When I first entered the realm of academia four years ago, I felt confident that I had the essence of college all figured out.
After four years of basking under the mellow glow of Catholic intellectualism at Gonzaga University, I would emerge older and smarter, but mostly unchanged. The classroom was to be my battlefield; I was to stalk from subject to subject like Achilles amidst the Trojans, conquering the last remaining pockets of my ignorance.
Needless to say, I had it all wrong. My education and formation did not come in the form of acquiring knowledge or in a completely Catholic context. Nor, for that matter, did most of it take place in the classroom at all. Of course, I took classes aplenty, graduating last spring with a double major in English and philosophy. But from a post-baccalaureate perspective, it's apparent that much of what I learned in classes was promptly forgotten.
Furthermore, having come from strong Catholic and intellectual family and a high-school program of a rigorous classical bent, I think in some ways I'm no more theologically or mentally adept than when I left high school. I certainly don't feel that I have anything approaching a complete education.
But all was not lost — far from it. Going on half a year since graduation, I now realize that I grew immensely while at college. It has been the most valuable experience of my life so far, involving the development of my whole person and orienting of my self to the world.
But this intellectual and spiritual formation has been as much a process of subtraction as addition — the age-old “testing to see what will endure.” Of course, colleges are notorious for being hotbeds of competing ideologies, rampant temptations and fringe elements. However, at Gonzaga (and, one hopes, at Catholic colleges in general), these factors are tempered and counter-balanced by a nurturing Catholic presence and community.
In my case, a life focused on the sacraments was facilitated by opportunities such as a student-friendly 10 p.m. daily Mass, frequently offered reconciliation and a weekly Rosary for Life. My spiritual life was shaped not by theology classes, but through being part of a close-knit Catholic community, through the restorative and re-centering effect of frequent Mass and confession, through the example of priests who took an active role in my life and, especially, through having to stake my faith as my own.
College is a controlled, artificial environment. As a student you're bombarded by competing philosophies, interests and diversions. It was through dealing with this, through the choosing of one thing and concomitant rejection of others that I grew and flourished.
In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote: “For an adequate formation of a culture, the involvement of the whole person is required, whereby one exercises one's creativity intelligence, and knowledge of the world and of people.”
Going forward from here, I hope that, in encountering the “real world,” I will be able to draw on and bridge from these different experiences — to find ways to bring the Gospel to people “where they are.”
My education will never really be complete. But I think I now have the means and the motivation to apply my whole person to helping evangelize the culture. I think that's a pretty good return on a four-year investment.
Iain Bernhoft writes from Spokane, Washington.
- September 25-Oct. 1, 2005