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Foundations for a “Theology of Student Success”

In the realm of higher education—and education more broadly conceived—the language of “student success” has become ubiquitous.  In its more limited sense, this phrase refers to retention, timely graduation, and job placement rates.  Appropriately, broader definitions and discussions aim to clarify the larger purposes of the work undertaken by professors, administrators, and staff.  And admirably, all these discussions are in some sense teleological, leading to conversations about purpose, ends, and what Aristotelians might call the “that-for-the-sake-of-which” questions.

And yet there are assumptions in play in these discussions that must be considered more closely, and perhaps discarded, if we hope to achieve the substantial and sustained flourishing of our students, which any notion of “student success” worth its salt would support.  These assumptions are anthropological in nature and might be made explicit if we sought to answer the questions, “What is the shared human nature of the students we are seeking to serve?” or “What makes us all—students, faculty, administrators, and staff—human?” 

These questions are critical because while it is true that we are seeking to serve the human person as a student, the student’s fundamental and comprehensive human nature is not detachable from being a student.  While on campus, whether in the classroom, the dining room, or the residence, our students are fully human at all times.  This larger understanding must be at the heart of our vision of the person whom we are seeking to serve. 

Without clarity about our assumptions in relation to these questions, what looks like purposeful thinking may in fact lead us to expend enormous efforts and resources to achieve something that we do not really want.  For how can we know what the student success looks like—much less, measure it and confirm that we’ve achieved it—if we don’t know who our students truly are as human beings? 

Previously, in the context of the question, “What is Catholic Education?” I considered the nature of the student in somewhat poetic terms, thinking of Catholic education as the formation of a student’s mind, heart, and hands ordered to flourishing in this life and the next.

Now it is time to begin considering more directly and specifically the common nature of our students whom we hope to guide to flourishing.  This topic could be illuminated through any number of the disciplines that constitute the hard sciences, the social sciences, the fine arts, or the humanities.   For this enquiry, we will take our lead from a topic that has been discussed quite a bit recently at the University of St. Thomas.  That is the topic of the theology of student success.  What does student success and the human person at the center of that success look like when illuminated by a theological perspective?

Let us begin, for now, with the latter.  What can a theological perspective—drawing upon classical philosophical insights—tell us about our students and how to avoid a reductive anthropology?  Five considerations can constitute the beginnings of a “theology of student success.” 

Our students (1) have been created in the image of God, (2) unite the spiritual and material worlds through the integration of soul and body, (3) embody God’s image equally and complementarily as male and female, (4) are created for friendship and communion with God, (5) and were created to live in harmony with themselves and the larger natural world.  Each of these will be considered in greater detail in future essays but for now can be introduced.

Created in the image of God

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?  Two of the most important dimensions pertain to our value as human beings—our dignity—and the common nature shared by all human persons.  First, the fundamental value of our students is not rooted in academic performance, social class, ethnicity, wealth or future professional achievement.  The fundamental dignity of each student is a gift from God that can never be taken away.  We may cast shadows over our dignity when we fail to live in accord with it but it cannot be canceled or erased by anyone. 

Second, our students are united with each other, their professors, administrators, and all others whom they might meet in the academic community and beyond it.  These common bonds are born from the unity of a common human nature, the unity of purpose in this world that each person shares, the unity of place as residents of God’s good created earth, and the unity of our common supernatural purpose.

All of this becomes the basis for a deeper self-understanding for our students.  As important as it is for students to come to know their strengths and loves, gifts and hopes, they will grow at the deepest levels when they come to recognize that the former are rooted in an even more permanent foundation: they have been created in the image and likeness of God.

Unity of body and soul

As Christians we are neither dualists in which we see ourselves as ghosts in our machine-bodies nor materialists, believing that we will cease to exist when our bodies die.  Among other consequences, with the former view, our bodies become a tool or canvas and with the latter view, life ends when our heart stops beating.  In contrast, our Christian understanding of the human person as an integrated soul and body allows us to recognize the fundamental unity of ourselves as persons.

“Male and female he created them”

This aspect of a Christian anthropology posits that men and women both are equal and complementary.  This vision of the human person integrates difference and unity in a way that is dynamic in its outworking within the family, our mediating institutions, and our greater society. How might our university and collegiate cultures be transformed if this truth were brought to bear on ever aspect of our institutions?

Called to communion with God

From this perspective, our lives have a transcendent purpose.  We will not cease to exist at bodily death nor be absorbed into a cosmic, impersonal force.  Rather, as persons we are called to a community of Persons that can only be imperfectly understood in this life.  The experience of our earthly years is only the beginning of a larger journey that makes sense—having a beginning, middle, and end—and can culminate in our ultimate fulfillment.  Having been made in the image and likeness of God we are creatures of time called to one day participate in the life of the Trinity itself.

At a more modest and immediate level, this calling to communion invites students to discover and articulate their purpose in in this life—in university and beyond—against the background of a transcendent telos.  A student’s fulfillment of his or her vocation as a student is illuminated and interwoven with a larger calling in life broadly conceived and incorporated into an ultimate calling to communion with God. 

Called to communion with others and the world

This dimension of the classical anthropology that is the foundation for a theology of student success, clarifies our role as stewards of the natural world and as participants in a larger community of persons in this life.  Thus, the call to serve others has a thick metaphysical dimension rooted within our nature as persons.  This dimension, combined with the previously considered elements of our anthropology, transposes how we think about purpose and brings questions about “why” to the forefront of conversations about university life, academic study, career, and postgraduate service in the world.

And all of the preceding provide the foundation for students to think deeply about their character, ethical leadership and decision making (both personal and professional). 

Finally, it also informs how students approach questions of diversity and multiculturalism.  As important as these questions are, they rest on a deeper reality about the unity of the human family created by shared dignity and nature given by the Creator. 

In the paragraphs above, we have considered foundational elements of an anthropology that must undergird any theology of student success.   Perhaps raising more questions than it has answered, we have begun to see that how we answer the question, “what does it mean to be a human person?” will shape in every dimension how a Catholic university conducts its academic and student affairs. 

If we get the human person right—and all that its created nature implies—we will be much closer to getting the university right.

About the Author — Dr. George Harne

Dr. George HarneAs Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Harne brings a vision of Catholic education to his work that is animated by the thought of Plato, Cardinal Newman, Josef Pieper, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. In his role as Dean, Harne cultivates the treasures of the School—its faculty, students, and programs—ensuring that it flourishes in light of the greater mission of the University and draws ever more deeply on the sources of that mission: particularly the great Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions. He also champions the School within Houston, regionally, and in the nation at large.

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