Convocation address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
September 4, 2009
A poem and a letter. One of W. H. Auden's final poems, to be exact, written in 1973 shortly before his death. He looks back over his life and work, and talks about his influences. It's simply titled: "A Thanksgiving."
When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
people seemed rather profane.
Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
Hardy and Thomas and Frost.
Falling in love altered that,
now Someone, at least, was important:
Yeats was a help, so was Graves.
Then, without warning, the whole
Economy suddenly crumbled:
there, to instruct me was Brecht.
Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.
Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.
Now, as I mellow in years
and home in a bountiful landscape,
Nature allures me again.
Who are the tutors I need?
Well, Horace, adroitest of makers,
beeking in Tivoli, and
Goethe, devoted to stones,
who guessed that—he never could prove it—
Newton led Science astray.
Fondly I ponder You all:
Without You I couldn't have managed
even my weakest lines.
We stand at the threshold of a new academic year. And while my list would vary a bit from Auden's—though I am more struck by the several authors we cherish together—I am deeply struck for what he gave thanks late in life.
Each of us, I suspect, could easily summon a similar list of the authors who met us along the way: those women and men who entered our questioning and then shaped us in powerful ways; fellow travelers observing the world, sometimes from the vantage point of centuries or millennia before ours, sometimes sharing our time and minds but always offering us core metaphors, disturbing questions, alternative explanations, purpose, company, and even hope.
I remember missing lectures one day early in graduate school because I was deep in a book that so overturned what I thought I had known that the rest of the world disappeared. (It was Ricoeur's "The Symbolism of Evil"). And then, a semester later, it happened again. (This time, Douglass' "The Non-Violent Cross.")
Most often, it was professors who brought those books and authors to my attention. My teachers, who opened whole new worlds and whole new questions. Yet, as educators, we seek not merely to introduce students to the 100 best-known authors, or the Top 25 most influential ideas. To do so would be a hopeless mismatch between student and teacher, as Auden's poem illustrates so beautifully. Instead, when we are at our best, we know that students arrive curious and questioning. We help students name their curiosity, discover other great questions, see the world as if anew, and find intellectual companions for the journey.
We bring students into the intellectual life. Nothing less will do. For that's what thrilled our hearts when we first set out as well. Their questions are not necessarily our questions of course. And their readiness is not always aligned with our excitement to show them what we've loved and discovered and cherished. And so, their education begins and depends on our listening, and with our conversations with them. Then, and only then, will they go willingly along with us when we take them further than they can imagine into the world of ideas.
Such moments are rare for any of us, and certainly not the stuff of an academic's daily dose of correcting papers, writing lectures, balancing research with colleagues, and attending to the ordinary departmental activity that must be done. Yet, all of us know the moment—that brilliant moment—when a student's eyes suddenly go deep and come back again amazed. That moment when a new idea has so grabbed their attention and imagination that somewhere a bell should sound in respect.
That's the promise and privilege of a shared intellectual journey between student and mentor. It's the moment in which we stand in service. And it's the threshold before which we stand for yet another academic year.
But I promised you more than a poem. I promised you a letter.
September 2, 2009
Dear Fr. Holtschneider,
As a former DePaul School of Music and School of Education student, I know you are an active supporter of the arts and arts education and was hoping you may be able to help me in obtaining some basic resources for my classroom. I recently accepted a position at Chicago Public Schools' Barton Elementary School; I am starting their K-8 general music program from scratch, so I have a huge undertaking! Given that this is a low-income school, with 98% of students coming from low-income families, the school lacks the necessary resources to purchase instruments, CD's etc. As of now, there are no musical instruments at the school.
I have created a basic "wish list" to serve as the foundation of instruments/CD's (many are inexpensive!). My list can be found at
http://www.amazon.com/wishlist/ref=topnav_lists (Search Valerie Mulvey).
All items can be sent to:
Barton Elementary School
c/o Valerie Mulvey, Music Teacher
7650 S. Wolcott Ave.
Chicago, IL 60620
If you are interested in my background, I graduated from DePaul University in 2005 with my Bachelor's Degree in Music Education (Graduated with highest honors) and from DePaul University with Master's Degree in Elementary Education in 2009. (Graduated with a 4.0/distinction) I am looking forward to working with a segment of the population that has not been fortunate enough to receive the quality music education that was provided to me as a child. Hopefully, you will help me obtain the necessary resources to provide my students with the best music program possible. Please feel free to contact me with any additional questions.
If you want to help Valerie, I'll post this talk with her list and contact information on my Web site. That's not the primary reason I chose to share it, however.
If Auden was high culture, the letter is perhaps more pedestrian, but no less touching. It brings to mind a second and final observation as we stand on the threshold of a new academic year.
We bring students into the intellectual life under the name of St. Vincent de Paul. This magnificent work is but an extension of his own work. If a university can be considered progeny, ours stands in a direct line of descent. We are justifiably proud at DePaul that the university educates the poor and those who can not easily access a higher education of the caliber that is found here. But our mission is larger than those students alone. St. Vincent imagined a world in EVERYONE would see the poor in their midst and be moved to help.
If we bring students into the magnificence of the intellectual life, we also bring them into the magnificence of this Mission. That EVERY student who comes to DePaul—both the poor and the wealthy—everyone would make it a life intent to help their sister and brother in need. For us, to educate in his name in this time and place, is to labor to be worthy of that expansive love and vision. I was proud to receive this letter, because I heard in it St. Vincent's heart alive in a new and young generation. That, too, is our privilege as educators.
And so, we leave this Church today together across a threshold, not merely to a Chicago sidewalk, but to a new academic year-our 112th. May God richly bless the year ahead of us. May the students know they are loved. May their questions be heard. May they in turn grow to love the world and especially its most vulnerable. May our students be so caught by the intellectual life, that they, too, one day will write the list of professors and authors, advisors and friends who shaped their lives, and may they title it, as did Auden, "A Thanksgiving."
May God bless each of you. And through you, may God bless DePaul University.
Have a wonderful year.