The Answer to the Crisis in Catholic Higher Education

November 3, 2002


The cultural revolution which swept across the United States in the late 1960s struck a devastating blow to Catholic higher education. The damage became evident with the Land O’Lakes statement in 1967, in which Catholic universities formally broke their ties with the teaching Church and repudiated their duty of obedience to her. There followed a wholesale loss of Catholic identity in these institutions. Not only were crucifixes stripped from classrooms, but the foundations of Western civilization were stripped from the curricula. The very existence of objective truth and absolute moral principles was denied, explicitly or implicitly.

There was no longer a place in these transformed universities for what had always been the primary purpose of Catholic education: to lead young minds out of narrow perspectives into the world of known truth under the guiding light of the Catholic Faith. Most especially, there was no longer a place for a sacred discipline that had the task of ordering and illuminating all other disciplines.

This abandonment of Theology, the Queen of Sciences, was defended in the name of intellectual “emancipation.” But the goal of Catholic education had never been to produce unthinking assent, nor to send students on an intellectual journey which would never reach a destination. The goal was, and should always be, to communicate a knowledge that furnishes reasons why and thus imparts to students a wisdom, both natural and supernatural, that enables them to make discerning critical judgments.

Bereft of this vision, scornful of this tradition, and consumed by the desire to conform to contemporary society despite its intellectual chaos and spiritual apostasy, most “Catholic” universities today have abandoned or drastically cut back their core curricula. Theology has been replaced by “religious studies,” often with the Catholic Faith treated less fully than other religions, or presented by dissidents who reject essential doctrines. Often, no more than two courses in “religious studies” and/or two in philosophy are now required of the undergraduate. Other subjects are taught almost exactly as in the secular universities, even when their subject matter cries out for a Catholic orientation, as is the case with history, psychology, and the humanities in general.

With no God-centered core of humane studies to focus the university’s mission, today’s colleges have turned to senseless “diversification” and mindless growth. In the name of diversification, the genuine liberal arts have been replaced largely by mere vocational and professional training. There has been an endless proliferation of courses and majors, among which students are allowed to choose without guidance or purpose, with the inevitable result that most of them never even deal with the fundamental questions about God, man, and reality; never even encounter the most challenging works of Western civilization.

To meet the challenge of this crisis and to offer a solution in keeping with the thousand-year-old tradition of the Church as university educator, Christendom College in Front Royal, VA, was established in 1977. The goal set for the College from the beginning was to provide a truly Catholic liberal education in fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and thereby to prepare students for their role, as laity in Christ’s Church, of restoring all things in Christ.

According to Christendom College President Timothy O’Donnell, “the best way to develop the students’ intellectual gifts is through a liberal education, and the best way to prepare them to restore all things in Christ is to provide them with a Catholic liberal education by which they may learn to know and love the Truth. In this way both the mind and the soul may be ordered toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life who is Christ, our Lord and our God, our beginning and our end.”

Liberal Education at its Best
From its founding, Christendom has been committed to Catholic liberal education. “At Christendom College, liberal education has taken shape according to the needs of the modern world. First, the College testifies to the importance of a complete education by its commitment to a strong core curriculum that includes a full three years of both philosophy and theology,” says President O’Donnell. “That core also includes the liberal arts necessary for the study of higher things, and courses in politics which introduce the student to the Catholic social order.” But at the same time, the College testifies to the intrinsic worth of the lower disciplines by a variety of major programs in the liberal arts and political science, as well as philosophy and theology. It harmonizes and orders the disciplines, bringing them all to the service of Christ and His Church.

Turning Arts into Crafts
According to a report published in The Wall Street Journal a number of years ago, there are more top business executives who have degrees in the liberal arts than in any other field. Business and science degrees came in second. To some, this may come as a surprise, but to many college students and employers, the explanation is simple. Business and science fill vital and important functions in society, but when it comes to new ideas, communication, and analytical thinking, liberal arts is the wave of the future.

Following graduation from Christendom College in Front Royal, VA, in 1997, Sean Kay enrolled in Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Professional Accounting in Boston, MA, where he found that 90% of the students there have liberal arts, nonbusiness backgrounds. In less than two years, he was able to obtain his MS Accounting/MBA degrees, and he began working at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P., the largest professional services firm in the world. Now a Senior Associate in the Audit and Assurance practice, Kay has earned his CPA license and continues to enjoy a great working environment. “I credit my current situation to the academic discipline provided me at Christendom,” remarks Kay. “A liberal arts degree from Christendom does not prohibit entry into such a field. On the contrary, it facilitates success to an extent greater than many other groundings.”

In today’s ever changing world, both the private and public sectors need people who can think and adapt with very little training. As new problems arise in the workplace, the need for creative problem-solvers continues to grow. In fact, a report by researchers at Michigan State University, for instance, found that the labor market for 2001 college graduates grew 6% to 10%, with great demand for liberal arts graduates.

Swatting Away the Myths
But still there are those who seem convinced that the numerous myths about liberal arts education are too convincing and so they continue the string of complaints about a liberal arts education: “You’ll never find a job. The degree is worthless,” “You won’t earn any money,” “All you can do with a liberal arts degree is teach,” and “You won’t be qualified to do anything if you graduate from a liberal arts college.”

“Having simply a technical degree without the critical mind provided by a liberal arts education is like having a car but no arms to steer,” says Sean Garvey, a Christendom Class of ‘93 Political Science major and President of Novus Consulting Group, a business focusing primarily on Enterprise Storage Consulting and providing IT services in the infrastructure space. “Not to mention the fact that a well-rounded person is a lot more enjoyable than a lopsided one.”

Many of these myths revolve around the notion that you will not be able to get a job with a liberal arts degree. In fact, there are actually more jobs available to liberal arts majors than to technical majors; and in the long-run, liberal arts grads are more employable than graduates of any other discipline.

Matthew O'Herron, an Associate Lawyer at the law firm of Johnston & Turbitt, PLLC and a 1993 graduate of Christendom with a B.A. in history, discovered that the technical training required for a specific job can be easily obtained as needed. "My liberal arts education at Christendom proved important in both law law school and in my current position," opines O'Herron. "However, there is one part of the education which I cannot stress enough; writing. Writing papers in Theology, Philosophy and English forced me to think in a disciplined and controlled manner. This in turn enhanced my ability to communicate clearly. When informing a client, analyzing caselaw, negotiating a case, or putting on a trial, disciplined thinking and clear communication are absolutely necessary."

The Sky's the Limit
Many people are apt to think of going to college as a matter of job preparation. In some sense it is. College graduates earn substantially more over their lifetimes than people who have completed only a high school degree. But this is not because college prepares you for some specific high-paying job. If that were its purpose, it would be much less valuable than it is.

“With any education there are both benefits and drawbacks; the liberal arts are no different. The liberal arts teach you to think and understand on a much broader level. Its drawback is that it does not focus you into actual fields of work. But of course that is not the intent of the liberal arts education. It is up to you to decide what you want to do with it,” says Captain John Bowes, USMC, and 1997 Christendom graduate.
“My liberal arts education has given me the opportunity to do what I only dreamed of as a child: flying military aircraft. It has given me the ability to think clearly and quickly. It allows me to expediently assess situations and decide what is the best and most appropriate action to take. Most educations don’t form the mind; they just teach it how to do a particular task. In doing so, many people are limited and do not know how to operate outside the box,” Bowes says.

According to David Denby, author and film critic of New York magazine: “It’s interesting and encouraging to me that when I talk to younger people about corporate careers, I am getting the sense that corporations want people of character. It’s not just that you have to have certain technical skills. Much of that is job-specific, and can be learned very quickly if you have the readiness and the learning skills. But they want people of character, who can present themselves, make decisions, manage and be managed. Anyone can punch numbers into a computer. But to run any kind of large organization, you need a much broader perspective. So when we speak about the training of an elite, and what employers are looking for in candidates for positions of responsibility, the tradition of the educated person is as essential as it ever was.”

The Answer to the Crisis
An 84-hour core curriculum of carefully selected subjects required for all students is Christendom College’s fundamental response to the crisis in higher education that has happened over the past forty years. It is a response deeply rooted in perennial truth and long centuries of Catholic learning. This extensive core curriculum is constituted from seven discipline areas: three years of study in Theology, three years in Philosophy, two and one half years of study in English Language and Literature, two years of study in Classical or Modern Language, one and one half years in History, one year in Political Science and Economics, and one year in Mathematics and Natural Science. It is a curriculum worthy of any young mind. It is an arduous good requiring sacrifice and courage from any student wishing to attain it and from any faculty member wishing to impart it. As such, it is the kind of good that no consumer survey is likely to affirm or endorse amidst the futile but seemingly pressing hyperactivity of our culture. Yet this kind of education is urgently needed by the future citizens and leaders of our nation, by the fathers and mothers of our children, and by the priests and religious of our Church, if we are not to slip blindly into the dark and chaotic night of a dying West.


 


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