Benedictine College and the Presumption of Love
By Dr. Richard White
At each year’s Honors Convocation at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, the college’s Distinguished Educator of the Year is announced, and the professor named the previous year gives an address. The following was the address given this spring by Dr. Richard White, chair of the theology department. White is co-author of two books in the Catholic for a Reason series and regularly teaches Christian Marriage, Protestant Tradition, a three semester Faith and Reason sequence and seminars on C.S. Lewis in Dialogue with Catholicism, and Theology and the Arts. He was named Distinguished Educator of the Year in 2018.
It is one of the great pleasures of my life to be standing at this podium this evening.
I want to share with you a story that in some ways epitomizes my experience as a teacher at Benedictine. I recall that in 2003, I volunteered to pick up a candidate at the airport for a Philosophy search even though I was not on the search committee. As a faculty member who has chaired many such committees, trust me when I say that a lot of things can happen, for better or for worse, during that 35-minute car ride back to Atchison. I once had a candidate ask me if there were buffalo on the flood plain. And so I drove to the airport in search of some guy called Jim Madden.
We definitely hit it off, and within an hour we were camped out in my front yard grilling on my Weber, exchanging stories and talking philosophy and theology. I didn’t know whether this guy would be offered a job, but it didn’t matter. Our conversation continued long into the night and has been going on for 16 years!
For me, this anecdote is not just a happenstance of teaching at a liberal arts college, it represents a key element of what a liberal arts education gives rise to — enduring conversations.
My colleague, Dr. Jean Rioux and I have been teaching the Faith and Reason sequence together since 2002. Over the years, we have delighted in watching our students carry class discussions into the hallway and beyond. That’s exactly why I am a teacher, to foster conversations, not just in the classroom, but into the hallway and beyond, and indeed, a liberal arts education makes you free to join these dialogues. Whether you become a teacher, engineer, banker, or nurse, my hope is that these great questions will occupy you for the rest of your lives.
I joined the faculty of Benedictine College in the fall of 1996. I still recall something said by a colleague at one of my first faculty meetings. In fact, it took place in this very room, in the old cafeteria. My colleague in the history department, Rupert Pate, stood up and said, “What makes Benedictine College unique is that our students presume that we love them.”
Let me repeat: “Our students presume that we love them.”
I was struck by those words and I have been thinking about them ever since. Rupert got it right, and it’s why teaching at Benedictine has been such an honor. Your presumption, that we love you, implies a relationship of trust that is both a privilege and a gift.
But students, please don’t forget the enormity of what you are presuming. Since love always seeks the good of the other, it means that we will not let you just slide through your four years. We are here to challenge you. It’s what your presumption of our love demands. And speaking of challenging you, I want to tell you about an ingenious invention that you may not have heard about. It’s called a stapler, and when you hand in assignments, it attaches the pages together. You can purchase these at Walmart . . . .
In closing, allow me once again, to thank you. I want to especially thank my dedicated colleagues in the Theology Department. I admire your breadth of knowledge, talent for teaching, and most of all, your unwavering zeal for department meetings. I would also like to thank Fr. Denis Meade, OSB, former Chair of the Theology Department. He is one of the most generous persons I have ever known, and I am forever grateful for what he has done for Benedictine College, the Department, and for me personally. He is not in the room tonight, but thank you Fr. Denis.
Finally, I thank you dear students.
Your audacity in living out the faith never ceases to amaze me. You know, when I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, college students were viewed as revolutionary for embracing free love and denouncing traditional values. That day has past, for now moral relativism defines the culture. What’s actually culturally rebellious is spending your spring break on a mission trip, praying in the adoration chapel, attending Mass, discerning a vocation, going on the March for Life, or embracing the virtue of chastity — now that really is radical.
By quietly living out your faith through work and prayer, you are restoring our culture, one vocation at a time. I am genuinely moved by your example, and am truly privileged to be a professor here. God bless you and good night.