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It looks like the "college bubble" is about to follow the "real estate bubble" as the next 21st Century dream buster. Witness the many thousands of recent graduates dejectedly walking around the country's streets with their brand new BAs in one hand and multiple copies of their resumes in the other.
Witness, too, the rash of books and magazine articles suggesting that higher education is an over-built industry, serving the desires of the educators and arrogantly disregarding its student customers. Their titles capture their critiques: "Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It"; and "The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It."
Much of the complaint of the books is about the failure of higher education to transmit saleable skills and how our campuses have become vacation spas where late adolescents acquire habits that make them unfit for the world of work and the adult responsibilities of marriage and family. Anne Hendershott's well-documented "Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education" provides much evidence that these grievance holds for Catholic colleges and universities, too.
The failure of Catholic higher education is double, though. Not only has it followed its secular models into educational irrelevance, but it has failed to transmit to students both the Gospel message of Christ and the rich Catholic intellectual tradition.
The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute recently released a study of the change in social attitudes and behavior among students a 38 Catholic college and universities. The researchers administered a long survey to 7,200 incoming freshman and went back to this same group as they were about to graduate four years later. The results draw a stark picture of students' separation from basic Church teachings. Graduating seniors self reported a sizable increase in support for legalized abortion [from 39 percent to 52 percent], for premarital sex [from 26 percent to 48 percent] and same-sex marriage [from 52 percent to 70 percent].
Even more troubling is the finding that this abandonment of Catholic positions was greater among Catholic student attending Catholic institutions than Catholic students attending secular colleges and universities. Perhaps, the experience of being a young Catholic in a secular educational environment hostile to our Church's teaching causes students to encounter and to engage their faith more seriously.
How did this decline and fall of so much of Catholic higher education happen? How did the dreams of immigrant laborers, washer women and trolley drivers, who gave their quarters and dollars to religious orders and dioceses so their children and grandchildren would get a truly Catholic education, go awry? Perhaps, two anecdotes, one real and one imagined may example the side into our post-modern intellectual relativism.
The real anecdote. About two decades ago at a dinner party, we met the former student of a distinguished social scientist we had known years before in another city. She had just received tenure at one of the major Catholic colleges in Boston. Knowing she was non-religious, if not downright hostile to religion, we asked her how comfortable she was on a Catholic campus. With great confidence she reported how she and her colleagues were aggressively "dragging X College into the academic mainstream" of American higher education. She described the religious who were nominally "in charge" of the institution as pleasant, but ineffectual men who would soon be replaced by more enlightened leadership.
Imagined anecdote: A handful of College X's aging priests gather for nightly conversation after dinner in the community room of the priest residence. The talk drifts from desultory remarks about the fall football season to their lack of vocations. "Who is going to replace us? Whose going to carry on the work?" After a long, uncomfortable pause, the oldest among them says, "Come on. Face it. We did this to ourselves. We sold the store!" The store, of course, is Catholic education and its tradition of reason and faith, a tradition which has contributed so much to the West. This is a heritage which is foreign to 85 percent of the current faculties of many Catholic institutions and exists only in a handful of their course catalogs. The store, by the way, was sold to the tenured professors in the anecdotes.
The "price" that was paid for the store echoes the fairytale of Jack selling the family cow, Milky White, for a handful of magic beans. "Give us your college and we'll provide you a wonderful ladder to the Heaven of Academic Excellence. If you play by our rules (and forget your rules), you may even get listed in the "top 100" of U.S. News and World Report Guide to Higher Education!" Some bargain!
But this gloomy tale of betrayal and failure doesn't end there. The store is being reclaimed. There are a dozen or so Catholic colleges which are providing outstanding liberal educations and aggressively pursuing the compelling vision of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To find them, parents and students seeking a quality Catholic education can simply Google "the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College." Named after one of that most penetrating educational thinkers, John Henry Newman (scheduled to be beatified this month), the Cardinal Newman Society has carefully studied and vetted Catholic higher education and provides a list and description of quality schools.
Among the handful of schools selected for endorsement is nearby St. Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H., a small college whose Catholic scholars are seemingly single-handedly reviving the rich tradition of the liberal arts. Another is Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., founded on the dream and fortune of Tom Monaghan, who sold his Domino's Pizza empire to serve the Church's educational mission.
In May, Cardinal Seán visited Ave Maria University to receive an honorary degree.
He reported enthusiastically in his Blog, that "Ave Maria, ... and Thomas More College, are colleges that have come about to give a very serious Catholic formation to their students through their strong Catholic identity."
If we really believe the purpose of our lives is to "know, love and serve God" and that education should lead to that end, why are Catholics sending their young to place that no longer believe in that purpose? Why do we contribute our dollars to their fund drives? Why don't we pressure them to return to their original mission? Why don't we reclaim the store?
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited "Why I Am Still a Catholic" [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.