Habemus chemia – Pope Francis’ journey from chemicals to cassocks
02 May 2013
Author: Dr John Kelly, professor emeritus in chemical engineering and former dean of engineering and registrar, University College Dublin
The knowledge that the newly elected Pope Francis I is a graduate in chemical engineering from the University of Buenos Aires class of 1957 has given rise to much good-humoured discussion in the engineering world – and stirred up no little pride among chemical engineers.
In addition, in the week following his election, the announcement that the newly appointed president of the People’s Republic of China started out his career as a chemical engineer added fuel to this discussion and made us chemical engineers hold our heads a little bit higher.
Many other graduates of chemical engineering who have abandoned their careers for greater things can be added to this distinguished list. These include film director Frank Capra, captain of the French rugby team Thierry Dusautoir and, of course, our own Pat Kenny, graduate of UCD and of Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he achived a master’s degree in chemical engineering. There is a long list of chemical engineers who have thrived in other, unrelated professions and it may cause some professors of chemical engineering to wonder how this has come about.
ABANDONING THE PROFESSION
A survey taken some years ago in UCD showed that five years after graduation, only 40% of its chemical-engineering graduates were working in the chemical industry. What is ‘wrong’ with the degree in that it results in all these very bright graduates abandoning the profession soon after they leave the university?
It would seem that chemical engineers tend to move into some other, non-engineering careers after graduation more than graduates from any other branch of engineering. Is this because of the type of person who chooses to study chemical engineering, or is it a result of the education that students receive during their years of study in universities?
One can extend this discussion into an examination the mission of the university regarding the education of the youth of today. Is it to train them for specific jobs, or to educate them so that they may fit into any career across the entire marketplace?
In the professional or vocational disciplines of higher education – such as law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and veterinary medicine – it is clearly to educate graduates into specific jobs in those professions.
This also applies, but to a lesser extent, in the disciplines of engineering and sciences, but is much less applicable in business studies, and not at all in the humanities where the graduates may end up anywhere in the contemporary marketplace. Of course, in all university disciplines, vocational or otherwise, there are graduates who go off in a different career direction immediately after graduation.
The traditional view of university education is that purported by Cardinal Newman. In The Idea of a University, he said that the mission of a university is to give a liberal education which “… makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman”.
“It is well to be a gentleman,” he continued. “It is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid equitable, a dispassionate mind and a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life. These are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a university.”
However, Newman was not totally opposed to the vocational disciplines in a university, saying that in these studies, “… he has gained from them a special illumination and largeness of mind and a freedom and self-possession, and he treats his own in consequence with a philosophy and a resource which belongs not to the study itself, but to his liberal education”.
This was written 150 years ago and reflects the contemporary mores of society at that time. However, the core philosophy of Newman’s arguments is still as important today – perhaps more so than it was then. No doubt that gentlemen understand and appreciate this!
It would seem that the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio got a liberal education in his chemical engineering studies. He went on to take a licentiate in philosophy and later taught literature and psychology in high school. And now, as His Holiness Pope Francis I, he can be held up as a model educational product of the contemporary university world. We wish him well.