You'll note the very first tome on our Bookshelf is Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. The reason is because we think it is probably the most important book a student should read during his or her college career, though it's perhaps best understood only after one has spent a year or two studying and has taken some initial theology and philosophy courses.
To the unknowing observer it may seem strange that we recommend Bloom, a gay atheist Jew who died of AIDS, as being an ally of Catholic education. But he was and his above referenced book is an amazingly strong defense of the underlying purposes of Catholic colleges and universities, which is to nurture the student soul and discuss life's "fundamental questions," specifically, the nature and meaning of existence, and (to paraphrase Socrates), how one should live in preparation for death.
We come now to an article a friend recently sent us that was written years ago on the 20th anniversary of The Closing of the American Mind's publication. It appears in the journal First Things, the nation's premier journal dealing with religion and public life. We're quoting a large chunk because it's so good and we recommend you read the whole article, in addition to exploring the website. The author is R.R. Reno, who wrote it while a professor at Creighton University, another Jesuit institution of higher learning. Mr. Reno currently serves as the editor of First Things.
After a short description of Bloom's thesis and some commentary on his then students, Reno moves on to discuss the lack of conviction, failures, and missteps found among the administrations of modern Catholic colleges and universities, of which some may consider Georgetown the worst offender. He concludes with call for those who run Catholic institutions to return, as Pope John Paul II might say, ex corde ecclesiae, to the heart of the Church from whence they sprung.
According to Mr. Reno:
Every Catholic university has its own story. But the basic dynamic tends to be the same. For all their good intentions, most Catholic administrators are hopelessly confused and inconsistent when it comes to the goals of education. Just talk to a Catholic dean or college president. They do not want non-Catholic students to be “uncomfortable,” and they want everyone to feel “included.” Then, not a minute or two later, the conversation shifts, and the very same proponents of inclusion will insist that we need to challenge our students with critical thought and diverse perspectives. Hello! You can’t have it both ways—making students comfortable and challenging them.
Of course, what most Catholic educators usually mean is that a professor should challenge the traditional beliefs of Catholic students and challenge any conservative political or economic beliefs that students are foolish enough to expose. This critical project, which is conveniently well-coordinated with the agenda of secular education, has the desired effect of making administrators and faculty feel good about their great vocation as critical educators while—miracle of miracles—making anybody who disagrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church feel comfortable and welcome.
The students are not stupid. Those with traditional and conservative convictions quickly realize that the deck is stacked against them, and they learn to separate their religious and moral and political convictions from the classroom. They remove their souls from the university. The non-Catholic students realize that few faculty create a pedagogical environment where Catholic teaching can make a claim on their intellects and lives. They relax, gratified that they can get an education without having to put any energy into arguing against and resisting. Their souls are left quiescent and unchallenged. What Bloom feared becomes the atmosphere of Catholic education: the question of how we should live fails to enter into the center of university life.
Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Catholic universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Catholic tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.
I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Catholic education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints. That was the actual, experienced effect of the old system, when large numbers of faculty were priests and nuns.
Every culture demands and prohibits, encourages and exhorts. The desire to have a university free from demands, a classroom sanitized and unhaunted, is nothing short of desiring an education free from culture. Many professors and administrators today desire this kind of education. For multiculturalism, “diversity,” and disembodied “critical thinking” add up to an imaginary, spectral meta-culture that is, by definition, no culture at all. And as I have said, students are not stupid. They realize that an education free from the commanding truths of culture is an invitation to live as clever, well-trained, and socially productive animals; and like all good students, they live up to the expectations.
Today the single greatest goal of Catholic universities should be to withdraw this debasing invitation. All students are well served by an educational atmosphere shaped by the demands of Catholic culture, demands that bear down upon us with the frightening force of divine commandments. For the dangerous commitments of truth and not the cool dispassion of critique open minds.
Patrick Deenen, a former Georgetown professor and the founder of the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, has more to say about Bloom on the separate matter of Bloom's relationship to conservatism. It's also a good read.