Dorm-ant Virtues Emerge in College
With the fall semester upon us, philosophy professor Christopher Kaczor discusses The Catholic University of America's recent move to single-sex dorms and Catholic colleges in general.
BY TRENT BEATTIE
| Posted 8/23/11 at 12:00 PM
Earlier this year, President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America announced that CUA would start replacing its coed dormitories with all-male and all-female ones in the fall.
Behind the decision was research pointing to higher rates of binge drinking and sexual promiscuity among schools with coed dorms. This evidence was presented at a CUA conference in April by Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Kaczor has a keen interest in student well-being, which was first inspired by some of the things he encountered as an undergraduate at Boston College, including the alcohol-related death of a classmate. He wants every student to have the opportunity to pursue academic and personal excellence, which he believes is far more likely to occur with single-sex dorms.
Excellence has marked Kaczor’s own pursuits, including a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1996 and post-doctoral research as a Fulbright Scholar from 2002-2003. The father of seven children has written or edited eight books, the most recent of which is The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, published by Routledge Press this year.
With college students heading back to their respective campuses for the fall semester, Kaczor spoke to Register correspondent Trent Beattie about his latest book, the CUA development and Catholic colleges in general.
John Garvey, the new president of The Catholic University of America, recently wrote about the school’s return to single-sex dorms in The Wall Street Journal/. Why did he mention you in this article?
President Garvey invited me several weeks before his June 13 Wall Street Journal article to a conference at The Catholic University of America celebrating his inauguration as president. The symposium was entitled “Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University.” I was asked to speak there about the connection between virtue and campus life.
About a week before I was to give the talk, I discovered lots of empirical evidence that coed dormitories had higher rates of binge drinking and promiscuity than all-male and all-female ones. In my talk, I argued that all Catholic universities — indeed all universities that care about the intellectual and/or moral growth of students — should have single-sex dorms. President Garvey told me afterward that he liked the talk, and he asked for a copy of it, as did several other people present.
I wrote about the topic on the First Things website, and then President Garvey’s article appeared, which drew some criticism. I subsequently responded to that criticism at National Review Online.
What other things can be done to decrease binge drinking and promiscuity among university students?
One thing that can help is education. Both binge drinking and promiscuity are detrimental to physical well-being, academic excellence and spiritual growth. Schools could require students to learn about these dangers as part of freshman orientation. Secondly, schools can enforce rules they may have on the books but which they often ignore — that would deter both problems. Thirdly, during the first couple weeks of school (when bad habits are established), a college could strictly enforce and punish offending students to deter others from following the same path.
Do you think there has been a lack of moral formation in Catholic universities, not only in classroom presentations, but also in everyday campus life?
Aside from an ethics class, “mainstream” Catholic colleges have no required moral formation for students. The evidence shows that these Catholic schools have exactly the same problems in terms of negative student behaviors as entirely secular schools. The students may take a course in ethics, but, very often, the course undermines rather than supports the Catholic understanding of morality.
Life in the dorms is akin to the movie Animal House. My experience at Boston College (1988-1992) included a classmate who died from drinking too much, another student who fell out a window from several stories up and impaled himself on a fence, students cohabiting for weeks at a time, one student called “41 Phil,” whose blood-alcohol content was lethal (although he didn’t die). It was a mess.
“Morality” at BC seemed, in practice, to be boiled down to a specific conception of “social justice,” which consisted primarily in favoring leftist politics in Latin America. People who died in this region were consistently memorialized, but Jesuits who died behind the Iron Curtain were literally never mentioned.
Despite that grotesque picture of university life, do you think some people still see the attempt to improve the situation as merely negative, thinking only of the thrill-seeking that is discouraged, rather than gaining a fulfilling life based on self-sacrifice and striving for higher goods?
The word “virtue” today has unfortunate associations in the contemporary imagination. It no longer means what is meant for Aristotle, who thought of virtue as a kind of excellence, a manly strength that enabled its possessor to achieve happiness. In fact, the word “virtue” comes from the Latin virtus, meaning “manliness” or “excellence.” Virtue is certainly not about draining the fun from life, but having a wonderful life in which we enjoy true happiness here (in so far as we can in an imperfect world) and then enjoying perfect happiness in the life to come.
Anyone scared of losing lower things for the sake of higher ones should consider the words of St. Augustine: “What I was before so much afraid to lose, I now cast from me with joy.”
Would you recommend Catholic students avoid “mainstream” Catholic schools altogether?
I think that Catholic students should make informed choices. So, I would hate to see a student who wanted a truly Catholic environment and education to choose a nominally Catholic school only to be disappointed and frustrated. On the other hand, even the most nominally Catholic schools have some good professors and students, so these schools can be good choices for some students in some circumstances, although great caution is required. Similarly, all things considered, a secular school may be best, particularly if it is one like Princeton University or the University of Texas at Austin, both of which have strong Catholic communities and professors.
On the whole, however, I would not advise Catholics to go to “mainstream” or nominally Catholic schools. There are now many good options, including the University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula [Calif.], Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ave Maria University and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I would also recommend, despite its imperfections, the University of Notre Dame, which, by the way, does not have coed dorms.
Do you think — dorm issues aside — CUA and some other Catholic schools are better at realizing the value of virtue and becoming friendlier with their lost or mostly hidden identity as Catholic schools?
I think that The Catholic University of America has made and is continuing to make great strides in terms of its distinctive mission and identity. I worked at CUA as the director of the University Honors Program, so I am quite familiar with this university. There are many good people working at CUA, particularly in the School of Philosophy (home in years past to Archbishop Fulton Sheen), and also in the discipline of moral theology. Campus ministry is strong, and the city is exciting.
I am less familiar with other schools. However, I am, frankly, quite disappointed with my own current university, Loyola Marymount. We are moving quickly and relentlessly toward being just like any other private, secular university of similar size. Our Catholic identity is already quite atrophied, and the trends are moving toward greater secularization. In particular, we make no efforts to hire Catholic faculty, and even the percentage of Catholic students has dropped to around 50% in recent years. We have appointed our first non-Jesuit president, and he is not even a Catholic. I find it difficult to see how we can have two-thirds of the U.S. Supreme Court be Catholic, but we cannot find a bare majority of Catholics for administrative and professorial positions at our university, which calls itself Catholic.
Your latest book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice is written to appeal to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. What are the main questions dealt with in this ambitious work?
Appealing to reason rather than religious belief, this book is the most comprehensive case against the choice of abortion yet published. The Ethics of Abortion critically evaluates all the major grounds for denying fetal personhood, including the views of those who defend not only abortion, but also infanticide. It provides several non-theological justifications for the conclusion that all human beings, including those in utero, should be respected as persons. This book also critiques the view that abortion is not wrong even if the human fetus is a person.
The Ethics of Abortion examines hard cases for those who are pro-life, such as abortion in cases of rape or in order to save the mother’s life, as well as hard cases for defenders of abortion, such as sex-selection abortion and the rationale for being “personally opposed” but publicly supportive of abortion. It concludes with a discussion of whether artificial wombs might end the abortion debate.
Answering the arguments of abortion defenders, this book provides reasoned justification for the view that all intentional abortions are morally wrong and that doctors and nurses who object to abortion should not be forced to act against their consciences.
Do you find that a lot of people are unwilling to deal with abortion in a logical, philosophical manner?
Yes, a lot of people don’t want to think about the issue at all, let alone think about it in a logical, reasonable way. It can be much easier to attack those with whom one disagrees rather than really listen and engage in a fact-based conversation.
Have you encountered people who have been surprised to learn that there are many sound, nonreligious reasons to be against abortion?
Yes, some people are surprised, because they assume that all opposition to abortion rests only on religious grounds. Actually, abortion is like slavery in that it can be opposed for both religious reasons as well as secular, philosophical reasons. The same is true with the dorm situation: Any school — whether secular or religious — that truly wants academic excellence and personal moral growth for its students can certainly appreciate the need to establish an environment conducive to those goals, and such an environment includes all-male and all-female dorms.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.
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