This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.
I’ve written about the topic of college several times in the past and I’ve found it useful to give personal context. I will do so again now.
I have attended a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, a traditionalist Latin Mass college in Kansas, and finally, a Jesuit University in Missouri. I have experienced various modes of being a student: being on a full ride and not having to work; having a part-time job; studying abroad; and most recently, running a 10-employee company while taking 18 units a semester for four straight semesters in order to finish my BA. Additionally, for the past six years I have run a business whose raison d’etre is helping high school students get into the schools of their choice by helping them raise their standardized test scores. I am uniquely positioned to offer relevant commentary on what types of students are going to college today and what students actually do when they get there.
What is a Catholic attitude towards modern university education? First, it should be noted that prior to the 1950s, very few people, i.e. mostly theologians, doctors, and lawyers, went to college. They were able to deal with its intellectual rigors, which included generous doses of Latin, metaphysics, calculus, and writing, among other things. But this all changed after World War II. When Russell Kirk was teaching at Michigan State in the 1950s, he talked about how there had to be an entire group of remediatory classes added to accommodate the thousands of veterans who were going to college on their GI Bills. Further, I don’t believe that as a culture we’ve gotten progressively more intelligent since the 1950s; I believe, and know through experience, that universities have instead dumbed themselves down. My alma mater’s motto (and a beautiful one at that: “Sapientia aedificavit sibi domum”) is in Latin, but there isn’t one Latin course offered on campus at that Jesuit university. Oh, the times, they have been a’ changin’.
Today’s universities are filled with high school students who were told that the only way to get a good job (read: make money) was to go to college. Being good consumers and worshippers of mammon, they have done so. They don’t experience a definitive difference from high school. With few exceptions, the readings they are asked to do, the papers they are asked to write, and the level of discussion they are asked to engage in, are the same or less than what is offered in the best public and private high school college prep classes. Further, the alcohol they consume, the drugs they use, and the sex they have, is also more of what they have already done in high school, albeit in higher quantities, and they now do all these things without any parental knowledge.
In addition to all this, students roll up unforgivable, insuperable debt. Because most students are, frankly, not scholars, they do not get scholarships to attend university, so they end up taking out massive loans and get full-time jobs while in school in order to, on average, start $50-$100k in the hole when they leave their chosen place of study.
Many of these students flood into contrived or derivative majors, like “gender studies” or “communications” or into unrealistic majors, like Art History. Art History is a field that requires a graduate degree to really pursue anything, and even then the ratio of graduating MAs and Ph.D.s to jobs in that field is in the realm of 1 to 200 every year and rising. This may seem like a small number, but graduate positions are cutthroat, I assure you.
So, 5-6 years later (the average graduation time at “4-year colleges” these days), heavily in debt, not having learned much, these students lurch off the assembly line, much like the millions of other cookie-cutter students before them. Yet, Americans continue to look down on blue-collar, vocational-type learning that can easily provide 6-figure incomes to the most industrious, and steady income to the least, to say nothing of the fact that vocational students consistently have less debt than their white-collar (apparently “smarter”) counterparts.
I have been influenced by various members of the clergy throughout the years regarding this issue and I continue to respect the thoughtfulness of their positions – yet the position I continue to come to is this: College is not for everyone, regardless of sex. Indeed, having watched my female high school students consistently outperform my males in motivation and seriousness, and having watched my fellow female peers outwork most of the lazy males, I do not believe that women and university education are somehow disconnected or barred by nature. Indeed, the Church’s patron saint of Philosophy is not a man, but a woman: St. Catherine of Alexandria.
Instead of repeating thoughtless nostrums like “Everyone should go to college” I advocate the stance that “Everyone, regardless of sex, should obtain gainful employment.” Plato is not for everyone. But neither is plumbing. Nor should our young women be expected to simply stay at home and wait for Prince Charming to ring the doorbell. Catholicism is not a monoculture, and it never presumes to issue an educational norm that fails to consider the whole person. This might mean that some will go to nursing school. Others might go to Devry to become computer techs. Still others might intern at a firm and work their way up, without the benefit of college, but with the deep waters of experience. And there are always those crazy few, like me, who start their own businesses. The richest man in the world doesn’t have a college diploma, and Steven Spielberg finally finished his Bachelor’s several years ago, but we keep telling our kids: “Go to college, go to college.” Here are my two points of reflection when considering these matters:
1. Is it something I am fitted to do? Again, not the “am I passionate about it” mentality that I see represented by families of all faiths that come through my business that leads to people majoring in subjects like Art History who are not particularly gifted but instead just “like art.” I’m talking about the marriage of practicality with personality: ars longa, vita brevis, I will likely not do the same thing my whole life, given how quickly things change these days. Therefore, where’s a good place for me to start?
2. Is the debt load reasonable? Let’s assume $50,000 of debt, and a repayment term of 10 years with a fixed low-interest rate, and a starting salary of $50,000/year (pretty generous) out of college. These are all conditions, by the way, that my graduate Finance professor would snort at hearing, because he would want to account for unknown variables, but it’s a starting point. This means we would be looking at a $500 minimum monthly payment, and that debt repayment would occupy 10% of gross income for a decade. Given that salary I would find another profession or another way. Everyone has different means and stress tolerances, but if we have learned one thing from this economic meltdown, it is that we bet far, far too much on credit.
All that being said, my college years were some of the happiest of my life. I had already been to boarding school, but my freshman and sophomore years in my college dorms were magical. Be it the late night Taco Bell or Sonic runs, conversations in dorm common areas late at night about the existence of God and whether Anselm or Aquinas had the more compelling proof(s), writing papers, playing Warcraft, Risk, Scrabble, or Chess, reconstructing and deconstructing the poems of Eliot, Donne, Hopkins, and Frost (among others), being alone and away from your family and being forced to become the man you want to be by your own grappling – assisted by grace, struggling with the Summa or the Commedia or Ulysses, conjugating Latin, Greek, and French verbs, grappling with the dazzling intellects of the Church Fathers, reading Shakespeare and Milton, walks in the woods, the countless weekend and occasional weekday road trips, making ramen, or the study abroad which had me living in Rome, 15 minutes from the Vatican, to my final non-traditional semesters, I was, and continue to be, deeply blessed by education.
My mother told me my entire youth that “If you don’t get a scholarship, you’re not going to college, so work hard.” I had to get scholarships – and so I did. I managed to complete my entire undergraduate education for less than $20,000, which amounted to mostly room, board, and travel costs. I think it’s gauche for me to talk about my current salary specifically, so I’ll simply say I’ve owned my own business for several years now, and it has provided a lifestyle that has allowed me to take at least five weeks of vacation every year since 2003.
College happened to be for me. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
A final point: as I alluded to in my article on dating, we live in extraordinary times and so I think all young men and women who have even the slightest inclination to the priesthood or religious life should go and try it, with an open mind, as part of discerning whether to go to college, or vocational school, or on another path. I did.
Most especially, pray to the Holy Family. That family, like any family, had to be concerned with the upkeep of a household and debts and bills, and for St. Joseph, customers who sometimes didn’t pay! Catholicism in the modern age is always countercultural, and the one question any young Catholic graduating from high school should ask is: “What is it that You want me to do?” I assure you that the answer will not be the unequivocal, unconsidered imperative of the children of mammon: “Go to college.” Indeed, His Will, hopefully made clear through prayer, will clarify the sensible advice and counsel of your friends, family, and clergy.