John Zmirak is a funny man. But it’s doubtful that his sharp wit and one-liners get many chuckles in the hallowed halls of U.S. academia.

Last year, the feisty New Yorker — he’s co-author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living (Crossroad, 2005) — edited the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Choosing the Right College, a hard-hitting look at 140 major schools, warts and all (see more at collegeguide.org).

This fall he’s back with ISI’s All-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-fashioned Liberals and People of Faith. The book explores 50 schools that are favorites for offering solid curricula, mostly in traditional liberal arts. Zmirak spoke with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.

Why was this ISI guide needed now, just one year after the comprehensive guide published last year?

People were asking, “Why don’t you give us positive recommendations of places we can actively seek out so we don’t have to wade through all the schools that aren’t very good.” A lot of people don’t want to read the horror stories.

Who is the target audience?

Probably more people of faith than anything else because I think they take the moral core of education more seriously. If you’re a conservative … and the college is liberal, if you just shut up or only talk about it to your friends, you’ll probably get through just fine and there’s not as much at stake. But if you’re talking about having a religious vision of forming the person through liberal arts education, such as Cardinal Newman talked about in The Idea of a University, then the stakes are higher.

What is the most important aspect of U.S. higher education that Catholic parents should know but don’t?

I don’t know how many people know or don’t know, but just because a school calls itself Catholic in its fund-raising and promotional material doesn’t mean squat. A lot of Catholic colleges and universities are to Catholic education as Cheez Whiz is to cheese.

Do lots of Catholics think they’re going to get an authentic Catholic education just because the school calls itself Catholic?

I think they do. And with schools that don’t take their Catholicism seriously, you’re just wasting money. You might as well go to a state university. Save that money for therapy. In this book we pick only schools that are true to the religious tradition they claim to represent. That narrowed it down really well.

Are there Protestant colleges true to their Christian roots?

Wheaton College in Illinois is a strong evangelical school. They’re serious enough about their Protestant faith that, when a professor there converted to the Catholic faith, the school said his actions violated his contract and they fired him. I bet when the Vatican heard about that it was envious.

What about good Catholic schools?

Some of the Catholic schools we cover in the guide are Providence College in Rhode Island, which is academically excellent. It is the only university run by Dominican friars. And unlike a lot of Catholic schools, it’s moving in a good direction, becoming more distinctively Catholic over the years. Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, which is a Benedictine school. Thomas More College in New Hampshire, which is a small “Great Books” college that focuses on the liberal arts. The University of St. Thomas in Houston, which has a strong Thomistic focus on its education. And the University of Dallas. There’s a relatively strong “Great Books” orientation there.

(Editor’s note: For more information on which schools are solidly Catholic, see the Register’s 2006 Collegiate Guide. Go to NCRegister.com and click on the “Resources” link.)

What was more difficult about putting this book together compared to putting together Choosing the Right College?

Well, we weren’t accentuating the problems, and that was difficult. It’s never as much fun. But we gritted our teeth and managed it. Ultimately, it was a more wholesome experience to try to turn up the hidden gems in American education.

You mention that you can tell what is important to a school by looking at what they hold mandatory. What mandate most impressed you?

The most impressive mandate would be schools that require courses on the Middle Ages, because that’s fairly rare. Even some of the better liberal arts colleges will study from, like, Plato to Plotinus and then skip to Descartes — as if the 1,000 years of Christendom just didn’t matter or had never even occurred. That’s a residue of 19th-century Protestant bias and a very ignorant attitude toward the Middle Ages. Some schools do require it — and those that do, I regard as being especially distinctive.

Why are so many people opposed to the great works and ideas, especially if they don’t speak against whatever agenda they might have?

The core curriculum used to be, up until the ’70s, almost universal at liberal arts schools. Why did people turn against it? Well what happened was Harvard trashed its core curriculum in the ’70s and all the other lemmings jumped off the cliff. Now why did they do that? Two reasons.

First, campus liberals and leftists got disillusioned with Marxism, per se, and they adopted multiculturalism. Now, multiculturalism does not mean a respect for foreign cultures. Multiculturalism is to Western culture what anti-Semitism is to the Old Testament. It is an anti-Western ideology that applies a system of double standards to the study of culture, holding Western culture up to impossibly high standards while treating the vices and abuses in other cultures with a patronizingly benign neglect.

The other element was simple pandering to capitalism. They wanted to attract students. Students don’t like requirements. Students want to take whatever the heck they want. It was basically like taking a carefully prepared menu of education and transforming it into a Shoney’s breakfast bar, where students can eat only bacon if all they want is bacon.

Can higher education reverse the trend toward political correctness? If so, what will that take?

Honestly, no. It would take the collapse of Western civilization and its rise from the ashes at the hands of monastic orders. So I’m looking forward to that. That’s as soon as the Visigoths leave and we can build from the rubble.

What’s next?

We’re looking at a number of other specialized guides, maybe one on graduate studies for conservatives.

Anything else?

I hope that parents look carefully at the colleges their children are choosing among and insist on having input, both as to the choice of college and the choice of courses. And if their kid is not going to a solidly Catholic college with a good liberal arts curriculum, then they really have the moral duty to make sure that their son or daughter is taking the kind of core classes that will give him a real education.

Anthony Flott writes

from Papillion, Nebraska.