Higher education in America has been devastated. Leading scholars such as Victor Davis Hanson and Robert George have focused on this growing problem for many years – with little to show for it. These academic voices are now joined by cultural figures such as the late-night comedian Bill Maher and the actor-turned-champion of the vocational trades, Mike Rowe.
To summarize what they have said: Universities charge immorally high tuition rates, offer subpar education by indoctrinating students in narrow ideologies, and graduate men and women with degrees that do not enable them to earn a living wage. A recent Wall Street Journal article focused on Columbia University’s master’s program in which students were graduating with a median debt of $181,000 but, two years later, half were earning less than $30,000 a year.
The current crisis reflects the deleterious effects of the bifurcation of our education system into an either/or path. A young person either goes to a four-year college or to a vocational school. The vocational route has been denigrated by people who see education only as the means for making money and who falsely hold that the four-year college path offers students a better financial future. Further, an elitism has become firmly rooted in our society that believes a college degree raises its recipient to a higher class than his trades-educated peer.
As Mike Rowe indicates , “our society has devalued any other path to success and happiness. Millions of well-intended parents and guidance counselors see apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for the brass ring: a four-year degree.”
Yet, bitter experience is changing our societal views on higher education. Our celebrated institutions are running on the fumes of reputation. How many times have I heard a person praise a once-noble Catholic institution as a “great university” out of reminiscence of an experience now well in the past, or the sentiments aroused by the image of a football helmet glinting in the autumn light. If you were to ask them what still makes that university great, they would fumble for a response.
The basic criticism of our college system is correct: it is overpriced for a poor product in a toxic environment. As pendulums always swing too far one way or the other, we’re beginning to risk the rejection of the intellectual life altogether. This is a problem for the human person but also for our society. We need authentic education in the liberal arts precisely because they offer an education in being human, a quality conspicuously absent at present from public life.
A fundamental problem exists for both college and vocational training: both lose the inherent dignity of the human person by viewing him as a functionary. Christian education is not meant to churn out either “white-” or “blue-collar” workers, or simply to be the means to wealth and security. Education must be a true “ex-ducere,” “to lead out of.” If we do not understand what we are leading out of, then we do not understand the purpose of education at all. The purpose of education is not to lead from economic darkness to financial light.
Having separated intellectual and manual education, a great gulf now exists between them to the detriment of the human soul. Oddities and extremes have arisen on both sides. The elite intellectual dismisses the tradesman as unintelligent; the manual worker dismisses the intellectual as impractical. The reality is that each needs the other in terms of becoming a whole human person. But head, heart, and hand must all work together for a soul to be whole. Thus education must reflect this truth and guide persons to their essential end – eternal life with Jesus Christ. We do not currently offer such an integrated training, but we need to.
My husband John and I have become sharply aware of the need now for such an education, one which offers young people equal instruction in the Great Books of Western Civilization and a vocational/trade skill. We have set out to found a new Catholic college in Gallup, NM, the poorest of the U.S. dioceses, that seeks to re-unite these now-separate educations: Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts (Basic information is available here: www.katericollege.org ). We have designed a curriculum that integrates a core set of liberal arts courses with vocational ones within a college community that encourages Catholic life and culture – a worldview that many non-Catholics and even non-religious will also find valuable.
Every semester, the students will participate in a missionary service project either in Gallup or on one of the surrounding Native American reservations. This hands-on experience embodies two key goals of the College: a servant’s heart in students, and practical experience of work. Further, every student will participate in work-for-tuition projects in a related trade field, for instance, renovating homes within the area. In their study of the practical arts, students will express through their trade skill the beauty and the aesthetic which is a key attribute of God and which a liberal arts training strives to convey. During their four years, students will earn not only a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal and Practical Arts, but also a state-certified certificate that they have completed the apprentice level of a specific trade.
We do not want to educate students simply to be good workers. We want them to be good men and women who love God and those things that are of God – truth, goodness, and beauty. The ability to get a job easily with such an education is an added bonus.
We are setting out on this daunting task in a difficult time for our Church and for our nation in which it is easier to analyze the problem than propose a solution. I take inspiration from a poem our daughter has memorized:
Say not the days are evil, – Who’s to blame?
And fold not the hands and acquiesce, – O shame!
Stand up, speak out, and bravely, in God’s name.”
Christ asks us to give others what we have. We only have a few loaves and fish to offer, but with that, God can feed a multitude.
*Image: Tribute to the American Working People  by Honoré Sharrer, 1951 [Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC]