The President's Report 2009

The Importance of Engaged Learning


Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J.


View the full President's Report »

“Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives,so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose and act for the rights of others,especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed.”

—Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., former superior general of the Society of Jesus, addressingthe audience at the Faith and Justice in Jesuit Higher Education Conference, October 2000

Each morning for 28 days this summer, Casey O’Keefe ’10 woke to the sounds of life in Nairobi, Kenya. After morning lectures on the political, social or economic realities of life in East Africa and Kiswahili language classes, she went to work at St. Secilia’s Primary School—located in Kibera, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa—where her students greeted her with songs and eagerly exchanged vocabulary words with her, Kiswahili to English and back. In the evenings, she spent time reflecting on her day and the lessons she learned, connecting the reality before her with her coursework as a psychology major with a concentration in Peace and Conflict Studies.

O’Keefe is one of a dozen students who participated in an exceptional study abroad program this summer, integrating classroom experiences with community internships. Accompanied by Judith Chubb, professor of political science, and Margaret A. Post ’96, director of the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning, students immersed themselves in Kenyan culture while focusing on issues of social justice. “The combination of rigorous academic study with grassroots community engagement, unique among the College’s study abroad programs, epitomizes the mission of Holy Cross to promote global citizenship and social justice with special emphasis on the preferential option for the poor,” says Chubb. “These students have begun a long journey of personal transformation.”

Engaged Learning and Liberal Arts

Liberal arts education strives to provide students a strong foundation for understanding themselves and the world around them, while preparing them to enter that world as critical thinkers, problem solvers and conscientious citizens. Students are seen as more than passive recipients of knowledge and information. Instead, they are encouraged to become active learners, taking ownership of their educational experience and growing as human beings as well. Liberal arts institutions support that growth by offering a wide variety of opportunities—on- and off-campus—to complement their academic work, including outreach and community service programs, internships, research opportunities, athletics and a myriad of other clubs and programs. These give students the chance to grow personally, develop leadership and prepare for a successful and fulfilling future.

An important trend in liberal arts education today is a closer and more structured integration of students’ experiences in and out of the classroom, with the ultimate goal of educating the whole person. “Engaged learning,” as it is commonly called, connects theory and practice. It invites students to bring their real-world experiences into the classroom, thereby enriching the discussion and dialogue, and then challenges students to bring their classroom experience out into the world to be tested, strengthened and enhanced. It also asks that students consider the context—including the social and civic contexts—of the subjects they study. And finally, engaged learning seeks to draw students’ attention to the human condition affected by the content of their studies, and it is in this goal that we see the dovetailing of engaged learning and the ideals of a liberal arts education.

It is a cycle of experience, reflection and action that encourages students to participate in the dynamic interplay between their lived experiences, new knowledge and participation in the world around them.

“The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.”   —Fr. Kolvenbach