Abridged from Cormac Burke (2002): “The Purpose of University Education in the mind of St. Josemaría Escrivá” Strathmore University (2002).
St. Josemaría Escrivá, the Founder of Opus Dei, was a pioneer in an extraordinary variety of ways. He immensely broadened people’s outlook on life, not only spiritually but also humanly. Everything inspired by his spirit, has a humanizing stamp to it. With regard to university education he was keenly aware of how, as a result of the individualism of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age, the university was becoming an institution for forming abilities rather than wisdom, mechanics or robots rather than thinkers, servants or cogs in a huge impersonal wheel rather than mature and free men; applied minds, but not active and responsive human hearts.
At the centre of St. Josemaría Escrivá’s understanding of the university, was a clear and inspiring vision of the human person, of the dignity and rights of each one. He always emphasized first what unites us, what we have in common, and then went on to show how the individual talents of each, when truly developed, not only fulfil himself or herself, but contribute to the good and progress of others. Any university inspired by his views – such, for instance, as the University of Navarre in Spain, founded by him 50 years ago – must give not a mere technical education, but a true formation in that wisdom which, without being exclusive to any one religious Faith, sees everyone linked by our common dignity as children of God.
The goal of the university, in St. Josemaría Escrivá’s view, might be analysed as follows.
– It should seek to provide a broad and better education: better because it not only trains specialists in a particular field of expertise but enables them to see how their know-how fits into a whole panorama of human knowledge and progress. We have all heard the caracturesque description of the “specialist”, as “someone who knows more and more about less and less”. Such a specialist has an expertise that is good just for one limited purpose to which the rich potential of his human life is subordinated. He is not really qualified for life, because he is not truly educated.
– The university should seek to provide a philosophical education. This is to be understood in the original sense of philosophy as a “search for wisdom”, that is, a reasoning about life which seeks a deeper grasp of the values and reality underlying it. Only the person who can truly reason about life is in a position to decide what human development is really about, or what constitutes true progress.
Knowledge, as Newman says elsewhere, simply “occupies” the mind, it does not form it. You can be given a lot of knowledge, and yet not be taught to think… In other words, it is not enough to acquire technical abilities or know-how, you have to have a critical mind, capable of value-judgments.
There is real superficiality, an evident lack of philosophical capacity and of simple wisdom, in the person who maintains that life is just about making money or having a good time, or living for oneself and using others to boost one’s egotism and self-esteem. Even to affirm that life is about contributing to progress does not represent much depth of wisdom unless one can adequately say what human progress really means, and so be able to distinguish when a society is going forward, or when it is going backwards or into decline.
At the same time, the philosophical wisdom of St. Josemaría Escrivá, in line with the whole Christian doctrine of the Incarnation – God, who is pure Spirit, comes to earth and takes on flesh, so truly becoming Man – , not only avoided any disregard for the material situations and ordinary concerns of men, but went on to see a new and immense value given to earthly realities. He was the first to speak “of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to that materialism which is blind to the spirit”. “Our age”, he goes on, “needs to give back to matter and to the most trivial occurrences and situations their noble and original meaning. It needs to restore them to the service of the Kingdom of God, to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ.” (Conv. 114). He perceives the University as an effort to “detect the flashes of divine splendor which shine through the commonest everyday realities” (Conv. 119).
– The university should seek to provide an ethical education. Man is not just a thinking creature. His life involves him in constant moral choices, where he shapes his own life, and perhaps that of others, according to the measure of right and wrong. The man who knows the difference between right and wrong, may still do wrong; but at least he is aware of it, and may yet return to a sane course. The person or the society that cannot tell between right and wrong, is lost; and can only end dehumanized and disintegrated.
If a doctor or hospital administrator is not sure whether abortion or human cloning is right or wrong, he is going to find himself in very awkward situations, with all the anguish of a confused or guilty conscience; and he will be an absolute nonentity, and sense himself useless, as far as creating a just and responsible society is concerned.
The same holds good for the business man, the engineer, the lawyer, the politician… who has no ethical standards. He may acquire a lot of money. He will never gain anyone’s esteem except perhaps that of those for whom he has no regard. If he retains any love for his own family, from them above all he will want to conceal his own moral worthlessness.
University education, therefore, must have a clear ethical content, and seek to instill its students with the powerful and beautiful challenge of applying their university knowledge and qualification to the living of an integral and upright human life.
– The university should seek to provide a sense of community or social solidarity. The university ought to be a powerful factor of real human progress, which must always foster mutual understanding, so leading to social cohesion. It is only logical that people who are more highly educated should contribute most to forming a civilized and responsible society. Any institution of higher education is lamentably failing in its mission and duty toward society, if it is content simply to turn out technically qualified persons whose only concern is to earn a good salary in a form of professional activity they enjoy, and who have no sense of their privileged mission to contribute to the good of others, the common good.
St. Josemaría Escrivá insists: “A university must educate its students to have a sense of service to society, promoting the common good with their professional work and their activity. University people should be responsible citizens with a healthy concern for the problems of other people and a generous spirit which brings them to face these problems and to resolve them in the best possible way. It is the task of universities to foster these attitudes in their students… A university should not form men who will egoistically consume the benefits they have achieved through their studies. Rather it should prepare students for a life of generous help of their neighbour, of Christian charity” (Conv. 74-75).
Josemaría Escrivá was a Catholic priest, and the main inspiration of his life naturally came from the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the striking richness of his mind and spirit reaches out to people of all faiths and of none. To anyone familiar with his extraordinary appreciation of persons, his ability to see the good in each one, his deep conviction that, despite any temptation to think otherwise, not only is there more goodness than evil in the world but that goodness attracts people more powerfully, it is only logical that his human spirit and his ideals of education carry their appeal over and above any differences of race or class or religion.
“The university,” he affirmed, “does not live with its back turned to any uncertainty, to any concern, to any of mankind’s need. But in studying these problems with scientific depth, it must also move hearts, fight passivity, awaken sleeping forces, and form citizens desirous of constructing a more just society. In this way it will contribute with its universal work to the lowering of barriers which prevent mutual understanding among men, to the alleviating of fear of an uncertain future, to the fostering, by its love for truth, justice and freedom, of true peace and concord among peoples and nations.”
It causes little surprise then to read this comment of a former Rector of the University of Navarre: “For many academics, a meeting with the founder of Opus Dei resulted in their abandoning a lackadaisical and bourgeois spirit, and committing themselves to the search for truth, a love for freedom and the defense of justice, which transformed their academic vocation”.
Formation of the personality
From all of this it is clear that Josemaría Escrivá wished the university to inculcate appreciation, not just of science or culture or art, but of people. In this sense, he saw the university as a true school of democracy, that is of a deep sense of the dignity and rights of each person around us.
He insists that a principal purpose of university life is “to train people in personal freedom and in personal responsibility”, while another characteristic is “the spirit of living together in harmony without discrimination of any kind. Here, in this living together, personality takes shape. Each individual learns that, in order to be able to demand respect for his own freedom, he must respect the freedom of others. Finally, there is the spirit of human brotherhood. Each person’s individual talents have to be placed at the service of others: if not, they are of little use” (Conv. 73)
Elsewhere he writes, “there is no university properly speaking if the transmission of knowledge is not joined to the complete formation of the personalities of young people. The humanism of the early Greeks was conscious of the importance of this. But when, in the plenitude of time, Christ revealed for all times the hidden mysteries of our eternal destiny, an order was established that was both human and divine, in the service of which the university attains its highest role.” Ll-118
St. Josemaría Escrivá had a truly Catholic spirit in the precise meaning of the term “Catholic”, which of course means universal. And so again, as a university man, as a truly universal man, he sought to remedy the narrowing scope of modern education. In his book Furrow, he writes:
“Since you want to acquire a Catholic or universal mentality, here are some characteristics you should aim at:
– a breadth of vision and a deepening insight into the things that remain alive and unchanged in Catholic orthodoxy;
– a proper and healthy desire, which should never be frivolous, to present anew the standard teachings of traditional thought in philosophy and the interpretation of history;
– a careful awareness of trends in science and contemporary thought;
– and a positive and open attitude towards the current changes in society and in ways of living” (Furrow, no. 428).
He wanted the university always to go forward, to be a major instrument of genuine progress, preserving and handing on all that is good from the past – the accumulated wisdom of the ages – , and making the most of all the research and discoveries of the present and the future, so that university education will be more and more human and humanizing, furthering the true development of individuals and societies.