recommend that each of us spend an hour a week just free associating by looking at the recently added periodicals there and scanning a few articles outside our particular field but which can help to insure that our theological experience here is broad, not narrow, and in that sense be a truly Catholic one.

     I welcome you today to what I hope and pray will be an education voyage that truly changes your lives. I welcome in particular our new fulltime faculty, our FYE Teaching Fellow and you graduate students in STRS.    I want to thank  Dr. Chuck Jones and Ms. Abilbola Akintolayo for all overseeing your admission to us and  in advance for their continued work with you in terms of financial aid, student files etc.  

     And please read carefully, critically and widely. Who knows, in the end perhaps Fosca’s solo will be a group anthem “I Read to Live.”

  Rev. Msgr. Kevin Irwin, Dean School of Theology and Religious Studies

  August 30, 210