Free College, Fatherhood and Financing Martyrdom: Thoughts on ‘A Hidden Life’

When we strive for sanctity, even imperfectly, we direct our kids’ attention to the only wealth that really matters.

(photo: Register Files)

“I know that, if I do what I think God wants me to do, he will take care of my family.”
Bl. Franz Jägerstätter


I’ll get around to Terrence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, but first a few preliminary remarks on paying for college.

Michelle Singletary, the Washington Post’s personal finance columnist, wrote a piece last month reviewing and summarizing Anthony ONeal’s book, Debt Free Degree. Singletary’s syndicated article, which appeared in my local newspaper, was no doubt illuminating to the many families facing wildly inflated prices at higher-ed institutions these days, especially its clarion call to avoid student loans by making early adjustments in family lifestyle. “I’ve found that when people start with a promise to themselves and their children – a degree with no debt – they make different choices,” Singletary writes. “And those choices help folks achieve real wealth sooner.”

Yes, yes, and three cheers for the first part of that statement! And Singletary herself can testify to its veracity since her own three children went to college debt-free. But the second part? The bit about “real” (read: “in the bank”) wealth and the implicit assumption that it’s everybody’s goal? Naah. At least not for me and my family. Monetary wealth has never been on my achievement radar. In fact, it’s something I’ve been assiduously avoiding for many years – in part because of how wealthy I am in progeny.

My wife, Nancy, and I have been blessed with seven kids. I’m also blessed to be gainfully employed as a nursing instructor, but I teach at a small private college, so I don't make the big bucks. And Nancy works only part-time.

Yet, our two oldest kids are now graduates of Notre Dame with little or no debt (as far as I know), and our next two will graduate from Purdue (one this coming spring, one in a couple of years) with little or no debt themselves. Plus, I fully expect my other three to do the same.

How? Really, it's been a breeze, and I’m happy to let you in on our three-step, three-“E” scheme. I readily acknowledge that the first step largely coincides with the advice offered by Singletary and ONeal, but the latter two steps are significant departures from the realm of mainstream personal finance. See what you think:

  1. Eschew student loans. From their earliest years, my kids have heard the message that student loans for college were a bad idea – so bad, in fact, that we could not in good conscience co-sign any student loans for them when the time came. Simple. That stance helps us avoid financial (and family) complications for me and my wife later on, and it emphasizes for my kids that if they go to college, they'll have to take on the bulk of the financial responsibility themselves.

    But that doesn’t mean that we shove them out the door after high school and bid them adieu. The key, here, is being creative and taking the long view. In our case, it meant my making a professional decision long ago to get out of bedside nursing and start teaching – in part because I knew that I’d be eligible for the perk of free tuition for my kids at my (private, Christian) college. Thus, as a default, they’d be able to live at home and go to the college where I teach – and get that debt-free college degree, no sweat! And if they didn’t want to go where I teach? They grew up knowing they’d have to figure it out – saving up, perhaps, or working while in school. What’s more, by shunning student debt, we could underscore the importance of studying hard in high school and earning the grades that would get them scholarships and grants – which my ND grads both received. 
  2. Eliminate the expectation of a college education. Another thing my kids have heard from an early age is that they don't have to go to college in the first place. Again, simple – and, yet, breathtakingly liberating. The question of “if” college must precede the question of “which” college – and how to pay for it. Our culture assumes that higher education is necessary for true success, but that’s bogus – and our kids need to hear that. We've been telling our children – in words and actions – that a college degree is not at all necessary for a happy, fulfilling, and productive life. “Look at the plumbers and HVAC guys that work on our home; look at the managers of the McDonald's and the Chick-fil-A,” we’d say. “They all might have college degrees, but they didn't need them to get where they are. You don't need one either!”

    As far as the intellectual benefits that accrue from a liberal arts education – the exposure to new ideas, the give and take of the best kind of collegiate discourse – there’s a lot to be said for simply stocking your home with a mess of books and engaging your children in actual conversation and deliberation (which requires the jettisoning of iGadgets, either intermittently or permanently). If they go to college, they’ll be ready for more of the same; if they don’t go to college, they’ll be accustomed to the kind of ongoing self-education that will serve them well, regardless of what path they choose.
  3. Embrace relative voluntary poverty. Here’s the most controversial dimension of my system, perhaps, but it seems to have worked out all right for us, at least as far as educational opportunities are concerned. With a family of nine and a modest income, we've always hovered near Uncle Sam's official poverty level. Sure, my wife and I could've sought higher-income jobs, but that would've had (among other consequences) an impact on the kind and degree of aid my kids would've been eligible for. In Indiana, we've qualified for the state voucher program, which has meant that my children have been able to go to private (Catholic) schools at little out-of-pocket cost to ourselves. In addition, we've also qualified for Indiana’s “21st-Century Scholars” program, which provides full tuition and other benefits for those who attend in-state colleges.

    Moreover, we're getting along fine – who needs a new car every couple of years? a big barn of a house? vacations in Florida or Europe? My responsibilities as a dad primarily comprise providing for the essential needs of my kids, ensuring their adequate formation (catechetically, sacramentally) in the Faith, and helping them transition to adult life eventually. That’s it. More money, just for the sake of more money, might well interfere with those goals. And a full-ticket, prestigious college education can be bankrupting in more ways than one.

All that leads us back (finally) to A Hidden Life. It’s director Malick’s paean to Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian husband, father, and farmer who gave up his life rather than bend his knee to Hitler’s murderous regime. Franz was a Catholic conscientious objector before Catholic conscientious objection was a thing, and his witness actually influenced the teaching of the Church on the subject – especially its explicit recognition in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes: “It seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms…” (79). No such laws allowed for Jägerstätter to escape the guillotine in 1943 at the age of 36.

Despite its jarring and inevitable denouement, the film itself is beautiful and profound – a lush, sensual experience that unsettles as it soothes. The idyllic countryside, the harmonious domestic church of the Jägerstätters, the serenity of their community – all is utterly disrupted by Nazi demands of wartime fealty and, in turn, Franz’s resounding rebuff. How could this young husband and father of three leave his family bereft in order to satisfy his conscientious reservations – especially when Church leaders, family, and friends were telling him to do otherwise? How would I act under similar circumstances? To ask these questions is to squirm, and this movie makes you squirm.

But what does Malick’s film have to do with paying for college? I’m getting to that. My wife and I were privileged to attend a recent advance screening of A Hidden Life sponsored by the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the diocese. A panel discussion afterward included remarks by the film’s original producer, Elisabeth Bentley, who referenced Malick’s intentional reliance on light, especially natural light, to guide our gaze and evoke grace.

Yet, what struck me even more in the movie was the water: rivers coursing toward the audience and away; towering, majestic waterfalls; buckets brimming and sloshing; even an execution room floor, bathed in oblique light and moist from a cleansing drench. For me, all these were splashes of baptismal conviction – repeated reminders that, by virtue of my own baptism, I am called to the same courage and sacrificial love that Jägerstätter dramatically and singularly demonstrated. So are my children, whom my wife and I voluntarily presented to the Church for baptism. There’s no escape, no excuses.

And that means that we must raise our baptized children in such a way that they, too, will die for what they believe in – hardly the stuff of Instagram and Facebook updates – and if that’s the case, then being wealthy, getting into the best colleges, or even going to college at all is of relative importance at best, a hindrance at worst. Consider Jägerstätter: dirt poor with only a rudimentary education, and yet a phenomenal success – in eternal terms. He was steadfast in faith and conscience to the point of death, and his 2007 beatification validated his seemingly radical choices, transfigured his and his family’s unimaginable suffering, and made him a template for paternal sanctity.

To follow Jägerstätter’s example doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go to jail or the scaffold, but it does mean that we ought to be teaching our kids every day, in one way or another, what life is all about – what the Christian life is about. “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world,” the Lord asks us, “and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36). College? Career? Sure, sure, we have to deal with those things, but context always comes first, and our context is Christ.

That is, our context is the Cross, and, through the Cross, resurrection. Baptismally conformed to Christ, we take up the cross ourselves and live as though everything’s ultimately about dying – dying to self, dying to sin, dying in order to rise. That’s the “hidden life” of every Christian, and when we strive to realize it, even imperfectly, we direct our kids’ attention to the only real wealth that matters. “[L]ay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus tells us. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:20). Everything else – college included – is optional.