I am often asked what is a Benedictine liberal arts education? Probably the best way to explain the CSB/SJU approach to education is to consider the primary ways people think about education. There seem to be two metaphors that define education.
The dominant metaphor used for education is the container, which assumes that students are empty containers and professors pour knowledge into their empty heads. It is an appealing metaphor, because it’s easy and passive. This perspective assumes that someone else is responsible for a student’s education. Not only does the container metaphor construct a passive approach to education, it is dehumanizing to students. We did not admit any empty heads.
Our Benedictine values recognize the dignity of each human person. We believe that each student has a spark within. The Benedictine liberal arts education is not filling empty containers; rather our process of education is about helping students kindle their own sparks. The fire metaphor constructs an active view of education, where each student is responsible for discovering her/his own spark and kindling her/his own flame.
This is a community effort — faculty, staff, coach, siblings, peers, and parents guide students toward kindling to help them stoke their flames. We encourage and demonstrate how to tender their flames once they set the spark ablaze. Students might catch fire in a particular class, or a project. It could be on a study abroad, internship, or service learning project. It could be a sport, club, volunteer opportunity, or student employment. Students discover what kindling will fire them up. But we cannot kindle their spark for them. They will not be doing this alone, but s/he must do it her/himself.
In their search for kindling, students will discover that some kindling will light their fire, while other kindling doesn’t ignite them. They will experiment with a variety of kindling – a variety of approaches and perspectives. As students stoke their flames, some will get burned, but we are there as a community to help each other continue to kindle those flames.
Once our students set their sparks aflame, they do not hide it. Our students are engaged learners – sharing their research at undergraduate research conferences all around the country, participating in civic engagement in our community and in our world, using their spark to ignite flames all around us to make this a better, more enlightened world.
There is another significant difference between the container metaphor and the fire metaphor. You only need to fill up an empty container once, but you must keep stoking a fire or it will extinguish. We will have to provide fuel for the flames for the rest of our lives. We are committed to life-long learning.
Our students are accepted to CSB/SJU because we recognized a unique spark within each of them. We believe they have the capacity to kindle their own sparks and that they will take responsibility to keep the fire burning. CSB/SJU are great places to discover and kindle one’s spark. I have no doubt that our students’ sparks will catch fire and illuminate the world around them.