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College quandary

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All Catholic parents planning to send a child to college next year -- and going through the usual rounds of applications and campus visits -- should consider the following difficulty: (1) higher education for a Catholic is necessarily a philosophical education; yet (2) almost no colleges, even ostensibly "Catholic" institutions, require students to take courses which amount to a sound philosophical education, and there are very few campuses where it is even possible to get a sound philosophical education by taking electives.

So, unless you take some definite steps to deal with this problem, your child will almost certainly not get a good education -- not by the correct, objective standard -- for all the tuition dollars you may spend.

As a preliminary point, understand that we are simply no longer in the situation (if we ever were) where an institution could be trusted to provide a good education simply because it had a good reputation, or, more precisely, a prestigious name. You should no more send your child to a university now because its name sounds prestigious, than you should have entrusted your retirement account in 2007 to an investment bank because its name sounded prestigious.

Our universities are not doing their job. During the summer I teach courses in Central Europe on "philosophical foundations of a free society," for university students from formerly communist countries, whose professors, former Marxists, are quite incapable of providing a good education in these matters. I can tell you from experience that the typical American college graduate is no less in need of such instruction.

If you have doubts about premise (1), that higher education for a Catholic is necessarily a philosophical education, I would ask whether you were paying attention at all during the 26-plus years of Pope John Paul II's pontificate; for he taught almost nothing else. Those who are waking up just now, like Catholic Rip Van Winkles, might study John Paul II's great encyclical, "Fides et Ratio," to find out what happened during your long nap.

Or you might look to the convenient summary contained in a very important decree issued last year at this time by the Vatican congregation on Catholic Education, entitled "On the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy." The decree is directed in the first instance to institutions that have responsibility for educating priests, but its principles are so fundamental that its teaching applies analogously to Catholic higher education in general.

The document gives four reasons why sound philosophy is highly important. First, philosophy answers to a deep human aspiration: it is "one of the noblest of human tasks" because it is "directly concerned with asking the question of life's meaning and sketching an answer to it."

Second, only through philosophy can a student attain integration of his studies and, therefore, later on, a much-needed unity of life as a professional. The decree quotes John Paul II, who could not be clearer on this point: "taking up what has been taught repeatedly by the Popes for several generations and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council itself, I wish to reaffirm strongly the conviction that the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge. This is one of the tasks which Christian thought will have to take up through the next millennium of the Christian era."

Third, a sound education in philosophy is essential if college-educated persons are to show charity, since charity is inseparable from truth. Not only is the defense of truth a sorely-needed form of charity today -- "To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity" -- but also truth is necessary for charity -- "only truth permits true charity." A sound philosophical education clarifies, against relativism, that truth is possible, and it conveys the most important truths about nature, man, and God.

Fourth, and finally, an education in sound philosophy provides an indispensable intellectual formation, given "the intellectual debate in pluralistic societies, which are strongly threatened by relativism and ideologies, or in societies without authentic freedom." The intellectual "habits" fostered by philosophy "make it possible to think, know and reason with precision, and also to dialogue with everyone incisively and fearlessly."

The decree then sketches a minimal, sound philosophical education. It should cover: logic, philosophy of nature, philosophy of human nature, ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics, as well as the history of philosophy. A sound philosophical education should impart not merely a method but also truths, such as "the capacity to reach objective and universal truth ... the unity of body and soul in man ... the dignity of the human person ... the importance of natural law."

However, there are only a half-dozen colleges which have a "core" curriculum requiring students to study such a philosophical minimum, and maybe an equal number where students would be able to study these subjects in a satisfactory way through electives, if they have room in their schedules.

That is the college quandary for a Catholic, the result largely of a massive defection of "mainline" Catholic institutions from the Catholic intellectual tradition in the 1970s.

As there are only a very limited number of places at those half-dozen colleges with an adequate philosophy curriculum, the vast majority of Catholic students are, alas, at risk of becoming part of the "problem" of an apparently declining American civilization, rather than part of the solution.

Michael Pakaluk, (PhD, philosophy, Harvard University) has recently been appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

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