During an era of soaring college tuition, intense skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education and religious indifference, Catholic universities and colleges are under pressure to change their ways. Our society’s widespread secularism causes a constant pull to "hollow out" the religious identity and mission of these Catholic schools and to sharply limit required courses in the humanities, so that students can focus on pre-professional training.

A commentary on page one outlines new threats to liberal arts education, and a news story reports on the recent introduction of online programs at Catholic universities, another sign that higher education is in the throes of a steady, perhaps irreversible, transformation.

While online education offers the promise of affordable tuition and flexibility for working families, it also marks a departure from the legacy of the best college professors, whose personal witness and passion for truth stirred students to discard their complacency and engage the great questions of human existence: Why am I here? Can we know the truth?

Jesuit Father James Schall, the recently retired Georgetown University philosopher, is one such marvel. The profile of Father Schall on page 11 describes how he employed the Socratic method to rouse indifferent students. Will online education offer the same experience?

On the one hand, online learning allows for greater student feedback, making it possible to quantify the effectiveness of an instructional method. We need to improve student achievement, and the best online math courses, for example, are already helping teachers improve their methods. But how do you measure Father Schall’s impact on his students, who came out by the hundreds to hear his final lecture at Georgetown last December? Can his personal charism be quantified and duplicated?

To be great, Catholic colleges and universities must constantly grapple with a range of questions that go to the very heart of their mission. In Evangelical Catholicism, George Weigel warns that the old model of passing on the faith through the "ambient culture" of ethnic neighborhoods is long gone. Powerful currents are pulling students toward a different way of thinking about human existence, one that dismisses truth as unknowable and elevates pleasure above self-sacrifice.

Yet, contrary to the common belief that "successful" undergraduate programs must necessarily downplay their religious mission, The Catholic University of America is among those institutions that have attracted more students as they revive an emphasis on virtue on campus.

By constantly working to improve the quality of academics, while also staying true to their religious mission, Catholic colleges and universities valiantly strive, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, to form "a laity not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious — but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it."

Our culture desperately needs their work.