Driving through the Cleveland suburbs recently, I had a great life-imitates-art moment: a sign on Interstate 271 announcing two impending exits, one for “Harvard Rd.” and the other for “Chagrin Blvd.”
Please don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends went to Harvard; one of my best friends teaches at Harvard; I’ve even lectured at Harvard. But for too many undergraduates, four years on the Harvard road will likely lead to one form of chagrin or another. Why? Because Harvard College doesn’t take undergraduate education seriously.
It will, of course, tell you that it does and point you toward the recently released “Final Report of the Task Force on General Education,” the result of years of labor by the Harvard faculty. One acute observer, himself a denizen of the academy, notes that as a result of that heavy-lifting, “we now have a useful, readable constitution for postmodern undergraduate education in America. The only problem is that it is a constitution for an intellectual and moral banana republic.”
Too harsh? Try this, from the aforementioned report: “The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle assumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.” No doubt Socrates thought he was doing something vaguely akin to that. But Socrates “disoriented” young people with all of those probing questions in order to get them to grasp the truth of things. The basic assumption of the Harvard faculty report is that there is no truth-of-things; it’s all “appearances,” all the way down. And for this parents are paying more than a quarter of a million dollars?
No doubt there are honorable exceptions on the Harvard faculty — teachers who believe that their responsibility is to introduce some of the brightest young people in the world to the riches of the intellectual life, understood as reason’s quest for truths worth believing because they are, well, true. But for those members of the Harvard professoriate whose views dominated the Task Force on General Education, reason can’t get at the universal truth of things, for there are no such universal truths. The report says that one of the goals of a Harvard undergraduate education is to empower students to “choose for themselves what principles will guide them.” But isn’t the question of what those principles are important? Apparently not, if you’re comfortably perched, with tenure, in the intellectual sandbox of postmodernism.
My general rule for parents who care is that, in the main, it’s better to save the prestigious American universities for your son’s or daughter’s graduate education. The undergraduate years are a privileged moment in which students should drink deeply from the wellsprings of western culture, while being formed into mature Christians who have integrated the life of faith with the life of the mind. Nothing does this better – and nothing prepares students better for any professional career – than a classic liberal arts education at a Catholic college or university that takes both learning and Catholicism seriously.
Parents and students looking for just that kind of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual experience at the undergraduate level might well have a look at the Cardinal Newman Society’s new publication, “Choosing a Catholic College: What to Look For and Where to Find It.” As with any such guide, reasonable people can differ about some of the judgments made about the 22 schools profiled, or the selection (or omission) of certain schools; I, for one, would certainly add Providence College in Rhode Island to the list of schools well worth considering. Overall, though, I found the book fair, judicious, and chock-full of useful detail about every facet of life on the campuses studied.
Guides like this are gold and frankincense compared to rubbish like the annual U.S. News & World Report ratings. The colleges profiled are also signs of hope that the intellectual sandbox won’t prevail – which is no small thing. Nothing less that the future of the West is at stake in our continued ability to make rational arguments on behalf of freedom lived for excellence, freedom lived in truth, freedom fulfilled in goodness.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.