On Catholic campuses that aspire to Top Ten or Top Twenty status in publicity sweepstakes like the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, one sometimes hears the phrase “preferred peers.” Translated into plain English from faux-sociologese, that means the schools to which we’d like to be compared (and be ranked with). At a major Catholic institution like the University of Notre Dame, for example, administrators use the term “preferred peers” to refer to universities like Duke, Stanford, and Princeton, suggesting that these are the benchmarks by which Notre Dame measures its own aspirations to excellence.
By the current standards of American higher learning, Duke, Stanford, and Princeton are indeed excellent schools. But is their excellence the excellence to which a Catholic institution of higher education should aspire? Are they the benchmarks by which a Catholic university with dreams of glory should measure itself?
I doubt it. Boasting vast endowments, many very fine teachers, and excellent programs in some fields, Duke, Stanford, and Princeton nonetheless participate in the intellectual incoherence that is the chief hallmark of 21st-century American higher education. None of the three has a serious, demanding core curriculum, in which students absorb the intellectual patrimony of the West and are thus equipped to meet and engage other cultures. Duke has an excellent divinity school and a glorious chapel; but it would be a stretch to say that serious theology and an appreciation of human beings as innately worshipping creatures are hallmarks of a Duke undergraduate education. Princeton has the great Professor Robert P. George, but its philosophy department is adept at turning out graduates who doubt that there is anything properly describable as “the truth.” As for Stanford, its response to the decadence of campus life today has been to institute a monitored regime of political correctness that would be risible if it were not sinister.
Aspirations to excellence should be applauded in any field. The real question is, what do you mean by excellence? And as I survey the higher altitudes of American higher education in the first decades of the twenty-first century, at least as measured by U.S. News and World Report, I don’t see a lot that Blessed John Henry Newman, author of The Idea of a University, would recognize as “excellence.”
I see extremely bright students, often ill-served by ideologically distorted teaching. I see extraordinary wealth used for endless fundraising. I see lots of scientific and technological innovation, usually untethered from any serious consideration of whether something new is good or bad, ennobling or dehumanizing. At the undergraduate level, I see a curricular smorgasbord that not even the brightest eighteen-year old could reasonably be expected to navigate, so as to graduate as a well-rounded, well-educated young adult. The high-priced-spread schools may be excellent by their own guild standards (for those vaunted rankings depend heavily on peer reviews, one academic hand scratching another academic back). But would Newman accept those standards or find these schools excellent? My hunch is he’d find them deeply confused, no matter how wealthy.
Catholic higher education in the United States is, in my experience, the best Catholic higher education in the world. But it could be better. And the notion that it will become better by aspiring to be like today’s Ivies (or Ivy wannabes like Duke and Stanford) strikes me as a hangover from the vertigo of the immediate post-Vatican II years. Then, a lot of Catholic educators, seeking to let some fresh air blow through the windows of their classrooms, imagined that refreshing breezes would be imitating schools like Harvard, Cornell, and Berkeley (which in those days was widely regarded as not only the country’s greatest public university, but its greatest university, period). The problem was that Harvard, Cornell, and Berkeley were on the cusp of losing their minds and deconstructing their souls.
Rather than aiming to be like the “preferred peers,” why shouldn’t a proudly Catholic university like Notre Dame set a new standard of true excellence, based on and measured by the Catholic tradition of integrated learning and integral human formation?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.