The College Orientation Talk You’ll Never Hear

This week my two daughters go off to college. The younger is beginning her freshman year, so my wife and I are scheduled to participate in various orientation activities. I spent over fifteen years in higher education, and it is always fascinating for me to watch how colleges and universities present themselves to the wider public. Having a pretty good idea of how the sausage is made, I marvel at the techniques of the sausage salesman.

I don’t mean to suggest that the salesman is necessarily a charlatan. The art of persuasion is a legitimate art. Still, there are important things that colleges and universities, including Catholic ones, are not likely to speak about during orientation. On such occasions, both students and parents are shown the glossier features of the institution, while more troubling areas are kept in the dark.

So as I help my daughter load the car with her things I find myself asking: what do students and parents most need to hear as they enter a Catholic institution of higher learning?

It’s best to begin, dear parents and students, by remembering the principle that parents are the primary educators of their children. I know – college students aren’t children and parents at this stage don’t enjoy the same authority they enjoyed in the past. You parents won’t even be able to find out your kids’ grades unless he or she decides to share them with you.

But the principle is still worth recalling, if only to underscore the fact that the college or university is no more and no less than a contract worker in the educational enterprise. You hire a painter to help paint your house, and if he’s no good you fire him and look for another. Go ahead and take the same attitude with regard to your school. While the school itself will want you to consider it your “family” from the moment you step onto the verdant quadrangle, you will remember that the term “family,” even by extension, implies trust. And that trust must be earned.

Second, I implore you to keep in mind that college is not meant to be an Amish Rumspringa. It is not a College Land in which students enjoy the “right” to party or otherwise act like animals, as the weekend reward for five days of hard work. The point of these four years is to bring the moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation begun by your parents to the point where you can contribute to society and to the Church in a constructive, independent way. This is an opportunity to deepen your commitment to your faith and the studies necessary to pursue the Lord’s call with excellence. And at quite a substantial cost – please bear that in mind.

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At the same time, parents, your child’s college career is not an opportunity for you to relive your glory days. Yes, it’s fun to put on the spirit wear, attach the school decals to the rear window, and tailgate before the football games. But your primary role in this adventure is not to play, but to make sure the institution is helping form the immortal soul of your child. And if it is, to support those efforts.

Third, dear students and parents, be encouraged that the faculty of your school, upon whom so much depends in the coming years, includes some very good, if not exemplary, people. You will doubtless encounter teachers who embody everything that is good in the Catholic intellectual tradition and who transform the lives of their students in profoundly positive ways.

That said, note well that the faculty of your school also includes those who know very little about the Catholic intellectual tradition – indeed, who may be more ignorant of it than some of their students. Your faculty also will likely include those who are actively working to undermine our tradition. The university “family,” in short, is dysfunctional. Thus you will need a very sure guide to help you navigate the minefield of the curriculum so that a real education will be achieved. Have you identified such a person? Do you even know how to go about identifying such a person?

It’s common to hear talk of this or that institution being a “good school.” But what is the definition of a “good school”? In the Catholic sense, a good school is one in which Catholic truth is the animating spirit of the curriculum and the faculty, in which all studies are ordered in very practical ways to the disciplines of philosophy and theology, and where the intellectual diversity of the faculty is unified by a common understanding of the dignity of the human person and the person’s ability to know reality. Don’t be naïve: there are nowadays very few “good schools” in this sense.

Try this experiment. Go the web page of your school’s English or sociology department and read the department’s mission statement. Does it say anything about the Catholic intellectual tradition? Does it use words or phrases such as “truth” or “beauty” or “human dignity”? If not, take it as a bad sign. It doesn’t necessarily mean that department is in open combat with the Catholic mission of the institution, but it most probably indicates a level of disconnect. That kind of disconnection is rife in Catholic institutions of higher education.

Finally, dear students and parents, please be vigilant. In many ways, you and your family will want to assimilate to the environment of your school. But in other ways, you will need to push back and be counter-cultural. The need to identify will be strong, but don’t let the t-shirt make you complacent. Catholic institutions are in no way immune from the more disastrous impulses of the secular culture.

Wisdom, my friends, is the glorious prize that awaits at the end of the road of these four years. But remember, a roaring lion stalks the roadside, seeking whom he may devour.

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About Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.

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