Solid Intellectual Food In a Meta World

As my Junto brothers know, our eldest has been in the process of choosing a college. I have a 15-year history in higher education, as a student and marketing/communication professional, so it’s been interesting to see how different universities pitch themselves to prospective students. I’ve also been asked countless times where we want our teen to go: BigU? Ivy League? Catholic college (and if so, “Catholic” or, like, Newman Guide Catholic)?

I have been decidedly unimpressed with most of the materials and approaches we’ve seen, but it wasn’t until this morning that I put my finger on exactly why. As providence would have it, on the very week I needed to post on this site, two higher-education articles were brought to my attention that brought to light my problems with most of the higher-ed sales pitches (and therefore, most of the universities) from which we’ve heard.

The first is from First Things in 2008: Harvard’s Postmodern Curriculum. The nut I’d like to share is from the Final Report of the Task Force on General Education, which included this line: “The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.”

Is that worth $60,000 a year? Can’t they go to bar in South Boston in the wee hours and get the same thing?

I will admit not reading the report, and I don’t expect you to. The point is two-fold: That one of the “great” universities on the planet has made its mission the untethering of minds — and that much of the rest of this article draws attention to a big problem I had with my liberal-arts/Ivy education and with so much of college marketing these days: it’s all so meta. It’s self-referential and irrelevant to anything except it’s own worldview. It’s not about great teachers sharing great content — it’s about modes and deconstruction and “opening” minds.

To what end?

Contrast this picture painted by this First Things article on a hidden higher-ed gem in North Dakota: “Mary on the Prairie.” Written by a Protestant, this glowing report of a Newman-Guide Catholic university includes this description:

When I visited the campus earlier this fall, I found a robust student body of some 3,300 and a school where piety and intellect, prayer and public policy seem to belong naturally together. Rather than running away from its heritage or speaking in sheepish terms about its Catholic identity, the University of Mary seeks to be “faithfully Christian, joyfully Catholic, and gratefully Benedictine.” The University of Mary is led today by Monsignor James Shea, a diocesan priest and son of North Dakota. When he assumed his present post in 2009, Shea was thirty-four years old, the youngest university president in America. He has said: “We sense a call to greatness that transcends our own place and time because we find ourselves not so much in an age of change, but in a change of age. The stakes are high. But what an opportunity for a university founded on the timeless principles which have always guided the human quest for lasting joy and happiness!

This article is not about curriculum, but certain lines in this description resonate with me as what’s missing in most college communiques. Timeless principles. Piety and intellect. Prayer and public policy.

I know an unapologetically Catholic education is not for everyone, but an institution that can clearly articulate what it’s about and why certainly is. And even Harvard seems to be recognizing that there is “a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy” (First Things, “Harvard and the Humanities,” January 2014) — that a drifting, abstract approach to liberal arts and the humanities appeals to few and serves no one.

Chesterton wrote, “I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” That’s what I want for my sons and daughters: solid intellectual food. And I’m pleased to say our eldest will be spending the next four years with “Mary on the Prairie.”

One comment

  1. Nikki says:

    Congratulations! Our son is a sophomore at UMary. He and we could not be happier. We knew good things were happening when our son started signing off in his emails with “Love in Christ”. Yes, he is receiving a good education. More importantly, he is becoming a man who puts Christ first. As a parent there is no greater joy than witnessing his relationship with the Lord blossom and grow and his desire to live and bear witness to that relationship in the world.

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