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The high-priced spread, revisited

Catholic parents serious about real education and real formation have options other than Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, and other schools assumed to be essential ticket-punches on the path to success in 21st-century America.

The interior of the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. (Wikipedia)

Readers of a certain vintage (say, over 60) will remember the Imperial Margarine TV ad that dismissed butter as “the high-priced spread.” That image came to mind rather unexpectedly when I was addressing the parents’ associations of two prestigious Catholic prep schools several years ago.

No, no one threw a margarine-smeared dinner roll at me during my talk. The Q&A, however, was full of contention when I said that a first-class liberal arts education at a college or university with a strong Catholic identity would prepare their sons and daughters for anything. Absolutely not, parents insisted. The kid had to get into Harvard, or Stanford, or Duke — or some other academic version of the high-priced spread — lest his or her life be ruined.

When I pointed out that undergraduates at so-called “elite” universities are frequently taught by graduate assistants rather than by senior faculty, the parents were unmoved. When I reminded them that few, if any, members of the philosophy departments at elite schools are convinced that there is something called “the truth,” rather than just “your truth” and “my truth,” they didn’t budge. When I cited the experience of my daughters, who had gone on to premier graduate schools and successful professional careers after attending a small, demanding Catholic liberal arts college, I was met with blank stares.  When I asked why they were willing to spend north of a quarter-million dollars to send their children into a decadent environment in which corruption (chemical, intellectual, sexual, political, or all-of-the-above) was a real and present danger, the mantra continued: the kid must attend an elite school to have any chance in life, because that’s where you begin to “network.”

The morning after one of these events, I had coffee with several monks who taught at the school, and who thanked me for trying to break the parental fever about elite universities. They, too, had tried, to no avail. Did I have any suggestions? Yes, I said. Next fall, give the parents of every incoming senior a copy of Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. It’s quite raw at certain points, I warned. But the story of how an idealistic, intelligent young woman who makes it into an elite school gets corrupted, first intellectually and then morally, ought to give pause to even the most overwrought parent.

I’ve no idea whether the monks took my advice. I hope they did, if only for the shock Wolfe’s prose would administer.

I was reminded of this absurd parental fideism about the high-priced spread (university division) when federal prosecutors indicted 33 upper-tax-bracket parents for allegedly using various scams — bribes, fake academic records, imaginary athletic achievements — to get their kids into Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, and other schools assumed to be essential ticket-punches on the path to success in 21st-century America. The kids are, one hopes, mortified. The parents are in serious trouble. And the schools ought to be profoundly embarrassed — if embarrassment is possible in the politically-correct animal house of elite American higher education today.

Fortunately, Catholic parents serious about real education and real formation have other options.

One of those options, the University of Dallas, just made an outstanding choice for its new president, selecting Dr. Thomas Hibbs, a first-class thinker who is also a committed Catholic, an able administrator, and a leader. Tom Hibbs joins a gallery of other Catholic college and university presidents — among others, John Garvey at the Catholic University of America, Michael McLean at Thomas Aquinas College, Stephen Minnis at Benedictine College, Timothy O’Donnell at Christendom College, Msgr. James Shea at the University of Mary, and James Towey at Ave Maria University — who are leading a renaissance in Catholic higher education. Their schools, and others, seek to prepare students for any post-undergraduate endeavor by giving them a firm grounding in the liberal arts, Catholic faith, the experience of Catholic community and public service. And they succeed.

I don’t doubt that, with some careful curricular navigation, by seeking out like-minded Catholic peers, and by getting involved in a vibrant Catholic campus ministry, well-prepared young people can survive, even flourish, at elite schools. I teach some of them every summer. But a sheepskin from those schools is not essential to a fruitful life and Catholic parents should resist blowing incense to the totem of the high-priced spread (university division), not least in light of this latest scandal.


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About George Weigel 210 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

9 Comments

  1. Weigel occasionally descends into unseemly back-slapping on occasion. This is one of those silly moments when he says: ” …. James Towey at Ave Maria University.. leading a renaissance in Catholic higher education..” Towey was disastrous for AMU. He was given a difficult task in the wake of the Monahan/Healy mess-up, and completely botched it.

  2. April 3rd: I have felt for quite a while that he is becoming too full of himself – name dropping elitism in a not so subtle way. He has done some great work especially about Pope John Paul II but – he needs to get down from the pedestal he has erected for himself…

  3. At a time some time ago, yet in our lifetime we actually envied people who could afford margarine. We were so poor that all we had was a margarine substitute. BTW in our Kroger store of today one can at times buy butter at a lower price than some of the fancy margarine’s. But I’m not sure if this can be applied in an analogous way to the elite quest for a life of the mind.

  4. Mr. Weigel mentions a few excellent and truly Catholic academic institutions at the end of his article. I would like to add two other faithfully Catholic and academically rigorous alternatives to the “so-called elite” dens of iniquity: Northeast Catholic College, and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, both in New Hampshire. At either one of these your sons and daughters will receive a first class education in a moral, uplifting community, and at literally half the price of Sodom and Gomorrah University.

  5. No one can be everyone. What I mean is our expectations of others frequently reflect what we wish to see in accord with our mindset rather than reality. Reality is what it is not what we expect and many need to advance their understanding of truth. George Weigel is credentialed thru personal research, critical thought, knowledge gained from personal acquaintance. Not the usual academic stamps of approval PhD’s ect although the recipient of the honorary kind. There is seemingly some truth in the criticisms like name dropping although his avenues of research and knowledge includes personal acquaintance. “When I reminded them that few, if any, members of the philosophy departments at elite schools are convinced that there is something called ‘the truth,’ rather than just ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth,’ they didn’t budge”. There could not be a truer more relevant description of reality, a reality I experienced studying philosophy teaching and from social interaction with parishioners. Many will agree in principal yet it’s frequently not truth rather the name brand that is the gold standard.

  6. The days of American higher education are numbered, and while some Catholic may provide an orthodox environment and the rudiments of a liberal education, they are unprepared to deal with the reality of collapse, statism and feminism. Catholic parents would do better to reconsider what they need to raise their children well and prepare them for the future (something beyond the Benedict Option) and choose accordingly, rather than assume the American way of life will continue forever.

  7. I’m surprised by the criticism of Mr. Weigel in the comments above. His point is that Catholic formation is no detriment to future success, in fact it is an enhancement to future well being.
    I attended the same church in Poland that Mr. Weigel did on his visits to Krakow. My observations were the man is generally pious and sincere and a little pompous.

  8. The parents of any senior in any school who wants to send their child to any college or university should look at how the graduates of the school do after graduation. Did all that “networking” lead to an actual job that will lead to an actual salary that will be able to pay for the education they received? I’m willing to be that the answer will surprise them.

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