In former days, institutions required students to challenge each other to think clearly and logically about a topic. In class, the Socratic methodology was employed to insure that students’ views could be articulated without reprisal. In Jesuit education for example, students are required to argue both sides of an issue, including those topics that are abhorrent to defend or condemn.
To give one example, if a person holds to what he or she considers a good action, does intention alone make for a moral act? As students work their pros and cons, eventually someone will cite Hitler whose good intention was to exalt the German people beyond all others. However, he ostracized German Jews whom he derided as polluting the German race. This view led to the barbaric means he took to achieve his end—their annihilation. The conclusion to the discussion? The immoral end does not justify a moral means or intention. The intention and the end must together be moral acts.
Since the 1990s, intellectual diversity has gradually muffled honest debate.
A Confession of Liberal Intolerance
Recently, the liberal columnist, Nicholas Kristoff, published two essays in the New York Times on the present status of liberal thinking in this country: Nicholas Kristoff’s “Confession of Liberal Intolerance” and “The Liberal Blind Spot.” Some of his observations apply to what unsuspecting freshmen might find on certain campuses with varying degrees of intensity. Increasing numbers of liberal professors and students pride themselves on their diversity and their tolerance of diversity—diversity of various minority groups but not of conservatives—Evangelical Christians, and practicing Catholics. Kristoff calls this “liberal arrogance”—“the implication that these groups don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.”
The unwritten motto may be: “We welcome people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” Or, “I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.” Or I close my mind to what you may want to say because it’s not worthwhile saying, in my view. Thus we hear: “We’re tolerant. You are entitled to your truth, but keep it to yourself. And don’t force it on me.”
What Is Truth?
Alan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, made the argument in the 1980s that American youth are increasingly raised to believe that every belief is merely the expression of an opinion or preference. They are raised to be “cultural relativists” with the default attitude of “non-judgmentalism” (Patrick Deneen, “Who Closed the American Mind?”).
Parents object: “My son, my daughter entered college with a moral compass with a belief that there is such a thing as objective truth. But in my son’s college, only the relativity of truth and the absolutism of relativity are taught across the board. Thus, there is no longer any possibility of objective truth.”
The Crisis of Higher Education
We are experiencing an intellectual crisis that has already affected our work force, our politics, and our culture. College costs are escalating, while too many colleges and universities without a core curriculum or without any substantive requirements are failing this generation. Western civilization, the human culmination of centuries of learning is pummeled by a pop culture. Too many academic leaders fail to uphold the purpose of teaching Western civilization. Academic leaders don’t believe that the humanities have any fundamental influence on their students. There are no shared values. The result? The advent of identity courses: Feminist studies, African-American, Latino, LGBT studies. As long as everyone is tolerant of everyone’s classes, no one can get hurt.
Yet not all institutions of higher learning fit this description. Many non-sectarian and private colleges offer a structured curriculum or a core curriculum around which other subjects are framed. At least twenty-five colleges and universities in the United States offer the Great Books tradition to their undergraduates. These books are part of the great conversation about the universal ideas of cultures and civilizations.
The authors of Academically Adrift, the most devastating book on higher education since Alan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, found that nearly half of undergraduates show no measurable improvement in knowledge or “critical thinking” after two years of college. Weaker academic requirements, greater specialization in the departments, a rigid orthodoxy and doctrinaire views on liberalism are now part of the university’s politics and cultural life.
Freshmen entering college today should be aware of the crisis of liberal education which is in conflict and incompatible with the traditional aspirations of the liberal arts.
Advice to Freshmen
- Choose your friends wisely. Confide in a very few.
- Find a small group of friends who are serious about studies and who know how to balance work with play. Form or join a reading group.
- Establish healthy eating and sleeping habits. Don’t pull all-nighters.
- Don’t go out on the week nights. Study for about 50 minutes. Take a ten-minute break. Then return to study. Repeat. Make a habit of this process—study, break, study. If you put your energies into academics, you will be handsomely rewarded later on.
- Don’t get behind in your assignments. Make certain that you are up-to-date on all of them. In the case of writing papers, get started on your research as soon as the assignment is given. Work a little on the research every day.
- Keep a dictionary and thesaurus at hand at all times. Make it a habit of looking up the meaning of words. Words are power and the right word is a sign of right thinking.
- Be your own leader. Do not follow the crowd if you sense they engage in actions contrary to your beliefs. For example: doing drugs or binge drinking.
- Be reflective. Reflection means going below the surface of an experience, an idea, a purpose, or a spontaneous reaction to discover its meaning to you.
- Find an older mentor, not necessarily a professor, but someone whom you have observed has wisdom and common sense. Place your confidence in this person as your unofficial adviser.
- Remember: Your college life is an open book. Whatever you do or avoid doing becomes common knowledge—quickly.
Every College Has its Own Soul
Every college builds its own identity, its own reputation. Some colleges are known for the seriousness with which they pursue academics. Some are known as “party” schools. Still others are best known for their sports prowess.
According to John Henry Newman, the ideal university is comprised of a community of scholars and thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits as an end in itself. Only secondarily, does it have a practical purpose, for example, finding a job. Today, most people would scoff at this assertion. For them, today’s goal of education is to find a job. The facts however don’t lie. Those with intellectual pursuits as an end are the most likely to secure the best positions.
A university is a place where one looks out toward everyone and everything … without boundaries. A university is a place where one discovers and studies truth. A person of faith holds sacred this belief.
According to Newman, knowledge alone cannot improve the student; only God is the source of all truth; only God can impart truth. Today, this notion alienates students at secular colleges and universities.