Graduations are just around the corner, and I would assume that most high school seniors heading on to college next year have already picked their schools and are now navigating the treacherous waters of financial aid forms. However, ’tis the season, and with Catholic colleges somewhat in the news at the moment (and the realization that despite my thinking of myself as recently down from college I am in fact eight years out — with my eldest daughter likely heading off to college herself in eleven years) I thought it might be an appropriate time to assess the practicalities of Catholic higher education — or more properly, of higher education for Catholics.
In our social circle, I know a number of parents who proclaim that no child of theirs shall ever go to any but one of 3-5 approved, orthodox Catholic colleges. (The contents of these lists vary slightly depending on the speaker, but Thomas Aquinas, Steubenville, Ave Maria, Christendom, University of Dallas and Benedictine are names one hears often.) I find myself less of one mind on the question, in part because my wife and I both actually went to Steubenville (class of ’01). My goal here is not to advocate one specific course as the only wise one for serious Catholics, but to lay out the advantages and disadvantages of all. I think there are basically two sets of concerns that parents have in these discussions, moral and academic. I shall begin with the moral.
I don’t think it’s news to anyone at this point that if one takes living according to Christian moral precepts seriously in this day and age, one will fine oneself pretty well outside the cultural mainstream. Thus, Catholic parents who have spent the last eighteen years carefully bringing up their children in the faith and trying to protect them from the worst evils of the world shudder at the thought of their children being exposed to the massive amounts of drugs, sex and drunkenness floating around many of today’s college campuses.
Unless things have calmed down a lot in the last eight years, my impression is certainly that college is every bit as much of a temptation-ground as many parents fear. One does indeed have to worry about being locked out of one’s room while one’s roommate is having sex (or in the case of one friend of mine, waking up to find things proceeding despite her presence.) Residence assistants cheerfully provide bags of condoms on their doors for students, and occasional training videos just in case anyone had any doubt what to do with them. And drugs and drunkenness are quite prevalent.
Colleges such as Steubenville and Ave Maria do indeed offer a welcome respite from this mainstream college culture. Having seen syringes lying in the hallway and watched joints being passed around when I was a come-and-see-er at St. John’s College Sante Fe, Steubenville’s wholesome atmosphere was one of the things that drew me there. However, parents should realize that the world is the world, and even somewhere like Steubenville is not a totally sheltered environment. Keg parties were only held under the radar and off campus, but alcohol was definitely available at Steubenville (the alcoholic down the hall was always willing to buy me brandy, gin and vermouth while I was still underage, in perverse gratitude to those who had provided him with booze before he was of age) and there were always a few junior and senior year marriages followed a few months later by the birth of the first child.
In other words, a college like Steubenville has the virtue of not actively encouraging vice, but vice is still readily available if you look for it. The people I knew who had been sent there by parents hoping the college would somehow keep their children from partying when the parents had been wholly unsuccessful in doing so before were generally to be disappointed. However, the majority of us (who did indeed want to live out a Catholic lifestyle) had the benefit of enforced norms that kept underground life underground.
There were downsides to the college’s efforts to enforce morality. Having met the woman who was to be my wife a couple weeks into my freshman year, the fact that the college felt it necessary to make it very, very hard to spend time alone together (even in perfect innocence) grated quite a bit. I had earned my parents’ trust as a teenager and as a result had a very relaxed set of rules to follow. I did not enjoy being constantly under surveillance when at college. As a movie buff, I also found the college rules about which movies could be viewed in the dorms (we had these things called VCRs back in those days) rather annoying.
However, though all of these things grated on me at times, that was in fact one of the reasons that I had picked the college. I had several good friends who’d gone up to college a year before me at secular universities, and all the other colleges I applied to were secular. My eventually realization (which I continue to hold to this day) was that given how different the moral culture was at these secular colleges, I would have become a rather insufferable puritan out of pure reaction. I would have found myself objecting even to thing that need not be objected to, simply because I was so used to objecting. Going to Steubenville allowed me to be on the more permissive end of the spectrum, and to spend my first years in the adult world getting my bearings without swimming so hard against the cultural stream as to become a complete reactionary. From those sheltered waters, I was able to strike out into the wider world when I entered the workplace with very little culture shock. But at 18, and in the full contact climate of dorm life, I don’t think I was ready to deal with the full moral range of modern society right up in my face.
On the academic side, I would tend to see things are somewhat mixed. Secular academia is often subject to the strange whims of the modern age. At one college I looked at, the majority of the history courses (History was my original intended major, though I eventually switched to Classics at Steubenville) were cross-listed offerings from the Womens’ Studies, Afrocentric or GLTB studies departments. However, colleges like Steubenville put a very heavy teaching load on their professors, making it next to impossible for them to do much serious research or publishing. And there were always a few academics there who had pretty clearly been employed because of their strong Catholic identity — and despite scholarly mediocrity. Just as I have no patience of other areas of “identity studies”, I don’t see that there’s any great virtue in a Catholic version of the same.
One of the difficulties of this kind of intentionally Catholic academic environment is that it opens all quarrels up to be quarrels over whose attitude is most Catholic. Indeed, one of the general difficulties with a Catholic college is that all quarrels effectively become family quarrels. And so, for instance, we had a class on the French Revolution by one professor which was so shoddy in its scholarship that I’d been specifically warned not to take it by my advisor, and yet it was defended by many who claimed for it the virtue of being a specifically Catholic take on the topic.
There is also the difficulty that since orthodox Catholics have become so used to the culture war mentality that a certain amount of friendly fire is touched off. So for instance, there were modern plays that are seriously worth reading and discussing that would certainly never be performed on campus and were usually only read in 300 level Drama classes because the use of profanity would have raised too many eyebrows with a wider audience. Similarly, the 200-level Biology class that covered physical anthropology (and thus human evolution) usually ended up a morass of class discussion as non-majors taking their science core attempted to bring up creation science and intelligent design arguments.
The fact that we are acting in a hostile society makes running a Catholic college all the more difficult, because academia will at times be dealing with the problematic fringes of intellectual inquiry, and yet when we are struggling to make a college seriously Catholic, we naturally recoil against things which seem too far off the path. This makes the project of running a Catholic college in an adverse culture doubly difficult.
From the remove I am now at, I remain grateful for my Steubenville education. I also see a number of difficulties with that sort of college. When it comes time for my daughters to choose a college, I will probably simply lay out the arguments in both directions and leave them to choose.