Colleges and universities are failing their students by not forming their moral compass
For a long time, institutions of higher education have been heralded as guardians of intellectual progress — precursors to a life of success, worth and greater happiness. Most would agree that when it comes to at least the nation’s premier institutions, a college diploma offers admittance to the good life: hefty Roth IRAs, spacious homes, coveted careers and a slew of invitations for the head of the societal table. However, recently, this long-held belief has come into question by even secular members of society. Higher education, if not blatantly under fire, has drawn the aim of quite a few barrels.
Although our universities churn out some of the nation’s brightest and most promising students — many of whom go on to do wonderful things in the realm of technology, medicine, science, law and so on — there seems to be something missing. Students are graduating full of promise but emptied of meaning.
David Brooks, the well-known political and cultural commentator for The New York Times, offered an insightful and interesting interview in the Jewish publication Moment magazine called “The Evolution of David Brooks.” It’s an encouraging read to witness a man, who for much of his writing career dwelled comfortably in the secular space, gradually begin to take keen interest in the spiritual. He seems to be in the midst of a spiritual awakening, much of which, as he shares, aided by the seeds of Christian thought and doctrine.
In the interview, he speaks of the hunger he notices not only within himself but also in many young people at universities. He believes strongly that our best universities are undermining the moral fabric of our society with their commitment to, well, being noncommittal.
“Universities and a lot of institutions became very amoral because they didn’t know what to say. ... That’s led to a belief that everyone should come up with their own values and no one should judge each other. That destroys moral conversation and becomes just a question of feelings.”
This trend has resulted in students being shoved out into the world sans a holistic, liberal arts education — one that affirms the dignity of the human person, trumpets the reality and necessity of moral responsibility and reveals humanity’s transcendent destiny. Instead, students are leaving campus with the prowess to craft polished resumes, orchestrate professional relationships and put their best foot forward — and, if necessary, on anyone who might be in the way. Brooks relates this clearly in the interview.
“I was having coffee with one of my students at Yale, and he said, ‘We’re so hungry.’ Because they’ve been raised with so little moral vocabulary and so much achievement orientation.”
The Catholic Church has always placed tremendous value on the university, especially since the Church can claim responsibility for its existence in the first place. And while these institutions should enable the pursuit of truth in all of the secular fields, such a pursuit should be tied to a comprehensive understanding of the person made in the image and likeness of God and angled toward the noble mission of maximizing human flourishing.
In Thomas Merton’s sagacious “No Man Is An Island,” he speaks of the university’s role in revealing man to himself.
“The function of a university is, then, first of all, to help the student discover himself: to recognize himself, and to identify who it is that chooses.”
He continues, fleshing out the grave responsibility of such an institution.
“To put it in even more outrageous terms, the function of the university is to help men and women save their souls and, in so doing, to save their society: from what? From the hell of meaninglessness, of obsession, of complex artifice, of systematic lying, of criminal evasions and neglects, of self-destructive futilities.”
It’s not hard to imagine starved students with a repertoire of superficial skills and embellishments sinking into the hell that Merton envisions. As universities continue to accept greater and greater numbers of students, especially institutions that brandish a Catholic heritage and tradition, it will be all the more imperative to nurture individuals’ deep calling to transform the world and bring about the Kingdom of God here and now, as opposed to settling for building a kingdom of mammon in vain.
There is cause for hope, though, in witnessing cultural influencers like David Brooks begin to see what the Church has always spoken of: an education that doesn’t take into account humanity’s transcendent destiny is doomed to fail us all.