We can, the philosophers tell us, never step in the same river twice, and our bodies, the scientists tells us, slough off our cells across a given period of time, and yet for all of that, we remain ourselves, and what does not change is that we can only perceive the world through that self. That does not mean the self does not change, develop, grow, decay and be subject to the processes of nature; but it means, I think, that whilst those things happen, we are less subject to the passage of time in our heads than we are in our bodies. This may be why, with so many of us, there can be a harsh reaction to the way the world changes when it impinges on us; it is there with some of us from the start and makes us natural conservatives. Some people are avid for change, others not so much; political parties exist around that existential fact.
For the best part of the last four decades I have been part of the same university. I have done many different things whilst there, and it would take quite some hat-rack to hold the all the hats I have worn in that time. I have had the immense privilege of helping generations of students to realise their potential; that is the beginning and the end of a university education – all else is, in Disraeli’s phrase ‘leather and prunella’. I had thought that by this stage this would be where I would end my time. But the chance came to do something to help the Church and to help foster the creation of a Catholic university, and it is to that imperious summons I have yielded. Those recent posts about Catholic higher education were not simply exercises in theorising, but attempts to work through some thoughts on what to do next.
The media being what it is, bad news sells and good news does not. Stuff about ‘safe spaces’ at university, and about ‘Micky Mouse’ degrees and the latest ‘pc-gone mad’ nonsense sell better than the real story of students working hard to realise their full potential, and academics helping them on that journey. It is into that river that I step again in my new post. For all the stuff that hits the news, it is that process – education – which is at the heart of what we do in higher education. In that sense it is a vocation. It is a call to take the knowledge you have gained and to share it with the young (or in the case of mature students, the young at heart). There is a truth, and whilst we may see it in this world as through a glass darkly, we can encourage our students to reach out for it and to learn how to think critically about what we tell them, and about what the world tells them. That does not necessarily end in a swamp of relativity – although, of course, if that is what a student decides, then that is where he or she ends up. My hope is always that the further on they go, the clearer the limitations of relativism will become, and the plainer the merits of the tradition which I help pass on. We live in a free market economy, not least where ideas are concerned, and one has to have the faith that the good will drive out the bad.
Tomorrow is in one sense a new beginning for me – but in another, it is business as usual. What matters is the mission. The missioner is an instrument in a higher cause. None of which means I will not be grateful for your prayers, for me, and for our staff and students.