Someone I know–let’s call her Mariah–is entering her senior year in high school this fall. She and her four younger siblings are being homeschooled by their mother at their isolated rural home, and she has grown up to be the toe-the-line conservative Catholic her parents intended. So she’s considering Christendom College, a place where “Catholicism…is the air that we breathe”, where “all of our professors take an Oath of Fidelity to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.” I care about Mariah, and I worry about her. Christendom’s traits don’t bespeak a broad intellectual outlook.
But Mariah’s grandmother told me that Christendom made it onto a top ten best colleges list at CollegeGuide.org (they also have a top ten “train wrecks” list, about which vide infra). I was intrigued and went to check it out.
Unlike US News, College Guide* focuses strongly on whether a college offers a classical liberal education. The traditional Western canon is magnificent and important, if incomplete, and the site’s essay defending that emphasis and its other ranking criteria seemed intelligent at first skim. It includes measures of lectures-versus-seminars, professors-versus-adjuncts, financial aid, and crime on campus. So far, so good. It also considers whether a “wide array” of political views hold on campus, which seemed fine too. (I didn’t notice at first the conservative clues like “multicultural grievances” and “trendy, ideologically charged topics” in their criticisms of the wrong kinds of universities. Nor did I spot the reference to homeschoolers on the home page–a category which seems these days to comprise mostly children in religious families.)
The top ten best colleges by College Guide’s measures are Princeton, U Chicago, University of the South, the US Military Academy, Pepperdine, Baylor, Providence College, Texas A&M, Gordon College, and Christendom. About Princeton, College Guide says
All programs are rigorous and demanding—grade inflation doesn’t exist here—but the most highly praised disciplines include English and creative writing, history, politics, classics, math, physics, religious studies and German. Of all the elite colleges, Princeton is the least politicized. Issue-driven organizations are diverse and mostly high-minded, and chaplaincies of many denominations are active and faithful. While the faculty overall leans left, most keep their views out of the classroom. The school makes room for the excellent James Madison program, a conservative institute dedicated to American political philosophy.
Ah. This ranking system is aimed at religious people on the political right. No problem. Few would disagree that Princeton is a superb college, and I wouldn’t argue with the notion that its diverse political viewpoints and lack of grade inflation are among its strengths. The site goes on to say some intelligent, if conservatively-flavored, things about the other schools on its top-ten list, though I take a dim view of its praise of Christendom:
Instead of political correctness, there is an absolute expectation of Catholic orthodoxy; debates on campus are among Republicans, anticapitalist agrarians, libertarians, paleoconservatives, and monarchists. Shared premises make such disputes more fruitful.
Somehow I doubt the truth of that last statement. Pity poor Mariah. She doesn’t have much of a chance.
More revealing is a look at College Guide’s so-called ten “train wreck” college reviews of Wesleyan, Bard, Holy Cross, Amherst, Barnard, UC Santa Cruz, Duke, Bryn Mawr, Occidental, and Macalester. Some of its criticisms sound fair, most notably about the kinds of classes that are apparently optional at many of these colleges (call me old-fashioned, but I agree that English majors shouldn’t skip Shakespeare and American history majors need to study the Civil War–and that everyone needs an understanding of math and science), but also in its complaints that non-liberal opinions at some of these colleges are mocked and shouted down. Intellectual bullying doesn’t befit any good university. But what struck me was the reviews’ sex-negativity, misogyny, and homophobia.
The Queer Resource Center serves an active and noisy homosexual population….The Bard Free Press has reviewed porn films, and there is a “sexual lifestyles” student magazine called the Moderator….The college fixates on “diversity,” to the point of sponsoring scads of gay-themed programs….faculty and administrators are still fixated on “race, gender, and class.”…Many of the college’s humanities courses are dedicated to feminist issues and the politics of victimhood, such as “The Sociology of AIDS” covering the “social construction of AIDS”; “Anxious Masculinity” (an English class); and “African Childhoods,” which provides a “gendered perspective . . . Concerning indigenous cultural practices such as initiation ceremonies and sexual orientation.” Radical groups predominate on campus, presenting a feminist “May Hole” instead of a May Pole, and celebrating Wiccan Sabbats….“Feminist Sex Wars,” offered by the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department, covers “non-monogamies,” pornography, bisexuality, and “transgenderism/transsexuality.”
It’s one thing for conservative reviewers to bemoan the wholesale substitution of new subjects for the classics; educated people can differ about core curricula. Moreover, strongly partisan campuses can harmfully muzzle honest disagreement, and it doesn’t threaten progressiveness to converse with the other side and value the traditional canon. But honestly. Are we still afraid of other religions (Wiccan Sabbats–yoiks!)? Are we still opposed to looking at life from a female point of view, and do we still loathe open discussions of human sexuality? Didn’t we leave fear like that behind in the 70s? Prose casually calling out gay people “noisy” and throwing scare quotes around every non-Eisenhowerian idea of humanity underscores just how comfortable the right is with committing the ideological bullying it claims to despise. Where’s the human decency that might be expected to arise from a reverence for the wisdom of the canon? Where’s the humility, O Christians?