August 24, 2016

Spotlight on education at Matteo Ricci College

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Matteo Ricci by Emmanuel Pereira (public domain image)
Matteo Ricci by Emmanuel Pereira (public domain image)

Matteo Ricci College (MRC) is one of eight schools and colleges that form part of Seattle University, a Catholic institution conducted by the Society of Jesus. 

With the Humanities as its core, MRC offers three degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities (BAH), a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities for Leadership (BAHL), and a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities for Teaching (BAHT). 

Mission of MRC

MRC educates teachers and leaders for a just and humane world. The study of Western culture is the surest place to begin. Pseudo-educators claim it’s a waste of time.   Yet, the facts don’t lie.  We are the beneficiaries of Greco-Roman culture preserved, reinterpreted, and handed down through the Catholic Church’s medieval monastic tradition and continued through the Italian Renaissance. To be human is to be in a story, and to forget one's story leaves a person without a present identity, without a past and without a future.  At MRC, cultural history is taught so that students can draw moral lessons from it.  Those who don’t learn from these lessons are condemned to repeat and relive them.    

With the small class size at MRC, professors can take a personal interest in each student.  In this environment conducive to learning, a close collaboration between student and professor is pursued.   This encourages greater participation in class. Shouldn’t MRC be the envy of most serious students?  You would think so. 

What’s in a Name? 

MRC is named after the 16th - century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) who spent his adult life as an educator and missionary in China.  At that time, the doors of the Chinese empire were closed to foreigners from the West.   It was Ricci who brought Western civilization to China, and Chinese literati reciprocated by sharing with him their ancient and venerable culture.  For him, inculturation was a reality centuries before the term was invented. He founded the modern Chinese Catholic Church.  

Ricci astonished the Chinese because he loved them. An authority on so many subjects and disciplines—mathematics, astronomy, apologetics, literature, popular catechesis, poetry, art and music—he brought this treasury of gifts to his mission. His intellectual gifts were prodigious: a photographic memory, linguistic ability to speak flawless Chinese, ingenuity to write maps, assemble clocks, read the stars.  As if this weren’t enough, Ricci had a keen ear for music and reportedly sang with great sweetness.   This “wise man from the west” is recognized as “the most cultivated man of his time and one of the most remarkable and brilliant men of history.”  

Known throughout the realm as Li-Ma-T’ou, this missionary scholar remains the most respected and beloved foreign figure in Chinese culture. Some in the Chinese government view him as the “Second Founder of Modern China.”  

This is the man after whom MRC is named.  He is its model of a complete liberal arts education cast in the Jesuit mold.

Student Protest against the Curriculum of MRC

In May, some two hundred enrolled students at (MRC) staged a week-long sit-in objecting to the core curriculum: The focus on Western culture and values was declared irrelevant. Studies in Western Civilization had failed to serve the academic interests of these students. 

The students demanded of the administration that the classic core curriculum in the Humanities be discarded in favor of a new program of studies to reflect special interest groups of race, class, gender, and disability.  Additionally, they demanded that only qualified faculty be hired to teach courses that reflected their interest in identity group studies of race, class, gender, and disability. The Dean of the MRC was to be fired.

Student demands focused on “dissatisfaction, traumatization, and boredom,” that is, “the Humanities program as it exists today” which “ignores and erases the humanity of its students and of peoples around the globe.”  . . . “We are diverse, with many different life experiences, also shaped by colonization, U.S., and Western imperialist, neo-politics, and oppression under racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative and homophobic, transphobic, queerphobic, ableist, nationalistic, xenophobic systems which perpetuate conquest, genocide of indigenous peoples, and pervasive systemic inequities.”

Students spoke of oppression perpetrated by the Administration:  “The first manifest demand is a complete change in the curriculum from a Whiteness-dominated curriculum to a non-Eurocentric interdisciplinary curriculum.  If the (MRC) is unable to tackle these requirements, we demand that it be converted into a department so as to be accountable to another college.”   

What Students at MRC Seek

If MRC students are seeking social justice and equality for all, if they are to make sense of this complex world, they ought to study the Humanities. If they are curious about how other cultures have learned to develop feelings of compassion, tolerance, respect, empathy, they ought to study the Humanities. If they are curious about how creative other people can be, if students are determined to live in a democracy of free citizens, the Humanities should be studied. Without the Humanities, democracy would not exist.  

The Crisis of Higher Education

In this country, we are experiencing an intellectual crisis that has already affected our work force, our politics, and our culture.  Western civilization, the human culmination of centuries of learning is under attack by an identity-driven student population exemplified by the protesters at MRC.  Whereas many academic leaders fail to uphold the purpose of teaching Western civilization, the faculty at MRC values it.  Whereas academic leaders don’t believe that the Humanities have any fundamental influence on their students, the faculty at MRC is invested in it.  Shared values—this is what brings the world together.  

MRC is not alone in promoting a Humanities core curriculum. Many non-sectarian and private colleges proudly offer a core curriculum around which other subjects are framed. At least twenty-five colleges and universities in the United States offer the Great Books tradition to their undergraduates. These books are part of the great conversation about the universal ideas of cultures and civilizations, always related to ethical and religious values. 

Many educators believe that nearly half of college graduates show no measurable improvement in knowledge or critical thinking. They speak and write incorrectly; they do not read.  Their constant companions? Electronic devices with accompanying head sets. Weaker academic requirements, greater specialization in the departments, a rigid orthodoxy and doctrinaire views on liberalism are now part of the university’s politics and cultural life.  

Clash of Goals

If the demands of these special interest groups—race, class, gender, and disability, were met, MRC would cease to exist. A program of identity studies clashes with the raison d’être of a college named after Matteo Ricci, a name synonymous with the richest of classic studies.   

The student protesters are demanding to be extricated from the program that distinguishes itself in the pantheon of Catholic higher education.  

Who would be so foolish as to look down on, much less protest, such a rich curriculum that prompts the most influential employers to hire MRC’s crême de la crème

Let the disgruntled students go elsewhere with their partisan interests and narrow viewpoint.  They lose.

Ricci Speaks to College Students

Matteo Ricci has left us several proverbs that can inspire college students.  But not just college students:  

 “Man is a stranger in this world.”

 “The virtuous person speaks little.”

“Time past must be thought of as gone forever.  Don’t waste time.”

“True longevity is reckoned not by number of years but according to progress in virtue.  If the Lord of Heaven grants me one day more of life, He does so that I may correct yesterday’s faults; failures to do this would be a sign of great ingratitude.”

The canonization of Father Matteo Ricci, S.J. ranks high on the ‘to-do list’ of Pope Francis whose high regard and love for him are well known.  This is the Servant of God, Matteo Ricci, S.J.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.