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The events that cause us to ask about the meaning of life tend to come unplanned, such as a sudden death, illness, or natural disaster. But the rituals that lead us to ask about the meaning of university education come with predictable regularity every spring.
If you haven't sat through a commencement ceremony and asked seriously whether it was all worth somebody's paying $200,000, you are a fool. Similarly, no intelligent person can open an acceptance letter from a university without considering whether he wants his very mind and soul to be formed there.
To help with evaluation, there are the books and rankings, secular and Catholic, such as the estimable Newman guide. But let us put universities themselves to the test. Let us devise a list of what every well educated Catholic ought to know, and then see where he can expect to be helped in learning such things. Or will he attend his chosen university and still come up wanting?
There are only three grounds for wanting to do or possess anything at all--because it is good, useful, or pleasant, in that order. Thus there are only three reasons for why a Catholic "should" know something: because it is good to know it, because it is useful to know it, or because it is pleasant to know it.
That which is good to know is truth. Truth is even defined as "the good of the intellect." But which truths? You might spend all day counting and sorting the pebbles in a quarry, and you would have gained "truth," but insignificant and irrelevant truths.
Clearly, we mean the most fundamental truths about the most important realities, which are God, man, and the universe. What is the truth about God's existence, nature, and attributes? What is the truth about human nature, the soul, the difference between man and woman, the love within the family? What is the truth about the physical universe, the foundations of mathematics, and the nature of life?
Yes, our ignorance in nearly all these matters is probably greater than our knowledge. But, still, most universities will fail right there. They either ask with Pilate, "What is truth?" Or by "political correctness" they obscure important truths that we do know. Or, in their lack of a serious "core curriculum," they do nothing to steer students towards the study of these important truths. Or maybe they have subordinated truth to utility and claim mainly to help students get jobs.
But many Catholic parents will fail the test as well. According to "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" (the Church's teaching on Catholic universities), the main purpose of a Catholic university is to seek, find, and share the truth, especially about fundamental realities, and especially with a view to reality as a whole -- which requires sound philosophy and theology. Presumably, a Catholic student should cultivate those motives that would make him well-suited to study at a true Catholic university.
But how many Catholic parents send their children off to college teaching them that their main task over the next four years is to seek and study the "big truths"? How many will simply rule out a university, as unable to provide a good education, if it fails to require solid courses in philosophy and theology?
Should we be surprised if there are few "Catholic universities," and few "Catholic professors," when there are almost no "Catholic students" who want to study for the right motives? And if parents originally hold the dollars for tuition payments, why blame universities and faculties for not offering what they should?
As regards useful knowledge, distinguish between general and specialized useful knowledge. Knowing how to reason and how to write effectively are generally useful. Fluency in languages is generally useful. So are facility with math, statistics, logic, computation and experimental design. Specialized useful knowledge should be avoided in university education. It becomes quickly outdated. It is better learned on the job anyway, for pay. Besides, specialized useful knowledge without general useful knowledge is useless, and maybe even harmful.
Something is useful if it produces a good. The most useful knowledge produces the greatest goods. So the most useful knowledge anyway would include: knowledge of the principles of a free society; knowledge of wealth creation; knowledge of a happy marriage and family life; knowledge of the virtues.
Would a father give his child a serpent if he asked for a fish? What do we say, then, of the father who is concerned that their child "get a job" but is relatively unconcerned that he possess that important, generally useful knowledge which we have just described?
Lastly, we should acquire that knowledge which gives pleasure -- not trivial or superficial pleasure, not bodily pleasure, but proper pleasures of the mind and soul, which come from contemplating and admiring true beauty.
If you attend such-and-such university, will you be required to study those works of art which you will not easily study unless you are required to? Will you come to understand and love Shakespeare? Will you be able, say, to guide a friend through the Museum of Fine Arts? Will you become an adult who likes not only Eminem but Mahler even more, in his place? Will you become a good all around judge of writing, music, and fine arts?
Four years are too short for anyone who takes this Catholic responsibility seriously.
Michael Pakaluk is professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University.