At the start of the second session of our Collegiate Summer Program, Dr. Erik van Versendaal invited students to enter fully into the life of Magdalen College during their two-week stay on campus. In his remarks, the Academic Dean clarified the end goal by stating that “the primary reason why this college exists is to bring the students she serves into an encounter with reality.” He went on to discuss the importance of study, the centrality of the Mass, and the opportunity to form friendships with other students and the authors they read together in the program.
Professor van Versendaal then asked the students to start from a place of trust in the authors they read with the belief that “these authors seek to share reality with us, and unless we credit them with this attempt, we will not be able to understand and interpret their works.” He also encouraged the students to not move too quickly to stand in judgement over the authors and their work, but first simply to read them. The implied idea here was that students should allow the authors, who range from Aristotle to St. Pope John Paul II, to judge our thoughts and actions first as we enter a larger conversation outside of our own self-reflection.
Van Versendaal proceeded to talk about the challenges that come from reading difficult texts, and he encouraged the students to accept that they are not going to fully understand everything in their first (or tenth) reading, and that they are not expected to. As he said, “The task is not to understand the readings exhaustively, but to begin a dialogue that can last your entire life.”
As Dean of Student Life, I was delighted to hear my colleague then discuss the relationship between the classroom and everything else that goes on during the summer program. With the shared meals, organized sports, canoeing, hiking, and trip to Boston in mind, Dr. van Versendaal stressed that “The excursions and friendships are neither extraneous nor incidental to the classroom, but are important occasions where students take in together what they have found in their reading of the tradition.”
In a beautiful conclusion, van Versendaal said, “You cannot learn well if you are isolated. Friendship is the context in which we come to understand reality and the deepest friendships are those that revolve around something that is good and worthy of our attention.”
Between seminar courses, workshops, field trips, residential activities, meals together in the dining hall, and daily Mass, we believe that the Collegiate Summer program at Magdalen College invites students into a deeper understanding of reality and we are grateful for the students, faculty, and staff who have committed multiple weeks of their summer to accept and facilitate that invitation.