August 17, 2016

Jane and John go to college, and so do their parents

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Classroom. Credit: Emory Maiden via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Classroom. Credit: Emory Maiden via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In a week or two, freshmen from around the country will begin their college education. The first year, the most important of the four, is meant to build a strong academic foundation for the remaining three years and even beyond.  

Freshmen year often awakens in the student a love for learning. In college, self-identity is chiseled out, attitudes and values mature, friendships and new loves, discovered. The halls of university academe can be an exciting place to hope and dream about one’s future.

Attending college is both a privilege and responsibility.  Here the phrase, noblesse oblige applies (literally, nobility obliges): Those who have received much are expected to share their gifts with others to make society a better place in which to live. 

Seeking a Liberal Arts Education

Colleges typically organize their curriculum around their mission statement. An institution of higher learning worthy of its name offers a core curriculum, also known as the humanities or liberal arts.  Some have general requirements.

The humanities offer a splendid array of disciplines, and one of them will be chosen as the focus of students’ special attention in junior and senior year.  Courses include: foreign language(s), linguistics and literature, philosophy, theology/religious studies, social sciences, the refining arts—music and art. 

The liberal arts develop the student as an intellectually rounded person exposing students to disciplines that broaden their horizons and add meaning to life.  It has been said that a specialist without a liberal arts background is only half a person.

Importance of the Humanities

Did you know that two-thirds of humanities majors find satisfying positions in the private sector?  If the college one attends does not require the humanities, here are eight benefits for choosing them on one’s own:

  1. They help us understand others through their languages, histories, and cultures. They foster social justice and equality.
  2. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of the world.
  3. The humanities teach empathy.
  4. They teach us to deal critically and logically with subjective, complex, and imperfect information.
  5. They teach us to weigh evidence skeptically and consider more than one side of every question.
  6. Humanities students build skills in writing and critical reading.
  7. They encourage us to think creatively.  
  8. They develop informed and critical citizens.  Without the humanities, democracy could not flourish. (Curt Rice, “Here are 9 reasons why humanities matter. What’s your number 10?”)

Listening to the Parents

 Before the 1990s, most parents were satisfied with the college education of their sons and daughters who had graduated with more than a passing knowledge about great ideas and universal questions. 

In recent years however, an increasing number of parents have expressed dissatisfaction: “I spent $100,000.00 for my daughter’s (my son’s) education at a four-year private college.  She graduated with a degree in Peace Studies.  She has no job.” 

Content of subject matter and intolerance of diverse opinions are two major concerns.

Content of Subject Matter

Too many colleges have abandoned required courses—no foreign language, no language arts. 

What great literature and poetry are students studying?  A prevailing attitude sees the Great Books Tradition as little more than the political opinions of dominant groups. 

What of philosophy and religious studies? Why aren’t students exposed to the ancient philosophers who wrestled with perennial questions:  Who am I? What am I doing, and why am I doing it? What is the purpose of my life? Few colleges offer a course in world religions.

As for history and American government, they’re bunk. War after war—it’s all an inventory of political grievances; our American government is composed of corrupt politicians. 

And what of art and music history?  Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini?  Are they the preserve of dead white males, a phrase used by collegiates?  Is the answer offering the “gutter phenomenon” of Rock, Rap, or Hip-Hop which use orgiastic and foul language and offering shock art like the photograph, “Piss Christ,” by Andres Serrano?  A few years ago, why did Syracuse University offer a course called “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen B*tch 101?” To exalt Lil’ Kim? 

Parents are willing to spend generously on education that expands the mind with a classic education but not for studies whose content is without purpose.  Why should they squander hard-earned dollars on a core curriculum that is a sham or on courses that entertain pubescent students with a degraded popular culture? Such institutions are caricatures of what used to be referred to as higher education.

Liberal Intolerance

Until the 1990s, the phrase: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" was operative on college campuses.  Today, those who speak what is opposed to the majority must refrain from giving their opinions that are open to critical and healthy discussion.

In former days, institutions required students to challenge each other to think clearly and logically about a topic.  In class, the Socratic methodology was employed to insure that students’ views could be articulated without reprisal.  In Jesuit education for example, students are required to argue both sides of an issue, including those topics that are abhorrent to defend or condemn.  

To give one example, if a person holds to what he or she considers a good action, does intention alone make for a moral act?  As students work their pros and cons, eventually someone will cite Hitler whose good intention was to exalt the German people beyond all others.  However, he ostracized German Jews whom he derided as polluting the German race.  This view led to the barbaric means he took to achieve his end—their annihilation.  The conclusion to the discussion? The immoral end does not justify a moral means or intention. The intention and the end must together be moral acts.

Since the 1990s, intellectual diversity has gradually muffled honest debate.

A Confession of Liberal Intolerance

Recently, the liberal columnist, Nicholas Kristoff, published two essays in the New York Times on the present status of liberal thinking in this country: Nicholas Kristoff’s “Confession of Liberal Intolerance” and “The Liberal Blind Spot.” Some of his observations apply to what unsuspecting freshmen might find on certain campuses with varying degrees of intensity. Increasing numbers of liberal professors and students pride themselves on their diversity and their tolerance of diversity—diversity of various minority groups but not of conservatives—Evangelical Christians, and practicing Catholics.  Kristoff calls this “liberal arrogance”—“the implication that these groups don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.”

The unwritten motto may be: “We welcome people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” Or, “I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.” Or I close my mind to what you may want to say because it’s not worthwhile saying, in my view. Thus we hear: “We’re tolerant. You are entitled to your truth, but keep it to yourself.  And don’t force it on me.”

What Is Truth?  

Alan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, made the argument in the 1980s that American youth are increasingly raised to believe that every belief is merely the expression of an opinion or preference.  They are raised to be “cultural relativists” with the default attitude of “non-judgmentalism” (Patrick Deneen, “Who Closed the American Mind?”).

Parents object: “My son, my daughter entered college with a moral compass with a belief that there is such a thing as objective truth.  But in my son’s college, only the relativity of truth and the absolutism of relativity are taught across the board.  Thus, there is no longer any possibility of objective truth.”

The Crisis of Higher Education

We are experiencing an intellectual crisis that has already affected our work force, our politics, and our culture.  College costs are escalating, while too many colleges and universities without a core curriculum or without any substantive requirements are failing this generation. Western civilization, the human culmination of centuries of learning is pummeled by a pop culture.  Too many academic leaders fail to uphold the purpose of teaching Western civilization.  Academic leaders don’t believe that the humanities have any fundamental influence on their students.  There are no shared values. The result?  The advent of identity courses: Feminist studies, African-American, Latino, LGBT studies.  As long as everyone is tolerant of everyone’s classes, no one can get hurt. 

Yet not all institutions of higher learning fit this description. Many non-sectarian and private colleges offer a structured curriculum or a core curriculum around which other subjects are framed. At least twenty-five colleges and universities in the United States offer the Great Books tradition to their undergraduates. These books are part of the great conversation about the universal ideas of cultures and civilizations.

The authors of Academically Adrift, the most devastating book on higher education since Alan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, found that nearly half of undergraduates show no measurable improvement in knowledge or “critical thinking” after two years of college. Weaker academic requirements, greater specialization in the departments, a rigid orthodoxy and doctrinaire views on liberalism are now part of the university’s politics and cultural life.

Freshmen entering college today should be aware of the crisis of liberal education which is in conflict and incompatible with the traditional aspirations of the liberal arts.

Advice to Freshmen

  1. Choose your friends wisely. Confide in a very few.
  2. Find a small group of friends who are serious about studies and who know how to balance work with play.  Form or join a reading group.
  3. Establish healthy eating and sleeping habits. Don’t pull all-nighters.
  4. Don’t go out on the week nights.  Study for about 50 minutes.  Take a ten-minute break.  Then return to study. Repeat.  Make a habit of this process—study, break, study. If you put your energies into academics, you will be handsomely rewarded later on.
  5. Don’t get behind in your assignments.  Make certain that you are up-to-date on all of them.  In the case of writing papers, get started on your research as soon as the assignment is given.  Work a little on the research every day.
  6. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus at hand at all times. Make it a habit of looking up the meaning of words.  Words are power and the right word is a sign of right thinking.
  7. Be your own leader.  Do not follow the crowd if you sense they engage in actions contrary to your beliefs.  For example:  doing drugs or binge drinking.
  8. Be reflective.  Reflection means going below the surface of an experience, an idea, a purpose, or a spontaneous reaction to discover its meaning to you.  
  9. Find an older mentor, not necessarily a professor, but someone whom you have observed has wisdom and common sense.  Place your confidence in this person as your unofficial adviser.
  10. Remember:  Your college life is an open book.  Whatever you do or avoid doing becomes common knowledge—quickly.   

 Every College Has its Own Soul

Every college builds its own identity, its own reputation. Some colleges are known for the seriousness with which they pursue academics.  Some are known as “party” schools.  Still others are best known for their sports prowess.

According to John Henry Newman, the ideal university is comprised of a community of scholars and thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits as an end in itself.  Only secondarily, does it have a practical purpose, for example, finding a job.  Today, most people would scoff at this assertion.  For them, today’s goal of education is to find a job.   The facts however don’t lie.  Those with intellectual pursuits as an end are the most likely to secure the best positions. 

A university is a place where one looks out toward everyone and everything … without boundaries.  A university is a place where one discovers and studies truth. A person of faith holds sacred this belief.

According to Newman, knowledge alone cannot improve the student; only God is the source of all truth; only God can impart truth. Today, this notion alienates students at secular colleges and universities.  

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is jroccasalvo@optonline.net.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.