This has been a glorious summer in Winooski Park, but now the days are beginning to shorten once again and soon we will pass the point where night overtakes day, beginning the long six-month parabola until light again triumphs. Our newest students have arrived and brought with them large knapsacks full of anxiety and promise. It is now our job to fashion these further into understanding, respect and wonder at God's good creation. I share the students' sadness at their leaving at commencement, even though the day marks so much growth and accomplishment, yet the beginning of a fall semester with our newest students has always been a joyful occasion for me, even though there will be times during the coming year when we all yearn for a little less activity.
Now, we do have a few more students in our first-year class than we had originally expected, and that has caused more than a little stress in the Residential Life staff, but they have come through like troopers. Yet given what is happening across the spectrum of colleges this is extraordinarily good news for us even as we cannot expect it to be repeated indefinitely. The good fortune does encourage me to believe that much of the rhetoric associated with the benefits accorded to a Catholic, residential liberal arts college does in fact ring true. We have long said that the intimacy afforded by such an education can be life changing, even if apparently serendipitous, simply because this close connection of individuals improves the opportunities for growth. Most of us can look back on our college experience and single out one or two individuals who affected us in unexpected ways. I can remember one professor, Dr. T., in a field tangential to what I was studying, who completely changed the course my life would eventually take, and he did so quite subtly and maybe unknowingly. When I was in college we did not have many electives, and the curriculum, especially for science majors, was very well prescribed. We had to take what seemed like a large number of courses in the humanities and within these there was little room for choice. This was well before the explosion of electives and all manner of majors and minors that we now see as commonplace. It was a time when the cannon of what should be taken in college was well set and changed only slowly. "There is scarcely a man alive who remembers the time in '75…" or so says Mr. Longfellow, but I remember it quite vividly with a clarity sharpened by years of reflection. Until Dr. T’s course, I was an indifferent student concerned mostly with the things that occupy late adolescents, about which no more need be said. In this course I had two very different small epiphanies. First, Dr. T. had expectations that required me to learn to be responsible for my own learning. This seems trivial now, but until his class I had done what was asked of me up to the limits of my temporary and fleeting attention while I took no real responsibility for my learning. He showed me in all the small things he did that my learning was my responsibility, not his, and that I was primarily accountable for learning or not. The subject of this course was an introduction to probability theory, yet it had an amazing effect on how I subsequently understood the humanities. Each book I read I now understood as adding to my own experience and not apart from it. Thus, I took with me a little piece of Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and it became part of my own experience. Could I have learned these lessons at another time in a different course or in an entirely different venue? Almost certainly I could have, but the opportunity provided by a demanding teacher in a setting of fifteen or so fellow travelers certainly improved the odds of personal change.
This long digression into personal history is not something I do comfortably, but I do so to make concrete how an intimate setting at a time in one's life, before adult responsibility lands heavily, can make all the difference. Moreover, as many of you know, I suspect that technology, artfully employed, can improve the way students learn, at least in certain areas of study. Yet this is not likely to soon replace the importance of the close relations of a faculty member and a student, something I believe that Saint Michael's does particularly well. Within these pages you will see examples of how well this has worked for several alums. This emphasis on the importance of each person embedded in a community that knows how to care is at the heart of our long tradition. Indeed, the very notion of free will implies that one has responsibility for self.
This is what I hope our newest students learn more quickly than I. They need to quickly accept responsibility and be accountable for their learning, which will be well guided by a caring community of faculty and staff.
- John J. Neuhauser