Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Smart kids who want to get along

The November issue of First Things will include the results of their research into which colleges and universities offer a good education and are also not unfriendly to believers. In his introduction to the study "Faith in America’s Colleges" [behind a subscription wall], editor Joseph Bottum describes what they have been doing: "FIRST THINGS began collecting publicly available data on 2063 institutions of higher learning in the United States. Over the last year, we followed that up with polling of students and recent graduates on the religious, academic, and social atmosphere of their schools. And we followed that with queries among our academic friends and colleagues." I am very much looking forward to reading the results of the study and, particularly, the schools they rate highly [Wheaton, Princeton and Thomas Aquinas come out well].

Bottum describes their motivation:
.... The work on this special college issue of FIRST THINGS began after a conversation with a friend who, over lunch, mentioned that his son and daughter were growing ashamed of their faith. A devout Catholic who had homeschooled his children along the way, he sent them back east to a pair of distinguished universities, where . . . well, where the entirely predictable happened. Out of the hothouse and left to their own devices, they felt for the first time the constant acid drip of sneering and mockery that marks American academia today. First they tried to hide their faith, and then they quit the practice of that faith, and then, eventually, they dropped the faith. By the time they received their degrees, neither was a churchgoer and neither, really, was a believer.

And so that friend asked me a very pointed question: “Is there anywhere to go to college in the United States today where (1) you’ll get a socially useful diploma, (2) you’ll have the chance of getting an actual education, and (3) you won’t get your faith beaten out of you?”

The obvious answer is yes. Or no. Or maybe. The problem my friend faced is that his children weren’t really leaders. They weren’t self-starting, self-driving dynamos who thrive on adversity. They were just smart kids who wanted to get along. To fit in. To be normal, as normal exists at the famous old schools to which they went.

What’s the point of this special issue of FIRST THINGS. The rough-and-tumble types will do well anywhere. In our Junior Fellows program at First Things, for recent college graduates, we’ve brought them in from the likes of Wabash and Harvard and Columbia, places where they triumphed the more they were (or believed they were) oppressed. But where do the ordinary kids go—the good, smart, ordinary kids, still feeling their way into life? How do they survive? How do they flourish? ....

.... The drift at schools without an identity is now rapid and precise: They all end up in the same place, second- and third-tier would-be Harvards, locked into the same public bromides, the same educational malaise, and the same social messes as all the others.

At a Jesuit-established school like Boston College, a Methodist-founded school like the University of Southern California, or a land-grant school like Penn State—what, at the end of the day, is the difference in the education the student receives? Or the value of the degree? Or the way in which religion is treated, with varying levels of gentleness, as something one must outgrow to join the normality of the college-degreed middle class?

Such schools may well be doomed. There isn’t all that much point to them, particularly once the financial return is discounted. But the colleges with an identity and a purpose alive inside them—those are the ones to attend. The choices are almost endless. There are science schools and Great Books schools, art academies and yeshivas. There are even some where students can receive a socially useful diploma, have the chance of an education, and not have their faith beaten out of them.
Faith in America’s Colleges
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