Higher education is in a state of crisis. And the source of the threat is not what you might think.
The pandemic isn’t to blame. It hasn’t helped but it hasn’t caused the problem. COVID has merely sidelined a more important conversation, temporarily focusing administrators’ attention on whether a college education can be effectively delivered online. While this is a worthwhile debate, it is one that assumes that what is to be delivered is worth receiving. In marketing parlance, the in-person versus remote conversation confuses the importance of the “place” over that of the “product.” To be direct: if the product is terrible, it doesn’t matter how it’s delivered.
When COVID eventually makes its exit, colleges and universities will be forced again to confront their product. And it will be hard to ignore the fact that while the academy has traditionally been the place for the generation of ideas, creation of knowledge, debate and discourse, it has rather quickly become riddled with safe zones, microaggressions, identity politics and a victimization that has veered into explicit villainization. For those who believe that the basis of education rests in a civil but robust disputation of questions, it is difficult to be optimistic about the academy’s future.
How many schools today are genuinely committed to an authentically liberal education? How many are truly invested in free speech? In liberty and in the pursuit of “truth”? Admissions folks might think such questions are better left for another time—fun fodder for cocktail conversations at the provost’s house. But if this past summer has reminded us of anything, it is that bad actors see opportunity in every crisis. Make no mistake: campus culture is being actively re-made as you read this. And not just at state universities or at that private, preppy and progressive secular college the Land Rover-driving family at the club sent their daughter to last week. Ally programs, woke wackiness, and cancel cancer have metastasized on Catholic campuses everywhere.
And authentically Catholic schools must realize: the threat is existential.
The history of Catholic education in this country dates back to before the Revolution. Missionaries from various orders opened schools throughout the eastern part of the continent during the early 17th century. In 1606, Franciscans opened the first school in what became St. Augustine. In 1677, the Jesuits established the first prep school in Newtown, Maryland. Ursuline sisters started an all-girls school in coordination with an orphanage in New Orleans in 1727. St. Mary’s in Philadelphia, considered the first parochial school in the United States, was opened in 1782. Shortly thereafter, the Church moved into higher education. In 1789, Georgetown University was founded by John Carroll, a cousin of Declaration of Independence signor, Charles Carroll; it enjoys the distinction of being the first Catholic college in America.
Over the next century, others would follow including Fordham University (1841), University of Notre Dame (1842) and the Catholic University of America (1887). The Jesuits started up my undergraduate alma mater just as the first half of the 20th century was closing out. The Dominican Friars—my employer—founded Providence College a quarter century earlier, in 1917. I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my life at Catholic institutions.
What is the centerpiece of a traditional Catholic education? Veritas. Truth. From St. Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence to St. Thomas Aquinas’s focus on virtue, the mission of Catholic higher education is the pursuit of what is true. Grounded in Socrates and Aristotle, Thomism reminds skeptics that reason and faith do not compete; they are, as St. John Paul II stated in the opening of Fides et Ratio, “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth…” Pope Leo XIII, the courageous and prolific pontiff who authored Rerum Novarum, the encyclical which began the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, understood this. Written at the height of the industrial revolution during the tumult of Haymarket and Homestead, Rerum Novarum began an ongoing tradition in which the Catholic Church offered the people of the world the truth of Christ. Catholic Social Teaching is a message not about conformity but about what T.S. Eliot calls the “permanent things.” It was and continues to be a reminder to Catholics—and society more broadly—that if we are to navigate toward truth, we must always orient ourselves around the eternal. One would expect authentic Catholic Social Teaching to have a revered place within Catholic higher education. Quite sadly today, it often does not.
For years, secular naysayers argued that the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) should not be a part of a liberal education. Aristotle’s words—“All men by nature (emphasis mine) desire to know”—offered such critics little assurance; CST was based on mere articles of faith, divorced from reason. The argument went that Catholic institutions should not really be “Catholic”—and as a sophomore in college, I was “educated” on the fact that they weren’t. A well-respected “ethics” professor informed me that most faculty at my school weren’t Catholic; the few who were, weren’t really and none thought it was relevant for teaching any courses aside from (perhaps) theology. I remember thinking that this would have been good to know before my family spent the considerable sum it cost to enroll me in what it thought was a “Catholic” school over, say, Bucknell (which I had turned down). In such an environment, matters such as subsidiarity, a robust defense of private property rights, respect for human dignity, an unapologetic reverence for the family, and an appreciation for the centrality of faith as a critical intermediating force between the individual and the rest of the world were marginalized. Over the years, the success of Catholic intellectual heavyweights including Robert George and Peter Kreeft, among others, effectively made obvious the silliness of this secular line of attack.
Accordingly, others uninterested in authentic Catholic teaching chose to assume a more sophisticated strategy: to co-opt and bastardize certain tenets of CST to covertly—and sometimes even overtly—mainstream the inclusion of left-wing politics into the life of the Catholic campus and even into curricula. Successful efforts to do just that have largely been done under the “social justice” banner. It is the rallying cry for celebrating the destruction of human life, the deconstruction of traditional marriage and the families it creates, and the literal re-invention of biology itself. Of course, this last tack encounters tautological difficulties: biology isn’t legitimate science until it helps the significantly less intellectually sophisticated de-legitimize contributions they don’t like based on sex. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Dante, Shakespeare, Augustine—all men. Even worse, all white men. In an age of systemic racism—a term embraced by even Catholic institutions far and wide, though interestingly and very cleverly never clearly defined—these are non-starters. Acceptability is judged only by what looks good through the “ism” prism. And turning to God to confess, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” won’t fly for long.
In an age in which so many speak of “equality,” so few understand that this equality derives from our creation by a God who made us in His image. We were “created equal.” Explicated in our country’s Declaration of Independence, this truth is “self-evident” but seemingly lost on nearly everyone on college campuses today. Rather than being cowed into submission by cancel culture crazies, Catholic college presidents should see this reality as an opportunity. Where better than the Catholic campus to motivate an understanding that only in orienting ourselves toward God will our lives and all within it, including who we are and how we relate to others, have any meaning?
But before re-invigorating the marriage of faith to reason, Catholic institutions need first to recommit themselves to the merit of reason itself. Bad actors are very purposely working to dismantle the foundation of the academic experience—critical thinking, reasoned debate, respect for empiricism, physical science—and they are having success. The effects are profound: mob violence against devout Catholic students, school-sponsored meetings that publicly name and defame long-time Catholic faculty members, diversity offices that allow claims to be brought against Catholic members of the community based on information the office itself knows to be completely untrue. These are the signs of an abdication of moral duty and, yes, reason.
On their worst day, Catholic colleges and universities can be confused for any of the worst secular offenders. We need Catholic institutions to do better and to get this right. Quickly. They represent the last best hope in the face of chaos and nihilism.
The mob knows it. Pray that Catholic college presidents do as well.