Scholar, Pilot columnist named to papal academy

CHESTNUT HILL — Kevin Ryan, professor and founder of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University’s School of Education, has been named by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Ryan, who along with his wife Marilyn writes a regular column for the Pilot, is one of only three Americans to serve on the academy that advises the Church on issues such as law, politics, economics and education. The other two Americans currently serving on the academy are Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and Stanford economics professor emeritus Kenneth Arrow.

The pope established the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences in 1994, modeling it after the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a body that has advised popes for more that 400 years on issues relating to the “hard” sciences such as biology, chemistry and technology.

“I’m just extraordinarily numbed by the honor,” Ryan told the Pilot in a recent interview. “I don’t know exactly what’s ahead, but I do know that this is an honor I’ll take with me to the grave.”

According to Ryan, he and his wife Marilyn were out of town when the pope named him to the academy.

Upon returning to their Chestnut Hill home, “we found two large envelopes with Roman stamps on them,” he said. Inside one was the papal appointment; inside the other was an invitation to attend the academy’s annual gathering to be held in April.

"I must admit this is the biggest thrill of my life," he said.

Ryan was selected for appointment to the academy for his expertise in the field of education, particularly regarding moral education and the development of personality.

“Most of my work has been, and continues to be, to teach people that their life’s work is to lead a worthy life,” he said. “Educators have got to use all that’s at their disposal to craft the future of each student.”

Born in 1932, Ryan decided to become an educator while on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

"I spent quite a lot of time at sea and had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life," he said.

When he left active duty, he entered Colombia University, obtained a Master’s degree in English, and taught at the high school level for four years.

However, Ryan was not completely satisfied.

"I saw that teaching was too centered on pure knowledge transfer, not about teaching young people how to live a life with dignity," he said.

In 1963, Ryan received a Ford Foundation Fellowship and began his doctorate studies at Stanford University. It was there that he realized he wanted to pursue a career in higher education, ultimately becoming an associate professor at the University of Chicago.

During his years at Stanford and first four years at the University of Chicago, the focus of Ryan’s research and writing was on the education of teachers. However, in 1970 he was granted a one year Alfred North Whitehead Fellowship at Harvard University. Ryan used that time to redirect his work toward moral education and character development.

"It was like when I was at sea in the Navy, I had a year to rethink what I wanted to do with my life. Just straight teaching was not about the issues I felt about deeply. I wanted to provide a moral compass to young people," he recalled. "It became increasingly evident to me that the issues that were most crucial were the moral and ethical aspects of education."

In 1982, Ryan accepted a professorship at Boston University and headed up a team of professors for a special project in Lisbon, Portugal. The project, sponsored by the World Bank, prepared the faculties for 15 new colleges throughout Portugal and was part of that country’s preparation for entry into the European Common Market.

Upon his return from Portugal, Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University in 1989, whose primary mission, according to Ryan, “is to support public schools in the formulation of character education.”

"My ideal is to show teachers that their work is not just a pusher of knowledge, but a crafter of the future. Students' lives are in a process of formation and you have got to look at everything -- literature, history, everything -- as a tool to build character," he said.