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Opinion: So You Think You Know "Optimism?"

By Anthony Serapiglia, Contributor

On October 13, 2019 Blessed John Henry Newman was canonized by Pope Francis.

While his influence was great in modern church doctrine, it is through his work in higher education that I came to know of Saint Newman. One of his lasting legacies in education is University College Dublin.

When opened in 1854, the structure and vision was a departure from narrowly focused curricula and preparatory purposes of other schools. To gather support and explain his vision, Newman went about to publicly defend this new broad-based approach, where the intellectual pursuit had knowledge for knowledge’s sake at its heart.

He delivered several speeches that were later collected and published as “The Idea of a University” which has become a bedrock of what a liberal education should be.

I indulge here to pull a particular passage from this work as a direct reminder of Newman’s vision:

“This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation.

“They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.

Nov. 5 will be the eighth year Serapiglia has spearheaded the panel dicussion.

He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them.

“Hence it is that his education is called ‘Liberal.’ A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.

This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching.” The Idea of a University: Discourse 5.

When I was a freshman at a small liberal arts college, I suffered from one of those common afflictions of youth – ego. I thought I knew just about everything about everything. Luckily, that first semester I was forced into a freshman seminar course, and even luckier I had a wonderful professor who cared about liberal arts. At one point that fall, this professor pulled together an informal panel comprised of a mixed representation of disciplines. There was a biologist, a psychologist, a creative writer, and a theologian.

I know, this could be the start of a clichéd joke, but what it really became was the spark of my understanding of intellectualism. The topic of the night: “what is the mind?” As an egotistical freshman my immediate reaction was an emphatic “…well everyone knows what the mind is! Of course, it is….” and then I stopped dead in my tracks. Even though I had a notion of the mind, I realized it was harder than I thought to put word to a distinct definition.

Then I listened. I heard four professors from four disciplines have four unique views of how they viewed the mind. I was hooked. Today, I suffer from the understanding that the more I know – the more I don’t know. As one door opens, I realize how much more there is to discover. It is never ending, and it is wonderful!

Now that I am a professor, and at a liberal arts college, I have attempted to provide a similar venue where the underclassmen of SVC might be able to experience this environment. Each fall I convene a panel to discuss a simple topic. The topic may, at face value, seem straight forward. However, upon reflection and in hearing views from different disciplines, one realizes the depth and multiple facets of the topic.

This is my idea of this “university” – this liberal arts college – Saint Vincent. A place where we do offer our students the opportunity to breathe an atmosphere of thought and develop a philosophical habit.

This year our panel discussion will be held on Tuesday evening, November 5th at 7 PM in the Luparello Lecture Hall. “Optimism” will be our topic. All are welcome. I sincerely hope you will join us and engage in the conversation.

Dr. Anthony Serapiglia is an Associate Professor in the Computing and Information Systems department. This will be the 8th annual edition of the Liberal Arts Panel Discussion.


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