Integrating Catholic Intellectual Tradition helps students become critical thinkers

Faith and Service
November 27, 2023

Innovating education through the Marianist lens

by Nathaniel Miller

Todd Hanneken, Ph.D., does not expect students to go out and discuss the history of general councils of the Catholic Church years after taking his Theology courses, but he does hope they remember how to live with respect for others.

As a Professor of Theology, Hanneken knows not all students in his class are Catholics, so he focuses on teaching students of all faiths how to coexist and share ideas peacefully.

From left, St. Mary’s students Sophia Rodriguez, Andrew Thomas and Abraham Albarati perform with the Jazz Orchestra.

Through what he calls principal dialogue, his students learn how to have conversations about complex topics, such as differences in religion, helping them gain skills for future use as servant leaders.

“I don’t expect my students to agree with every idea that is presented,” Hanneken said. “But understanding how and why people think what they think and believe what they believe is going to make them better at building bridges.”

Theology is one of several courses St. Mary’s University students must take as part of the Core Curriculum — a set of courses fostering the body of knowledge, skills and attitudes integral to a St. Mary’s education, which was revamped and put into place in 2021.

The curriculum, focused on educating students to think beyond themselves, is instrumental to giving students a liberal arts education integrated with Catholic and Marianist values. These courses are designed to develop the whole person using skills, such as critical thinking, formal reasoning, intercultural knowledge and the Marianist commitment to working for justice.

These strengths, Hanneken said, can be used across all professions. As St. Mary’s continues to add new programs and new academic spaces, these lessons will continue to serve students throughout their careers.

“It’s easy for college to prepare someone for a task,” Hanneken said. “What St. Mary’s does is give students the flexibility to adapt, to learn new things and to apply what they’ve learned to new situations.”

Extending the educational foundation

Composed of 45 credit hours, the Core Curriculum includes courses ranging from Freshman Composition and Literature, to Philosophy and Mathematics.

As a liberal arts university, St. Mary’s requires these classes to expand a student’s education across topics while preparing them for positions in leadership and lives of service.

Helena Hernandez Fisher, of San Antonio, works on an assignment for the Online J.D. Program.

The list of classes may look like a hodgepodge of courses outside someone’s desired field of study, but Hanneken said it’s only when students start taking the courses that they understand how they fit into their education.

“You can have a pile of sugar, a pile of flour and a couple of eggs and still not have a cake,” he said. “By mixing these things together, we’re helping students see that when they take a history class, they’re not just checking a box. We’re showing them how to look and understand the past.”

The curriculum also incorporates Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Based on two assumptions, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition teaches that everything — including human reasoning — comes from God. The second is that humans are thinking creatures and can’t help but make sense of the world.

Jason King, Ph.D., the Beirne Director of the Center for Catholic Studies, cites four prominent characteristics of Catholic Intellectual Tradition: faith and reason are compatible; humans are made in the image and likeness of God; humanity is afflicted by sin; and humans are called to love one another.

As a Catholic university, King said it’s easy to see how lessons from the Core Curriculum align with the four characteristics.

“All humans deserve respect,” King said. “Their own agency, their relationships to other humans and their openness to the transcendent are all essential pieces of being human and must be honored.”

“You can have a pile of sugar, a pile of flour and a couple of eggs and still not have a cake. By mixing these things together, we’re helping students see that when they take a history class, they’re not just checking a box. We’re showing them how to look and understand the past.”

Todd Hanneken, Ph.D.

President Thomas M. Mengler, J.D., said Catholic Intellectual Tradition is a great way to see the engagement of the Catholic Church alongside the world and its different cultures over the last 2,000 years.

“What I find most exciting about Catholic Intellectual Tradition is its grounding in truth, goodness, justice and beauty,” Mengler said. “In this light, all searches for truth — whether conducted in a laboratory, a library, an art studio or a chapel — become a search for meaning, purpose and the divine.”

Welcoming new perspectives

When David Turner, Ph.D., talks about a Geology class, most people think about rocks and mentally move on.

The Professor of Environmental Science knew many people coming into this classroom were there to check off a course in their Core Curriculum, get the credit and go on to their next set of classes. There was a time when he did not see many students outside the School of Science, Engineering and Technology.

By taking the time to meet and forge relationships with students and professors outside his course of study, Turner found new ways to incorporate the Marianist mission into his teaching.

Leticia “Leti”Contreras (B.A. ’89), Trustee Emerita, and Thomas “Tom” Contreras (B.B.A. ’88) visit The Pub at St. Mary’s, which they helped reopen through a gift to the University

For instance, Turner asked Robert O’Connor, Ph.D., Director of The Saint John’s Bible, to discuss how the hand-illustrated Bible was compiled. Bringing in one of the seven volumes to Turner’s course, O’Connor shared insights about project management. Turner never imagined it would be so easy to incorporate Catholic values in his teaching.

“These opportunities to bring the Marianist tradition into a science class and use them in a way that helps link what we do in science more closely with our Marianists — it’s wonderful and welcoming,” Turner said.

During the review process of the Core Curriculum during the 2020-2021 academic year, Turner was in favor of adding the First-Year Experience course for first-year students. The course is designed to not only help incoming freshmen adjust to University life, but also assist them in becoming acquainted with St. Mary’s and its mission. The classes are capped at 18 students, ensuring a more personal experience.

Taught by professors from across the University, Turner uses the topic of environmental science in his First-Year Experience course to ask his students how their major is working to either explain climate change or address it.

In the three years since the First-Year Experience started, Turner said students have engaged more with their professors and each other, helping build a sense of community and giving faculty a chance to teach outside their specialty.

“As faculty, we forget what it’s like to experience our disciplines for the first time,” he said. “And we are also of a different generation from our students. They have new perspectives and ask questions in ways I’ve never thought about before.”

Finding new ways to serve

Since June 2012, physical and educational advancements have changed the campus, setting up opportunities for students to pursue new careers, extending from the University’s mission of servant leadership.

The Unmanned Aerial Systems Laboratory now sits behind the Richter-Math Engineering Center as a space for drone education. A new, three-story building called the Blank Sheppard Innovation Center will open in 2024. It will house laboratories and collaboration spaces for advanced manufacturing, instrumentation, data science and machine learning, as well as the new Nursing Program, pending approval by the Texas Board of Nursing and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

President Thomas M. Mengler, J.D., and Rattler Man, get ready to help break ground on the Blank Sheppard Innovation Center.

St. Mary’s also offers more degrees than it did when Mengler began in June 2012: a Bachelor of Business Administration Degree in Accounting and Data Analytics beginning in 2014; a Master of Jurisprudence in 2015; a Master of Science in Cyber Security in 2015, which helped the University gain recognition as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; a Master of Arts in Public History in 2017; and an Online J.D. Program in 2022, to name a few.

Graduate offerings, such as the MBA for Professionals Program started in 2017, offer a flexible curriculum with online options for those looking to take the next steps in their careers.

These changes have not gone unnoticed by alumni.

“The campus has changed so dramatically since I was matriculating there. It’s almost unrecognizable,” said Michael “Mickey” A. Schott (B.B.A. ’68), the Chair of the Presidential Nominating Committee, who also chaired the University’s Board of Trustees from 2018 to 2020. “Campus life, in general, has improved under Tom’s watch.”

Jason Pierce, Ph.D., Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, has been in the position since June 2022, and said he’s been given ample space for innovation under Mengler’s leadership.

Pierce said launching new degree programs, innovating existing spaces and constructing new buildings are instrumental to attracting top-tier professors and recruiting students. But it takes vision and a group of like-minded people to implement those goals.

“One of the things I appreciate about Tom is his willingness to empower those he’s working with to innovate and to move nimbly in response to what we see as opportunities for St. Mary’s to advance its mission,” Pierce said. “The Nursing Program is a great example because it’s a way for us to marshal the effort in response to the nursing shortage.”

“What I find most exciting about Catholic Intellectual Tradition is its grounding in truth, goodness, justice and beauty. In this light, all searches for truth — whether conducted in a laboratory, a library, an art studio or a chapel — become a search for meaning, purpose and the divine.”

Thomas M. Mengler, J.D.

Trustee Emerita Leticia “Leti” Contreras (B.A. ’89), who served as Chair of the Board of Trustees from 2020 to 2022 as the first woman to hold the position, has also been excited about the changes at St. Mary’s.

While not an academic building, Contreras and her husband, Thomas “Tom” Contreras (B.B.A. ’88), were instrumental in changing campus life by funding the Contreras Family Terrace and Student Lounge, along with reopening The Pub at St. Mary’s in 2015. The couple first met as undergraduates at an earlier incarnation of The Pub.

Mengler’s commitment to making St. Mary’s a premier institution, and his affection for San Antonio as a city, has been crucial to his success, Leti Contreras added.

“We could have the greatest facilities in the world, but your faculty and staff in the classrooms teaching are the students’ first impressions,” she said. “We have to ensure that they’re getting what they need to spread the University’s mission, and Tom Mengler has done a great job of making sure they have that.”

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