Choosing a College

April 3, 2019 Updated: April 30, 2019


So, you want to go to college. You want to acquire the knowledge, skills, and virtues you will need to enter and succeed in your chosen profession, let’s say one in a scientific, technical, or mathematical field. You also want to build on what you learned in high school, your family, and faith community about what is worth wanting.

In addition to the technical knowledge of your field, you are open to learning from your tradition and culture about the true, the good, and the beautiful. You want to explore what it means and takes to flourish as a human being, to discern what is worth living for, and how to look at life through moral and spiritual eyes. You want to grow in such virtues as intellectual humility and love of truth, charity and fair-mindedness in engaging with ideas different from your own, practical judgment, courage, self-mastery, self-criticism, and justice.

But, even leaving aside personal and cost considerations, finding a college where you can grow both in the knowledge and skills of a profession and also in the humanities is not so easy.

Some small private or faith-based colleges focus by design on the humanities, following a Great Books curriculum that includes Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton but from which you will learn nothing about probability, advanced calculus, and statistics or their use in financial risk assessment. They provide excellent education in the humanities but little or no practical preparation in the kind of profession that interests you.

Many large public universities seem to provide both practical career preparation and education in the liberal arts, including the humanities. They provide strong curricula in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as degree programs in practical fields like education and the helping professions. In addition to such career-oriented programs, they also provide courses, often as foundation requirements, in the liberal arts.

Sadly, however, these are designed more to indoctrinate than to educate, not to teach respectful appreciation of and learning from the greatest expressions of culture but to disparage them. Students learn to write off or deconstruct such notions as truth, goodness, and beauty as “cover for” will, power, and privilege. They learn not how, but what to think.

A Focus on the Liberal Arts

The liberal arts, including the humanities, in many colleges and universities have been infected with ideologies of postmodernism, relativism, and identity politics that result in a kind of cynical nihilism, the loss of belief that anything really matters. Rather than experiencing the liberal arts under such teaching as a call to spiritual awakening, you find the opposite, a path of spiritual collapse.

It is, thus, a mistake to think that by emphasizing the liberal arts over the technical and practical, you make a trade-off where you grow in virtue and wisdom but sacrifice technical skill. You may do that, or you may end up with neither wisdom nor technical knowledge.

Villanova University is a Catholic school with a college of liberal arts and sciences as well as colleges or schools of engineering, law, business, and nursing. So it appears to be a faith-based university with both liberal arts and practice-oriented professional education.

But even in such a school, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal by a political science professor and a professor of religion and literature, we see the chilling effects of administrators’ use of teaching evaluations by students to monitor faculty for “sensitivity” to “gender identity” and other kinds of “diversity.”

“An atmosphere of fear-imposed silence makes it impossible to achieve a real liberal-arts education,” they argued. “In fact, the ‘sensitivity’ questions appear almost perfectly designed to stifle Catholic moral teaching in the classroom.”

A Focus on the Practical

At the same time, don’t assume that by focusing on the practical or “vocational” you will necessarily learn anything useful or non-ideological.

A more specialized, technical STEM field, such as advanced mathematics or actuarial science, is less ideological and also turns out to be more practical than such practical fields as education, social work, or psychology. Those latter fields have become so ideological as to be, in important areas, worthless in providing practical use or guidance to professional practitioners.

For example, the highly politicized American Psychological Association recently produced what it called “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” As clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson argued, it is unscientific, evidence-free, and incoherent propaganda against men and masculinity. Furthermore, it lacks any guidelines for practice, so it’s practically worthless.

The influence of an “authoritative” publication like this is felt in education, counseling, and social work as well as clinical psychology—and in campus life in general, with its ever-expanding student services bureaucracy, its procedures and training, and its kangaroo courts for policing and adjudicating relations between the sexes.

A recent Facebook comment thread from a professor who described himself as teaching at a medium-size, run-of-the-mill state university showed how institutionalized this kind of hostility to men and their “toxic masculinity” has become in higher education. At his school, Student Services had established a Center for Healthy Masculinity. It is, he explained, staffed entirely by women and “effete males.” It is reminiscent of the large conference on the rights of women held recently in Saudi Arabia … at which there were no actual women.

What is the Solution?

At a personal level, it may be hard to find a college or university, large or small, public or private, secular or faith-based, that meets all your requirements. You may have to make trade-offs and mix and match the elements you need and want.

If you choose a large state school because it has a program in the specialized field you want, be prepared to supplement it with involvement in a strong religious community, one that is not itself infected with feel-good relativism. If, like most secular colleges, its faculty and administrators lean strongly left or progressive, how tolerant is it of viewpoint diversity? How open is it to a well-reasoned argument that dissents from the liberal-secular orthodoxy? Would people you admire, such as Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro, be allowed to speak there unmolested?

How is free expression circumscribed with speech codes? Is orthodox Christianity itself considered as hate speech? To what extent are students coddled and protected through the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and from engagement with ideas and viewpoints that might upset them?

These and other questions will occur to you as you discern not whether you can cure these ideological diseases, but whether they are so entrenched as to constitute a hostile environment for those unwilling to toe the party line or to keep their heads down and stay silent for four years.

Again, majoring in a STEM field, where faculty, their subjects, and their research are not, at least not yet, saturated with ideology, will spare you most of these problems.

If you choose a small faith-based college with good and demanding math teachers, you will have different challenges. You will not be working with other students and faculty dedicated to your field. You will not be able to complete all the coursework or take all the professional exams you need to practice at the highest level. But provided you get far enough, passing at least a couple of the professional exams before graduation, you will find employment, gain experience, and perhaps be supported as you prepare for and pass the remainder.

As the economist Thomas Sowell says, there are no solutions, there are only trade-offs.

Good luck!

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.