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Catholic colleges and universities owe students an apology

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For more than forty years, Catholic liberal arts colleges have, to put it mildly, struggled to carve out a recognizable intellectual and educational place in the ever-shifting landscape of American higher education. That they have generally lacked such mooring is not surprising. When it has come to presenting themselves to the outside world, Catholic liberal arts colleges, for the most part, have tended to follow one of two paths. A small number willfully and wishfully pretend that today’s average eighteen-year-old somehow already knows both what Catholic liberal education is, and that it is an intrinsically desirable form of education. However, the majority of Catholic colleges mindlessly scramble, usually in contradictory ways, to latch onto the next-to-last academic fad that ripped through America’s so-called elite institutions of higher learning ten years earlier. Predictably, the results of both of these tactics have been underwhelming.

Identifying the afterthought

The Catholic tradition possesses a rich understanding of the kind of intellectual formation that authentically cultivates the human person as human person. Unfortunately, the educational importance of that understanding is usually an afterthought to today’s typical undergraduate. This fact is as undeniable as it is regrettable—especially for those of us who know firsthand just how life changing an intellectually serious Catholic undergraduate education can be. In truth, the bulk of the blame for this sad situation falls not on the shoulders of your average would-be undergraduate, but on our Catholic colleges themselves. Lacking the imagination, courage, and all-too-often actual knowledge to articulate clearly and convincingly what makes Catholic liberal education substantially different from other forms of higher education, your average Catholic college ordinarily gives no compelling reason why an undergraduate—even a Catholic undergraduate—would want to be educated by this type of school rather than another type of college.

This, more than any concern administrators or enrollment management types like to cite—a looming “demographic cliff” or a “saturated and competitive marketplace”—explains why many of these colleges now rightly worry whether they will be around in twenty years. It also explains why the intellectual life of so many of our Catholic colleges feels uninspired and adrift. Presented with regular opportunities, often coming in the form of financial necessity, to make a persuasive case for the distinctive kind of education it is designed to offer, the typical Catholic liberal arts college today blinks and then reflexively spit shines its latest market-tested mission statement and embarks on a bold new strategic plan.

To be sure, there are Catholic colleges and universities that do not fit neatly into this account. However, their number is comparatively small, even after the cottage industry of founding Catholic colleges and universities that drew inspiration from the image of the Catholic university limned in Ex Corde Ecclesiae took off in the 2000s. But such institutions remain outliers on America’s larger Catholic educational scene. Part of that detachment is intentional, inasmuch as a number of these schools, at least in the rhetoric associated with their foundings, self-consciously fashioned themselves as educational versions of a Benedict Option. Yet, even these schools frequently do not publicly place the intellectual formation that students can uniquely receive from a Catholic liberal arts college front and center, often marketing themselves instead as educational communities where Catholic students can further their education while deepening their faith.

Such schools undoubtedly play an important role in Catholic education in contemporary America. That there are Catholic institutions where an undergraduate can experience a vibrant sacramental life and exercise his faith, both inside and outside of the classroom, unencumbered in his studies by the woke ideological activism that has seized control of so many of America’s colleges and universities is an unquestionable good. Still, in many ways, these schools also follow the first path mentioned above: it is just that in these cases, the student who is likely to attend one of these schools is not your average eighteen-year-old, i.e., she likely has a vague sense of what Catholic liberal education looks like and probably has sound, if untested, opinions about its desirability.

Giving an apology

The hard truth is that if our Catholic liberal arts colleges are going to continue to exist as viable options on America’s broader higher education horizon, they must be able to give a compelling, full-throated defense of the intrinsic desirability of the kind of education they uniquely can offer. Simply put, Catholic liberal arts colleges today have to be able to give an apology, i.e., a defense, for their intellectual way of life that justifies their existence to the students they ask for the responsibility and privilege to educate.

The problem is that colleges, including dyed-in-the-wool Catholic liberal arts colleges, tend to take the desirability and goodness of their continued existence for granted. This is an admittedly odd pose for colleges to strike, especially those that pride themselves on introducing students to Socrates’ stirring defense of the examined life in Plato’s Apology. The reasons why they do this, however, are not difficult to discover. For one thing, higher education, as students and parents today are well aware, has become a lucrative business. One can see this in everything from the willingness of desperate colleges to concoct new majors and programs based on little more than the expressed areas of interest voiced by prospective students to the wince-inducing tendency of college administrators to talk breezily about the “yield” of cash paying students among this year’s applicant pool.

But, there is a less crass and more benign reason why colleges rarely make public cases for their continued existence: love of one’s own. Large numbers of academically minded men and women necessarily populate colleges—faculty, staff, and administrators who, at some point, realized that they feel remarkably at home on a college campus. Some of these people may have even fallen in love with the intellectual life along the way. For the man or woman who has spent a decade or more earning a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree, the thought that one needs to justify why there should be places where others can do the same is likely not to occur.

Nonetheless, as Augustine reminds us in the Confessions, the love of one’s own eventually needs to give way to the love of the Good. Aquinas also reminds us that one can never adequately repay a genuine teacher for the good he has done him; at best, he can only help lead others to undergo a similar humanizing transformation. While it may not come naturally to those there, faculty and administrators at Catholic liberal arts colleges that truly take their educational missions seriously owe their students intelligible accounts and periodic defenses of their chosen intellectual and pedagogical principles.

Doubtless, the founding ethos, the charism of the sponsoring religious order, and the lived traditions of a given Catholic college should inform the kind of apology it gives as a particular Catholic college. An individual Catholic college is not just one additional franchise of a larger, homogenized brand. That misguided form of thinking is what frequently leads rudderless Catholic liberal arts colleges to remodel themselves regularly on the latest branding best practices used by the seemingly more successful and financially lucrative colleges in the herd. A college founded by Augustinians, for instance, is apt to place a general emphasis on identifying the true intellectual, moral, and spiritual ends of the human person’s restless heart and seriously consider the tension-ridden lives those who inhabit both the earthly and heavenly cities must live. Likewise, a Dominican institution is apt to emphasize the importance of the search for truth, the harmony of faith and reason, and the fruitful interaction between human and divine science in the formation of its students.

Despite the vital importance and value of such particular traits and inheritances, which testify to the genuine intellectual pluralism that marks Catholicism, there are certain core intellectual and pedagogical principles that are essential to Catholic liberal arts education as such. Giving students fulsome accounts of these principles is essential. Ritualistic incantations of the “Catholic intellectual tradition” or the “harmony of faith and reason” or educating “the whole person” quickly ring hollow if the speaker cannot put any more flesh on the bone than the repetition of such slogans. Indeed, students often notice the intellectual emptiness of such rhetoric far more quickly than faculty, some of whom are quick to read more into the slogan than the speaker intends and others who, not knowing any better, mistake the slogan for an actual argument.

Language articulates, always imperfectly but to greater and lesser degrees of accuracy, the realities presented to the human mind. Knowing a language well helps one express something true about a concrete reality that he knows and perhaps even understands. What is more, someone with this ability is able to use different words and terms carefully to articulate the same reality to different audiences, even when those audiences possess markedly different capacities of understanding. As anyone who has struggled to explain Aristotle’s idea of happiness to an undergraduate class knows, you cannot simply say that for Aristotle happiness is the proper activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. You must begin by saying that happiness is something that everyone desires, and then point out that it is an activity that brings about human flourishing. Such a description is in the main accurate. However, it is also partial and inexact. It gives the untutored student a general idea of what Aristotle means by happiness, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for this student to refine her understanding of this idea through further study, conversation, and reflection.

Faculty and administration at Catholic liberal arts colleges must be able to do something similar when making the case for the intellectual formation that their institutions characteristically offer students. Identifying for students what these basic intellectual and pedagogical principles are is essential. Yet this is only the start. Educators must be able to give such accounts using meaningful language that can speak to a wide range of students with different levels of appreciation of these principles. Being able to do this effectively allows faculty and administration, to use a trendy educational term, “to meet students where they are at”—but to do so in a way that can elevate and deepen their understanding of where they actually are now and where they genuinely and ultimately want to be as human persons.

Three key principles

Laying out the full case for why an undergraduate would want to receive an intellectual formation from a Catholic liberal arts college falls well beyond scope of this essay. However, at a minimum, we can identify two key intellectual principles and one central pedagogical principle of Catholic liberal education that faculty and administration should be able to explain, clearly and intelligibly, to students as substantive reasons why they would want to attend a Catholic college.

A Catholic college owes its students such an explanation. If done well and if (and this is undeniably big “if” given the state of many Catholic colleges today) the education a college offers actually embodies these principles, thoughtful Catholic and non-Catholic students are given compelling reasons to see being educated at a Catholic college as something that is humanly desirable, academically exciting, and intellectually liberating. At the very least, giving an apology for such an education provides students with a much-needed contrast to today’s view of college as little more than the tollbooth young people must pass through if they want credentialed access to the workplace.

In his extraordinary 2006 address at the University of Regensburg, titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI powerfully observes that the teaching and learning that takes place at Catholic colleges and universities operate on the basis of a “single rationality.” Such a rationality speaks to a unified and shared understanding of reason that informs all human thought and every search for truth. This foundational intellectual principle ought to infuse the entire intellectual and academic life of a Catholic college, binding the college’s legitimately various and diverse disciplines and departments into a recognizable educational whole. The affirmation of the unitary character of reason informs and governs the proper and responsible use of logos at a Catholic college.

By explaining the crucial role that this principle plays in the intellectual life of a college, students (and faculty) from across the college are able to appreciate that their particular studies in particular disciplines necessarily operate within the larger whole of reason. A Catholic liberal arts college should be able to explain to its students how the various objects that each science studies, ranging from the most basic of molecular compounds up to the common good of a civil society, relate to the proper and perfecting good of the human person. Such explanation provides students with a basis to see that the various courses that a college’s curriculum lays out for them to take over four years relate to one another in a hierarchical and meaningful way.

Jaded faculty and shortsighted administrators sometimes claim that present-day undergraduates are no longer interested in, or in many cases incapable of, being awakened to the kind of wide-ranging inquisitiveness and intellectual life that adherence to the principle of a single rationality allows. They make a point that should be taken seriously. Certainly, the performative high-school education today’s average eighteen-year-old college freshman has received has not done much to cultivate such intellectual curiosity. Constant cultural and societal bombardment about college as the gateway to a professional career clearly has not helped either. Fortunately, it is extremely difficult to beat the natural desire to know out of a human being entirely. Admittedly, that desire is increasingly covered over and suppressed in students entering Catholic liberal arts colleges—and it will be some time before we understand just how badly COVID-related school shutdowns and two years of ZOOM-school have aggravated this problem.

However, students who are fortunate enough to attend a college where faculty take the vast intellectual horizon the universal scope of reason opens up to the human mind seriously and that also has the proper curricular arrangements and pedagogical practices in place, are given a chance to discover the natural desire to know in themselves. Catholic colleges accordingly need to learn how to communicate the fundamental desirability of this enduring, humanizing experience to their potential and current students as well as to their parents (many of whom may have not experienced this kind of education themselves).

For students at colleges where the unitary character of reason is left unclear or denied, an undergraduate education is likely to look like a hodgepodge of wholly unrelated courses and requirements that students are forced to check off some arbitrarily generated academic list. There are many unfortunate reasons why this may be the case, e.g., a college may choose to exaggerate students’ ability to design their own curriculum or departmental turf wars may dominate the general education curriculum. However, the deepest and most common reason why students’ undergraduate education is apt to feel like a confused mixture of largely unrelated studies and requirements stems from the modern university’s institutionalized belief in the sanctity of unbridgeable disciplinary specializations. In practice, dogmatic adherence to the maxim of strict disciplinary specialization inexorably turns the intellectual community of a college into the functional equivalent of an academic archipelago. Rather than viewing themselves as members of a diverse intellectual community that shares in a common pursuit of the truth, faculty and students learn to see themselves as inhabitants of a nominal academic cluster—intellectually and institutionally separated from those outside their discipline by a vast perspectival and methodological gap.

That a Catholic college should be able to give a defense of itself as a place where students and faculty come together and reason with one another on the basis of a shared commitment to reason, despite their respective disciplinary differences, is not an accident. Catholicism’s claim that God is the source and perfection of all being and, hence, the source and perfection of all truth, demands nothing less. The defense of this essential principle was at stake in the fierce debates about the so-called doctrine of the “double truth” that animated the University of Paris in the thirteenth century. It is the principle that Max Weber famously denies in his “Science as a Vocation” lecture when he asserts that the “progress” of scientific rationality inescapably requires us to “put on blinders” and proceed as strict specialists who only look at questions from the perspective of their chosen disciplines. The recognition that the human mind operates within a coherent universe of reason is not exclusive to Catholicism. Classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle made this same point in their own ways. Yet God’s revelation of Himself as the eternal Person who creates, sustains, and governs all beings outside of Himself, provides a Catholic college with both natural and revealed grounds to explain to its students why this principle is vital to its own educational existence.

The complementarity of faith and reason is the second essential intellectual principle that ought to be explained to (and on some level shared by) members of a Catholic liberal arts college. Faculty and students should both appreciate, as Pope John Paull II put it in Fides et Ratio, that faith and reason “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth.” However, the meaning and “cash value” of the complementarity of faith and reason needs to be unpacked and explained to students. Their education ought to give them some real understanding of the much-cited harmony of faith and reason, as well as an appreciation of the manifold ways that faith and reason should interact and intellectually challenge each other at a Catholic liberal arts college. On this score, it is crucial that faculty and administrators are able to think about the three words in the term “Catholic liberal education” together, recognizing how each word in this lofty phrase interacts with and shapes the other two.

A Catholic liberal education should prod students to think seriously about what it truly means for a human person to be educated, not simply receive training in a specific field or preparation for some profession. It should also encourage students to desire the kind of intellectual and spiritual liberation that only occurs when one reflects upon his or her deeply held unexamined prejudices and popular opinions to see if they actually deserve to be retained and further cultivated. It also ought to place students, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in a position to see how the triune God’s revelation of Himself poses formidable and humanly important questions (especially about our origins and ends) to our natural understanding of our world and ourselves.

Further still, it should equip students to be able to take the measure of the science of theology’s ability to dialogue meaningfully and, if need be, debate with the human sciences. In short, it must help faith weigh its ability to respond reasonably and articulately to unaided reason’s best questions and answers. A self-described Catholic college that does not do these things and challenge its students to reflect seriously on the importance of these three components of a Catholic liberal education is not worth the description it gives itself.

Students’ appreciation of the complementarity of faith and reason should inform and take shape over the whole of their education, not just be relegated to questions and concerns that formally arise in theology and philosophy requirements in a core curriculum. It is exceedingly tempting for administrators, and a good number of faculty, to delude themselves into believing that the Catholic intellectual component of a student’s education is secured simply by requiring every student to take some fixed number of theology and philosophy courses in order to graduate. This approach misses the fundamental intellectual point of a Catholic liberal education. It conceives of such education not as forming an intellectual whole, but merely as the sum total of its various and diverse required parts. Viewed in this way, the Catholic element in a Catholic liberal education is reduced to being exposed to a handful of Catholic authors and arguments in mandatory courses that have little, if any, substantial relation to the rest of a student’s undergraduate education.

Contrary to this reductive and mistaken view, an authentic Catholic liberal education seeks to educate and cultivate the type of mind that wants to know and understand, as Socrates puts it, “the things that are,” as they come to sight through both reason and revelation. For example, recognition of the complementarity of faith and reason ought to generate theological and philosophical questions in a biology student who is trying to understand herself as one instance of a multicellular organism of a species with a discernable biological past. At the same time, this recognition also ought to generate biological questions in a theology student who is trying to understand how it is possible for a created, ensouled, rational being to be ordered to eternal life in God and yet have a material body that is subject to the process of generation and corruption. When taken seriously, Catholic liberal education strives for nothing short of forming educated persons who eventually are capable of formulating these sets of questions on their own and reflecting on these series of thoughts.

The aim of Catholic liberal education

I just used the term “educated persons.” Properly understood, that sums up the aim of Catholic liberal education. Catholicism’s unwavering claim that every human person God creates is a unique, rational, relational, and purposeful being provides Catholic liberal education with a powerful pedagogical principle that ought to inform every aspect of a student’s education at a Catholic college. Believing, as Gaudium et Spes notes, that the triune God’s revelation of Himself in Christ “fully reveals man to man himself” (22), a Catholic college can draw on a unique anthropology that should infuse its view of all the people—students, faculty, staff, and administrators—that form this academic community. This fecund anthropology recognizes the human person as an integrated whole, a union of body and soul who was created with a transcendent end and who naturally desires to know and love and to be known and be loved. This is the view of each student that educators at a Catholic college, who take their charge seriously, are vocationally required to have.

Looking at students in this way gives a teacher a powerful reason to approach each new student as someone who could be her potential intellectual friend, just as it gives a student a reason to see a teacher as someone who could one day be his intellectual friend. It also means that a Catholic college ultimately should not view the young people who matriculate there simply as current students or future alumni or even the next generation of husbands, mothers, doctors, lawyers, teachers or hedge fund managers. Quite the contrary, they ought to come to sight, most deeply, as persons who have come to you seeking assistance in thinking about the perennial human questions, challenges, and concerns that naturally arise in human life, and who want to be better equipped to incorporate the various parts of their individual lives into a dignified and truly satisfying human whole.

A Catholic liberal arts college should not only be aware of this last point, it should be prepared to articulate this point regularly and repeatedly to its students. Students need to hear—and be given the intellectual means to appreciate—that their education, if done right, can help them see how their intellectual and spiritual longings for happiness and wholeness can, to greater and lesser degrees, be integrated into a meaningful whole.

By definition, a Catholic college has something extraordinary and vitally important to say about what that integration ultimately looks like and how it is finally achieved through God in eternal life. Understanding itself as participating, in a distinct and explicitly educational way, in the Church’s larger and more fundamental salvific mission, the Catholic liberal arts college has an obligation to place, in an academically serious manner, Catholicism’s profound vision of the final end of the human person before each of its students. Presenting this vision thoughtfully, in both words and deeds, in no way compromises the intellectual integrity of a Catholic liberal arts college. Just the opposite, it rounds out and completes the Catholic college’s unique educational mission as a distinctive educational community where the full truth about the human person, as this comes into view through both faith and reason, is presented to students to consider seriously. This is the salient point that so many of today’s Catholic colleges either ignore or are ignorant of when they instinctively settle for branding themselves simply as institutions of higher learning where students can gain professional credentials, while also being exposed to so-called Catholic values.

The scope and substance of the type of intellectual and educational apology that I have briefly sketched will seem wildly ambitious or fatally outdated to many, perhaps even most, administrators and faculty at Catholic colleges. This is likely to be the case especially to those armed with data-driven reports from high-priced educational consultants who are convinced that the future of their institutions hinges on mimicking the best practices of America’s most prestigious and financially secure secular colleges and universities. Such faculty and administration would have a fair, if extremely narrow, point to make if the one thing needful for a Catholic liberal arts college was simply financial security and survival.

Setting aside the questionable wisdom of such purely practical financial considerations, the fact remains that the Catholic college Catholic college should stand for much more—intellectually, morally, and spiritually—than the genuine, but very limited, good that is continued institutional survival. To borrow a formulation from Aristotle, a Catholic college seeks, for both itself and its students, not just mere life, but the good life. It seeks not only to live but also to live well. For faculty and administration entrusted with the profound responsibility of educating students at a Catholic college, living well, in part, requires living as responsible members of an academic community that has been bequeathed a priceless intellectual, educational, and spiritual inheritance. That bequeathal comes with the duty and privilege of caring for and passing on this inheritance to future generations of students, faculty, and administrators.

This is undoubtedly a daunting task, one that no Catholic college, living on this side of the eschaton, can ever live up to fully. Nevertheless, it is the honorable task that educators at Catholic colleges have been given and the responsibility that they must try to fulfill. Giving a compelling public case for its singular educational way of life constitutes only one small step towards fulfilling this responsibility. But it is a crucial and timely step that every Catholic liberal arts college, worthy of its name, today must find the courage to take.

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