Last Wednesday, the presidents of Catholic University of America, Yeshiva University, and Baylor University–three of the largest and most prominent religiously affiliated universities in the United States, gathered at the National Press Club to discuss the role of faith in higher education. The event grew out of an essay written by Yeshiva’s Richard Joel last year, asking about a university’s soul:
Years ago, I had the honor of taking part in a meeting at the White House convening educational leaders for an open discussion with then President George W. Bush. At one point, the President remarked that “the purpose of higher education is to prepare our children to compete in the global economy.” I mustered the courage to respectfully respond: “Mr. President — at Yeshiva University, we take a slightly different view. We believe the purpose of education is to ennoble and enable our students.” “Ennoble and enable,” he said, smiling. “I like that.”
It is my belief that without a unifying theme, without purposeful context, without asking and answering seemingly audacious yet entirely legitimate questions like “so what?” and “for what?” those facts and formulas will lose both luster and efficacy.
Joel put his finger on a key difference between religious and secular colleges and universities. He pointed to William Butler Yeats’s assertion that education is not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire [a quote that is most likely from Plutarch, not Yeats], and suggested that secular universities too often fall into patterns of filling students’ buckets so they can compete in the economic order. Religious universities are therefore countercultures.
At the National Press Club, a focus of the presidents’ remarks was on the kind of human beings that students become as a result of their education. They pointed to recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the recent proposal to develop a federal ratings system for colleges and universities, as unhelpful encroachments on the kind of transformative education that their institutions hope to midwife.
Religious colleges and universities have been part of the educational landscape of the United States since the founding of the Puritans’ Harvard College in 1636, and part of the Catholic Church’s corporal works of mercy in the United States since the founding of Georgetown in 1789. Their aim, the three presidents suggested, has been to help students find their calling: to go where they discern God is calling them to go, to use their gifts in service to the world.
There is something at the heart of religiously affiliated universities that is equally at the heart of the American experiment: the freedom to discern truth according to one’s deepest understanding of the world, of human behavior, and of God– in short, the freedom not to be told by an elected majority what you ought to believe. They act as a bulwark against a creeping totalitarianism.