Liberal Arts for the Mind, Heart, and Spirit
A new handbook for those seeking academic excellence — but not at the price of their souls
BY Robert Royal
September 27-October 3, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/27/98 at 1:00 PM
Every September, parents quail as they send a new crop of prospective college students plunging into the perilous waters of the nation's campuses. And exposure to the moral hazards of dormitories, declining academic standards, and campus hostility toward religion comes at a high cost — over $30,000 a year, in many places. The corrupting of youth was never such a lucrative business in the time of Socrates.
Yet most still consider college a necessary condition for a successful and happy future in modern America. So except for the few hardy souls who choose to learn on their own, a good school, or at least a few good courses and professors within a school, can make all the difference.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute's college guide Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth about America's 100 Top Schools(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 672 pp., $25) is a godsend for anyone who wants to know how to beat the academic establishment and actually get an education. The Whole Truth subtitle may be the one unsubstantiated assertion here, yet students and parents should find more than enough truth here to be able to plan for the future with some confidence.
Other college guides already offer advice about programs of study and campus life, but this volume is unique in its scope. In his preface, editor Gregory Wolfe laments how “few guides focus on what was once considered the essence of a sound education: the liberal arts.” The very idea of liberal arts has become a battleground; the disciplines once thought to guide us to authentic liberty — theology, philosophy, history, literature — by freeing us from slavery to ignorance, impulse, and self-absorption, now seem less the solution than a great part of the problem.
In his introduction, William Bennett describes the traditional view of education: “The essence of education is, in the words of William James, to teach a person what deserves to be valued — to impart ideals as well as knowledge, to cultivate in students the ability to distinguish the true and the good from their counterfeits, and the wisdom to prefer the former to the latter.” That view just as well encapsulates everything many academics now strive against.
Standards and norms are viewed as oppressive impositions of Western or Enlightenment thought, and the ideals of the American founders are thought irrelevant to our situation. Bennett concludes: “The result is not education, but confusion — over the importance of knowledge, the universality of the human experience, the transcendence of ideals and principles.” Students graduate knowing little, “or worse still, they graduate thinking they know everything.”
This guide has compiled as complete and judicious a map of the current collegiate landscape as we are likely to see, by means of careful discrimination among institutions, examination of course offerings and outstanding professors in various disciplines. This is by no means the narrowly conservative or traditional broadside against the academy which some on the left might expect. Researchers at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute still find much of value in the Ivy League, however much these elite institutions may have abandoned intellectual excellence for political correctness. Harvard, for instance, still has a wealth of good courses, but the lack of agreement about the meaning of education leaves many students rudderless. The book cites one Harvard professor who states, “It's absurd. It's like a hospital in which the doctors can't decide on what is health. If you call up professors at Harvard and say, ‘What's an educated person?,’ most would be tongue-tied.”
Grade inflation is also a widespread problem, even in the sciences. A less-established discipline such as Women Studies “has never graduated anyone without at least a magna cum laude.”
When it comes to Harvard's old collegiate rival, the editors declare Yale unquestionably superior. Yale maintains a great deal of educational coherence, especially in its Directed Studies and Ethics, Economics, and Politics Programs. Undergraduate education is emphasized, and the campus ethos is much less politically correct than at many similar institutions. Yet an informed and interested student need not even be dissuaded from attending Harvard, despite its manifest difficulties. Indeed, there may be good reason for the right kind of students to attend such a school: “Given that many leaders of so many fields have graduated from it, readers of this guide might do the nation a favor by making their influence felt there.”
The writers, however, have a decided preference for a certain type of campus combining rigor of intellectual training, usually tied to a core curriculum, with a commitment to a specific mission. They have, therefore, almost nothing but praise for the two campuses (Annapolis and Santa Fe) of Saint John's College, the premier Great Books program in the country. Saint Thomas Aquinas in California receives similar kudos for its curriculum, as well as for its brave resistance to the “diversity” policy which the Western Association of Schools and Colleges sought to enforce. When Stanford and UCLA joined Aquinas in the struggle, they won a significant victory, which may yet have wider repercussions in the academic world as a whole.
According to Aquinas president Thomas Dillon, his college's selection of authors “are to be read not primarily for historical or cultural reasons, but because they are the best attempts to understand things in themselves, while attending to our common experience.” It is a telling commentary on the current academic ethos that this statement, once taken for granted, today engenders so much controversy.
The guide is equally helpful regarding other Christian institutions. Calvin College, for the most part rigorously and staunchly Reformed Protestant, recommends itself for its belief that “diversity among institutions of higher education is no less important than diversity within each of them.” The University of Dallas, with its rich core and passionate commitment to the Catholic faith, “is one of the few genuinely countercultural institutions in the nation.”
According to one Dallas professor, “Students are taught to see freedom, not as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, but as the ability to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty.” As the Dallas curriculum clearly demonstrates, a properly constructed core is also not a recipe for an ideological straitjacket. Students read “Aquinas and Nietzsche, Burke and Rousseau, Newman and Marx.” Alone among American universities, Dallas requires a course on free market economics. At the other end of the spectrum, once great and Catholic institutions such as Georgetown are criticized for sacrificing their religious identity to mimic the worst aspects of the Ivy League schools. Another Jesuit institution, Holy Cross, seems to be on the way to the same result, if at a slower pace. Notre Dame likewise suffers from many similar drawbacks, especially in theology, though the guide notes that the long Catholic tradition in South Bend has kept dorms more overtly Catholic and certain departments rigorous. Boston College, for all its own turmoil, has benefited from administrators who have deftly tried to resist current trends.
Perhaps the most valuable dimension of the information in this guide is its specificity. The editors lack no boldness in distinguishing the good professors from the bad, to scrutinize the course offerings of whole departments, or to suggest ways to help students cope with uncongenial campuses.
Short of a much needed, widespread renaissance of liberal learning throughout the land, this volume is as good a chance as any for students and parents to find a place for the education of mind, heart, and spirit.
Robert Royal is vice president for research and director of Catholic studies at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.
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