By Brian P. Conniff, Ph.D., Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, The University of Scranton
Here at the University of Scranton, surrounded by the beautiful Pocono Mountains, we spend much of our time watching for signs of the changing seasons. After all, most of the year, we might experience two or three seasons on any given day (a phenomenon only partially captured by the euphemism “wintry mix”).
As Dean of our College of Arts and Sciences, I have my own reasons to look for seasonal signs, especially those with academic overtones. One of my favorites is the toga. On our campus, for more than a couple of decades, they have appeared every fall, as reliably as the changing colors of the leaves and the flocks of migrating Canada geese; they have then appeared again, every spring, a couple of months after the crocuses bloom and not long after the robins chirp.
These togas adorn sophomores enrolled in a course called The Trivium (taught by Professor Stephen Whittaker), which is one of the most distinctive features of our most distinctive honors program, the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program (SJLA). As readers of Connections will immediately imagine, The Trivium integrates grammar, logic and rhetoric, like its namesake in the lower division of the medieval academies, and like several of its predecessors in classical Greece. In other words, the course is one of the crucial foundations of a liberal arts education that is now more than 2,400 years old and still thriving at our University.
Our Trivium students wear their homemade togas for one of their later assignments and in a conspicuously public forum. Some semesters, they have appeared in our student center, right between the front entrance and the main stairs, with a crowded food court and Starbucks in the background. Other semesters, they have appeared on the central campus green, surrounded by the sounds of ambulances racing to nearby hospitals and the inevitable lawnmower or leaf blower. In either case, the location is deliberate. It tests the students’ ability to speak confidently—even eloquently—amidst the distractions of the public square. It also makes a statement about the centrality of the liberal arts in our students’ education and in our campus community. One by one, the students recite passages from Plato’s Phaedrus, with its meditation on the nature and uses of rhetoric, including the place of rhetoric in the pursuit and love of wisdom and its corruption in the service of tyranny. Obviously, this lesson is ancient. Yet it still matters today.
In his excellent book, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture, Mark William Roche describes the advantages for a Catholic university— from building community among students and faculty to inspiring graduates and donors—of a renewed focus on mission (61). Just as important, a compelling vision “also serves as a distinguishing alternative in relation to other institutions” (61).
The liberal arts have been central to our curriculum and our culture from our earliest days as Saint Thomas College, founded in 1888 to provide a Catholic education to the children of coal miners and garment workers. In the 1890s, our students included “breaker boys,” between seven and ten years old, who worked in the coal mines all day, then studied English and classics at night. More than a century later, a renewed focus on Eloquentia Perfecta has helped us to renew this tradition and provide greater coherence to our curriculum. We have added a first-year seminar, in which students are expected to “articulate components of the Ignatian identity and mission” of our university. Moreover, Eloquentia Perfecta now provides a vocabulary and a philosophical basis for the “foundational” level of the curriculum, enabling us to integrate these seminars with courses in writing, oral communication and digital technology.
Of course, the idea of a “foundation” is that it should support a larger structure (a Cathedral, let’s say). Fittingly, we have described the more advanced level of Eloquentia Perfecta in our curriculum as “rhetorical.” This designation recognizes and reaffirms the centrality of rhetoric in the Jesuit heritage: as Cinthia Gannet and John C. Brereton have written in the introduction to their important collection, Traditions of Eloquence: The Jesuits & Modern Rhetorical Studies, for centuries, “the study of the classical languages, texts, and their rhetorical uses and effects weren’t a part of the curriculum, they were the heart of the curriculum” (xvii).
Today, for many Jesuit schools, rhetoric is a “transdiscipline,” a model and a means of developing ideas and meaning “across academic and social contexts” (xvii). In the past few years, we at the University of Scranton have also made progress at this rhetorical level, redesigning advanced writing courses and integrating writing into many of our major programs. Still, it is at this level that we have the most work to do and, at the same time, the greatest opportunities to cultivate and present to the world our distinctive mission and identity.
In keeping with our Jesuit heritage, many of our best examples of Eloquentia Perfecta have extended beyond the formal curriculum and well beyond our campus. For instance, our students have recently been highly successful in a variety of competitions with obvious real-world implications, including European Union simulations, Mock Trial tournaments and robotics competitions.
In 2015, our “Royal Engineers” finished third in the nation in the Intel-Cornell Cup, a highly prestigious embedded design competition at the Kennedy Space Center (I enjoy reciting a list of major research universities that finished behind us). Last spring, a group of our Criminal Justice students gave a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., sponsored by New American Colleges and Universities. They presented their work with the Scranton Police Department and our Center for the Analysis and Prevention of Crime on reducing burglaries and preparing first responders to engage people suffering mental health crises. In these forums, our students demonstrate exceptional professional competence, and they excel largely because they think and speak eloquently, as Jesuit-educated citizens of the world.
Yes, I started this article with togas, and then mentioned very old traditions. But I want to be especially clear that the rebirth of Eloquentia Perfecta—and the larger Jesuit liberal arts tradition—is not an exercise in nostalgia. In our contemporary world, any reflection on these traditions comes with an ultimate necessary urgency. After all, our natural signs of the seasons are now all too predictable, but not as they were in the past: each spring, our last few monarch butterflies decline in numbers, each year our geese migrate later (some no longer bother at all), and so on.
More than ever, as it turns out, they are fitting emblems of the education the world needs us to provide for our students.