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I finished teaching a university course in faith and ideas a little while ago by administering individual oral exams to forty first-year students. The exams took place in a hotel bar overlooking a volcanic lake. The pope’s summer palace shone in the distance, and the Mediterranean gleamed beyond that.

It had to be this way. Really.

The course, as you’ve figured out, took place in Rome. Its predecessor took place in Toronto, the prior fall. For that course we read St. ­Augustine’s Confessions and ­Ratzinger’s Introduction to ­Christianity, David ­Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” and ­Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness; we watched George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and discussed it in the context of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’; we studied a graphic novel about Chinese Christianity and ­poetry about race, class, and the universal dignity of motherhood. The Catholic intellectual tradition was the context for our readings and discussions, thereby introducing students to a two-thousand-year exploration of the nature of the human person in all areas of life and experience based on the core proposition of Christianity: that we are made in the image and likeness of God.

The international version took up the tradition in a two-week intensive study, in the spring, in Rome itself. As Jörg Rüpke observes, in proposing the argument of his new book Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion, “The sentiment that whatever is important takes place in ­cities—and ­especially metropolises—is not new, but it has never been ­thoroughly studied in the case of religions.” Rome—two thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, and today—is the best place in the world to test Rüpke’s premise. And so we did, balancing readings of and about the city, from the Acts of the Apostles and The Aeneid and the fourth-­century Christian poet Prudentius and the Jewish-­Egyptian writer André ­Aciman, with time in Rome itself: the Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls, the Vatican Museums, the Canadian Pontifical College (when in Rome, Canadians are still Canadians).

The final component of the course—which we all referred to, naturally, as the bar exam—­happened in the well-stocked little saloon of the eight-hundred-year-old residence where we were staying. It turned out that way because of a room-booking snafu. No one complained and, the university administrator in me wants to make clear, no one drank anything other than water until all of the exams were conducted. By divine coincidence, the schedule took us right up to aperitivo hour.

The students loved the ­experience of the oral exam, and not only ­because they each had to be called to the bar as part of it. They loved it the same way that strong runners love open trails and serious cyclists love clear roads—you can range around and explore at great length, thanks to good formation and good terrain. I asked questions about the ­readings and their urban investigations, inviting them, much in keeping with both Rome itself and the Catholic intellectual tradition, to think across centuries.

There was no skepticism, no cynicism, no surfacing of ulterior motives or ironized self-references. Instead, there was wonder, and then good and strong reflection on the many sources of that wonder, discoverable in unexpected discoveries of the depth and continuity of faith’s place in Rome. There was also candid reconsideration of earlier notions about, for instance, the Vatican’s contribution to science, specifically the study of meteorites, and observations charged with the excitement of fresh discovery, about the relationship between politics and urban design, as with the ­creation of the Via della Con­ciliazione and the relative lack of churches in the Prati, a part of the city that was redeveloped after the secular unification of Italy in 1870.

One thing about the day I noted well. In eight hours of question-and-answer, involving students from all arts and science disciplines, no one did any “critical thinking.” Better still, no one talked about the importance of doing critical thinking. In fact, to my recollection, we didn’t discuss critical thinking once, the whole year.


A couple of years before teaching this course, I attended a summit, or maybe it was a symposium, or perhaps a plenary panel. There was bad lighting and sweaty brie, and a lot of effort was put into encouraging people in the audience to live-tweet their thoughts. I probably don’t need to tell you that the subject of the event itself was the future of the humanities, or maybe it was the crisis of the humanities, or the future crisis of the humanities, or the humanities in crisis, past, present, and future. Not that it matters. The message was, is, and will be, for a while, “We’re in crisis.” Enrollments are down, resources are shrinking, respect is low.

Or, respect is still paid, sort of. Two senior administrators were present for this particular session; neither came from the humanities. I was sitting nearby and watching. One of them did his best to conceal his weariness while listening to the various laments; the other smiled for the cameras, with a little bit of studied patience, maybe even indulgence, in the mix, like an old chess master watching a child get frustrated because he didn’t understand how the game was played, only that he was losing. But everything felt better when, at last, the declarations came, from speaker after speaker: “Whatever you think of knowledge for its own sake or the importance of academic specialization or the value of books and art, we can all agree . . . the purpose of the humanities is to teach critical thinking!” Everyone applauded; the bigwigs smiled. The professors felt better, and soon some aides pulled the senior administrators away, probably for fundraising events at happier and brighter and shinier parts of the campus.

Few people who deploy the term in their apologies for the humanities, I have found, detail what it actually means. It’s taken for granted, mostly because it’s easier that way, for all concerned. If you’re trying to impress university administrators, donors, and the public at large who won’t appreciate the innovations of theory (huh?), interventions of politics (eye-roll), and other permanent leading trends in the humanities, critical thinking is an automatic certification. The very vagueness of the term supports the intellectual mores of our moment: One, question everything; two, highlight means over ends, hence thinking over actual thoughts; and three, make learning all about you, the self-aware critical thinker, not the objects of study, the artifacts of civilization.

It need not be so. One student in Rome offered a striking reflection on finding a nearly faded request etched beneath a painting dating from the fourth-century level of the Basilica of San Clemente, composed by an ordinary pilgrim named John, asking that anyone who reads his words offer a prayer for him. She did this, and suddenly felt less lonely in a foreign city because she had united with someone long dead with whom she had a shared faith and shared confidence in the power of prayer. She didn’t “critically think” about the relationship between her “subject-­position” and his; she observed, thought about what (and who) she was encountering, and then responded with prayer and prose. Later on, another student made a spirited case in defense of the abrupt ending of a saint’s life entry in Jacobus da ­Varagine’s The Golden Legend, which, by any literary standard, was poorly done. The story of a saint’s life isn’t merely literary, he argued, and certainly didn’t end with its being written down centuries before. 

I learned an important lesson. The fullness of Rome itself would not allow critical thinking’s abstractions and reflections to overcome the spiritual and historical power of the landmarks of faith and genius all around us. At every corner, it seems, the objects before you have an arresting power that it is better to ­experience than to experience by theorizing about the experience. The immersion of students into the city, and my own experience of teaching in and about it, confirmed how naturally open to transcendence, integration, and sincerity university students can be. Indeed, out of these studies this past year, I am confident, these students realized that the purpose of university today is, yes, to learn how to question everything for and by yourself, which is the prime dogma of critical thinking. But they also learned that in curricula and communities that are intellectually confident, open, and cosmopolitan—Catholic, in the best and fullest sense—there are firm and full answers to our most profound questions. The endless, symphonic interplay of such questions and answers is the real source and summit of the humanities. Saying and teaching as much is critical, don’t you think? 

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts and Letters and serves as principal of St. Michael’s College.

Photo by Bert Kaufmann via Creative Commons. Image cropped.