Some Hard Truths About Secular Colleges

R.R. Reno made waves a few months ago, because of his frank rejection of “elite” secular universities. Let’s hope Catholic educators were paying attention.

Reno is editor of First Things magazine, which caters to a generally highbrow readership. Before teaching at Jesuit, but largely secularized, Creighton University, he graduated from the prestigious Haverford College and earned his Ph.D. at Yale.

Still, Reno no longer recruits Ivy League graduates for his staff.

“I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat,” he writes, responding to the increasingly hostile “cancel culture” at Ivy League universities and most other secular colleges. He also doesn’t want to hire graduates who have become “well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up” against prevailing campus ideologies.

“I have no doubt that Ivy League universities attract smart, talented, and ambitious kids,” Reno acknowledges. “But do these institutions add value? My answer is increasingly negative. Dysfunctional kids are coddled and encouraged to nurture grievances, while normal kids are attacked and educationally abused.”

Most Catholic college students attend secular colleges or largely secularized Catholic colleges, where the anti-reason “cancel culture” threatens anyone who espouses Catholic teaching or celebrates Western culture. Shouldn’t the Church be doing something about these dangers?

Jennifer Frey, a philosophy professor at the public University of South Carolina, is a faithful Catholic who promotes multidisciplinary dialogue about virtue and goodness among her faculty. But as she explained recently in The Point Magazine, she is confronted by the skewed definition of secular higher education today. Its focus is deliberately concentrated on scientific knowledge, it discourages philosophical thinking about higher truths, and it excludes the essential truths of theology.


“My own vision of what a university should be is inspired by the Catholic tradition in which it originally came to be: a university is, in its essence, a community of scholars and students who seek the truth together as a common end for its own sake,” writes Frey. She cites St. John Henry Newman’s argument for theology as the foundational discipline of all education, “since God is the only coherent source of the sort of unity and order that such a search presupposes.”

Newman’s vision of a true university “has no chance of being realized outside of a Catholic context,” Frey acknowledges. But she strives for some “alternative vision of a secularized university” that at least recaptures an appreciation of various theologies. It might be the most that can be accomplished in a public university today – but is this the kind of higher education young Catholics deserve?

Concerns about secular education go well beyond academics, of course. Student life on most secular campuses is toxic to students trying to uphold Christian morality and to live simple, healthy lives. Many students lack sleep and good physical habits, they abuse alcohol and often drugs. And they may suffer anxiety as a result of promiscuous lifestyles and shallow relationships. Most secular institutions today aggressively promote gender ideology and sexual immorality, even to the point of demanding students’ assent to notions that contradict the Catholic faith.

The Church has made it a priority to provide Catholic centers and Bible study on secular campuses, offering some opportunity for Christian fellowship and the grace of the sacraments. But these efforts do not alter the general tenor of campus culture, which is increasingly dangerous for young Catholics. Such apostolates also cannot provide an authentically Catholic education, in which the insights of our Catholic faith bring light to every subject and provide a solid foundation for personal formation.

The Catholic Church must not turn a blind eye to the growing dangers of secular education. There is surely nothing “elite” about colleges that embrace depravity and lack commitment to truth and reason. They have turned against faith-filled, liberal arts education. Many today even seem committed to malforming young people.

“We do not flourish without communion with the good,” Frey argues, and that communion first requires forming students in “virtues like wisdom, courage and justice.” These are best cultivated in the home and within an education that is centered on Christ.

Secular education, with its focus on training students for functional roles in the economy and society, rejects an authentic higher education that forms the whole person. Catholic leaders must regain confidence in a fully Catholic education and proclaim it, especially (but not only) to the faithful who have been let down by colleges that are not truly committed to their Catholic missions. We need to restore trust as well as confidence.

Frey, who argues the essential roles of theology and philosophy to higher education, concedes that the ideal is a Catholic institution. Reno admires graduates of “quirky small Catholic colleges such as Thomas Aquinas College, Wyoming Catholic College, and the University of Dallas,” which are not “deformed by the toxic political correctness that leaders of elite universities have allowed to become dominant.” These schools are among the 26 colleges highlighted by The Cardinal Newman Society in our Newman Guide, which offers Catholic families a variety of faithful options for higher education.

These colleges are, for the most part, growing each year, even as many private colleges across the country are struggling to maintain enrollment. Catholics should be rallying around these faithful colleges and encouraging families with college-age children to give them strong consideration. Meanwhile, we need to talk openly about the dangers that young Catholics face at secular colleges and steer them to better options.

I recently spoke to a good friend who provided a strong Catholic grade-school and high-school education for his children, but then sent the eldest to his alma mater, a highly reputed public university. My friend did well enough there years ago, but deplores the poisonous campus culture there now.

“I just didn’t know how bad it had become,” he told me. I think he – and everyone in a similar position – deserves to know.


*Image: John Henry Newman by William Thomas Roden, after 1870 [Birmingham Art Gallery, Birmingham, England]

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Newman’s Three Ideas of a University

Helen Freeh’s Higher Education in a Different Key

Patrick Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.