Some Serious Shopping Tips For Catholic Parents (And Others) Seeking Traditional Schools
Buried inside the websites of colleges and universities are the calendars covering the nitty-gritty details of academic and student life.
That's a great place for research by parents considering places for their children to spend some of the most formative years of their lives, according to a Catholic scholar involved in fierce debates about postmodern trends in education.
Anthony Esolen thinks parents should pay special attention to student-life offerings on Friday and Saturday nights.
"You aren't just looking to see what kinds of things they're doing, you're looking for what is missing," said Esolen, best known for his translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy." He has also written "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization," "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" and other books on hot-button subjects.
For example, Esolen once noticed that calendars at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., contained lots of dancing – swing dancing, to be precise. That sounded fun, but it didn't sound like business as usual in this day and age.
"What you're trying to find out," he explained, "is whether campus leaders are making serious attempts to build some wholesome community life. You're looking for chances for young men and women to get together in settings that tend to reinforce what a Catholic college is all about. … Otherwise, the weekend is just the weekend and we know what that means."
This topic may not sound controversial, said Esolen, but it is because of cultural issues looming in the background – the defense of ancient doctrines on sexuality, gender and marriage. What happens in classrooms is important, but so are the expectations campus leaders establish for campus life, especially in their dormitories.
"Like it or not, parents have to learn whether a school is or is not on board with the whole Sexual Revolution," he said. If a school "has capitulated on that front" then traditional Catholic parents, or serious religious believers in other flocks, "have to run away and not look back. You can't compromise on that, right now."
The irony is that these kinds of doctrinal issues are critically important to both liberal and conservative Catholics. The bottom line: They are seeking different answers to the same questions.
After the events that unfolded last year at Providence College – where Esolen taught for 27 years – conservative Catholics will certainly note his departure to teach at the much smaller Thomas More College in New Hampshire.
At Providence, Esolen was accused, in the words of one faculty statement, of "racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic and religiously chauvinist statements" in his writings for Crisis magazine. In an article called "My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult" – Esolen didn't write the headline – he urged Catholic schools to reject "divisive identity politics" and unite around church teachings stressing the unity of all humanity in the eyes of God.
Obviously, Catholic students and their parents – on the left and right – are going to want to spend time online learning where individual schools stand on academic subjects linked to faith and public life.
A good place to start, according to Esolen, is by studying the theology and philosophy departments and noting the number of faculty members who focus on gender studies. Parents should also examine what is happening in core Humanities departments, such as English and History, as well as in academic subjects that are of special interest to their children.
Most schools with religious ties will, in publicity materials, make references to their "heritage" and the "traditions" behind their work, he said. However, parents and students can "dig deeper by studying the names of courses that are offered, as well as titles of publications that faculty list in their biographies. You want to know the subjects that faculty members are speaking about, the issues that they take most seriously."
Campus religious life is crucial, of course. However, the chaplain's office may be "doing a wonderful job, but that can't take the place of what is happening everywhere else," said Esolen.
"You need to learn if a campus has become a hostile environment for the Catholic mind. If a college advertises a commitment to knowledge and virtue, if that's part of their sales pitch, your goal is to probe deeper and see how they back that up."