SAVING CHARLOTTE SIMMONS

I recently returned from a year in Europe, specifically in England. Readers of the Register who have encountered some of my musings on the cultural and religious situation in continental Europe already realize how bad things are there.

My general underlying thesis is that the United States will be the world’s single superpower for the next 30 or 40 years and, as such, the direction our country takes in matters of religion and culture will have an enormous impact on the rest of the world.

On the positive side, I believe the United States is still, as they say on Wall Street, “in play.” Roughly equal minorities of the American population, say 35% to 40%, hold contrasting and ultimately irreconcilable convictions on the purpose of life. One group, composed overwhelmingly of those who adhere to the basics of Christian Revelation, is God- and faith-centered (These are the faithful Catholics and, for lack of a better description, evangelical Christians).

Members of this group believe they have the right and duty to participate freely in American politics and culture to influence our laws and customs in ways that reflect the sovereignty of Christ the King.

The second group consists, for the most part, of people who, while they may acknowledge the existence of God in minimalist fashion, base their lives on the acquisition of wealth and the pursuit of pleasure, giving no real credence to the possibility of an afterlife where one is rewarded or punished according to the free choices made in this life.

The basic disagreement between these two groups about the meaning of life was reflected very clearly in our recent elections, as political observers have so thoroughly analyzed. The latter group, which we may as well call the secularists, has largely triumphed in Europe. However, I am cautiously optimistic about the outcome in the United States, for reasons that must await a separate article for thorough explication.

However, orthodox Christianity will play a central role in the secular affairs of our country only under conditions that include the education of our young people and of our future leaders. That is why one of the most significant differences between the United States and Europe is the presence in America of more than 700 religiously-affiliated colleges and universities, which are enjoying a great growth in attendance.

Europe, by contrast, has very few religious or even private colleges. All higher education there is virtually secularist, allowing no social or political role for God or religion.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley is a recent graduate of Harvard University (itself once a religiously based college) and author of an important new book generating great controversy, entitled God on the Quad (St. Martin’s Press, 274 pages, $24.95.) Riley  spent months exploring campuses and interviewing students, administrators and faculty members to pass on to the reader just what makes these generally small institutions attractive, effective and thriving educational alternatives.

Her timing was impeccable. Almost simultaneously, author Tom Wolfe published his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 676 pages, $28.95), a satiric look at today’s elite, secularist university that provides privileged adolescents with all the pleasant superfluities of life [at a cost of well over $150,000], but lacks an educational philosophy that pays any homage to truth, service or virtue.

Without stronger countervailing influences from spiritual mentors, family and friends, the typical student at an institution like Wolfe’s “Dupont University” will graduate deeply wounded in body and soul and almost certainly ill-prepared to form a strong marriage, bring up children or offer selfless service to country and society.

Riley shines a light on the alternatives. The 20 schools she examines were not simply founded by religious people or groups, but continue to form their students in a strong religious philosophy, whether Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Evangelical Protestant or Orthodox Jewish. The author does not ignore the tensions that exist on these as on all campuses, but observes:

“The young men and women reject the spiritually-empty education of secular schools. They refuse to accept the sophisticated ennui of their contemporaries. They snub ‘spiritual but not religious’ answers to life’s most difficult questions. They rebuff the intellectual relativism of professors and the moral relativism of their peers. They don’t spend their college years experimenting with sex and drugs. They marry early and plan ahead for family life. Indeed they oppose sex outside marriage and homosexual relationships. Most dress modestly and don’t drink, use drugs or smoke. They study hard, leaving little time for ‘sitting in’ or ‘walking out.’ … While they would disagree among themselves about what it means to be a religious person, it is assumed that trying to live by a set of rules, generally ones laid down in Scripture, is the perquisite for a healthy, productive and moral life.”

Many of the 20 colleges she profiles have a core liberal arts curriculum with required courses that may include not only philosophy and theology, but also history, art, music and literature. This ensures an education not only God-centered but also deeply immersed in a Western culture that has its source in Christianity, itself nourished on the wisdom of Athens and Jerusalem.

And graduates from these institutions are making their presence felt.

Riley notes, “They are also becoming professors, doctors, lawyers, politicians, psychologists, accountants and philanthropists in the cultural and political centers of the country.” In short, these well-formed young leaders whose faith is strong and proactive are already influencing society, while their alma maters enjoy a great jump in enrollment that bodes well for our country.

A small percentage of this nation’s close to 200 nominally-Catholic colleges are presented in Riley’s book, but I will let readers discover for themselves which ones. You may be surprised.

I believe that in the next few decades, dozens of “Catholic” colleges will accept reality by officially secularizing themselves, as happened long ago with the Protestant Ivy League. On the other hand, some few will return to their Catholic roots, while new and confidently Catholic colleges now being planned and launched will join them as desirable options.

Any parent with children nearing college age, or for that matter, anyone interested in the quality of higher education, should read God in the Quad. The choice of university made by parents and/or their children can dramatically affect the future student’s happiness both in this world and the next. However scandalous the virtual apostasy of some formerly Catholic institutions of higher learning, the United States stands alone in the world in offering true educational alternatives to the frankly secularist academy.

I can’t really recommend Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, as portions of it make very rough reading. Unfortunately, the slice of collegiate life it portrays is largely true (I write as former chaplain at a “Dupont University.”) However, if you have a child who could qualify for such an institution, at least familiarize yourself with the book’s contents or spend a night in your teen-ager’s future living quarters on campus — if you dare!

Remember, your children can receive high-level instruction at an excellent Catholic liberal arts college with a healthy campus environment and strong religious formation, and then go on to a top secular graduate school or corporate training program, ready to evangelize the world of culture, work, and family.

One should not put one’s soul at risk when there are great and viable alternatives.

Father C. J. McCloskey III is a priest

of Opus Dei and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington D.C.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.