A lot of FYP students arrived in September ecstatic they had been accepted to Hogwarts. I did, two-and-a-half years ago. The robes, the formal meals, the candle-lit Chapel, the constant company of bookish types — it seemed like something out of a fantasy novel.
Actually, it comes out of Oxford University. And that’s important.
It’s important because our scholastic heritage means that we are a college, like those that make up Oxford. As members of a college, King’s students, faculty, administrators, and staff share a common life and a common purpose in a way that is not necessarily available at other post-secondary institutions.
Our life together is directed towards the lofty goal of becoming more truly and completely human.
Robert Crouse, a founder of FYP and long-time professor at King’s and Dalhousie, taught that collegiate life is about seeking the unity of knowing and loving. We are most fully human when we have learned how to bring together true thinking and true loving — we must learn to love and know ourselves, the world, and thought itself.
This is why a college is fundamentally a community: because we can’t learn to love without each other. We teach one another how to think by thinking together. Anyone who has studied for FYP oral exams knows how this works. But, what’s more, we open ourselves up to the possibility of love by sharing in a common life as a college.
Seeking the unity of thought and love is probably not why most King’s students ended up here. It certainly wasn’t why I applied. This is exactly the point: by becoming members of a college before we know what the highest values of the college are, we can genuinely learn something. The college is the meeting place between us and the goal of learning to how to think and how to love, even though we didn’t at first know this was what we were looking for all along.
The difference between a collegiate structure and other models of post-secondary education has to do with what “education” means. People apply to universities because they have an interest in a particular topic or activity they want to “fill up” with actual knowledge and skills.
We shop for universities on this basis, and the result is that, for better or for worse, we only reinforce the interests and inclinations we already had. We get skills so we can get jobs.
This is important, but this is not the collegiate attitude towards education. Liberal arts colleges will never convincingly be defended on the basis of utility.
We are a members of a college so that we might become better: the goal is to transform our inclinations, in our minds and in our wills, so that we love and know what is right and good in a way that is not simply self-referential.
On a more practical level, this is why King’s places such a high value on its traditions: matriculation, formal meal and the smells-and-bells Thursday Eucharist at the Chapel (the “University Service”).
Though these ceremonies serve many purposes, they knit us together as a community because they transcend our initial ability to understand or fully appreciate them. By seeking to understand — and eventually to criticize and reform — the traditional practical markers of the “King’s identity,” we are transformed into people who learn to think in the context of a committed community.
But our common life is about much more than our traditions. It is also about our institutions, the shared spaces where we can learn to love one another. We are entertained and challenged by attending KTS shows together. We, together, engage with current events in the life of our college by reading and discussing articles in the Watch.
We worship together at the Chapel.
We read together at the Haliburton Society.
We eat together in Prince Hall.
We relax and socialize together in the Wardroom.
These meeting places are not simply about circumstance and interest; they are not “neutral” spaces which are there for our interest and convenience. Rather, they are crucially important as the most basic places where we practice a collegial attitude.
Just as it is a part of friendship to, for example, attend a play in which a friend is acting, so it is an act of corporate friendship when we engage as fully as we can with those events and places which define us as a community. To commit oneself to communal acts of friendship is the first step toward friendship with oneself and toward love of Wisdom.
So we should attend the KTS. We ought to read The Watch. We must consider out-tripping with the Chapel, whatever religious background we come from.
When I say that the collegial attitude is “not necessarily available at other post-secondary institutions,” I must add that it is not necessarily present at King’s either. Our participation in college life is entirely up to us, as students, faculty, staff and administrators.
There are reasons why we might not be able to fully participate in the life of the college. For example, I am well aware that this vision of collegiate life is a deep challenge to the pluralism which many members of our community hold dear.
But I suggest that college life is worth pursuing in spite of — even because of — our individual differences. King’s is a labour of love which reconciles us and our differences.
It is difficult work at first to see just how important our presence with one another is, at communal events and on a daily basis. It is difficult work to allow a community and a philosophical tradition to transform us intellectually and morally. But the goal of this work, and the work itself, is nothing other than love.
We first love our colleagues, our college, and our curriculum so that we can learn love itself, which is the final goal of a life truly and fully lived.