The Cardinal Newman Society recently published a list of 42 Catholic colleges that are allowing the performance this year of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s infamous play. By now, few who follow trends in higher education will be surprised to find America’s leading Catholic universities on this list. It’s no longer news when the likes of Georgetown, Notre Dame, Boston College, and Fordham thumb their noses at the official teachings of the Church. After all, these schools were eager to shed much of their Catholic identity as early as 1967, when representatives from each signed the “Land O’ Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University” — which called for “true autonomy and academic freedom” from authority of any kind “external to the academic community itself.”
So if the prospect of a Catholic college staging a play in which women sit around discussing their private parts, masturbation, and the seduction of a 16-year-old girl by a lesbian make you squeamish, you’re clearly behind the times. If, on the other hand, you see such a production as evidence of enlightened, cutting-edge morality and intellectualism, you might well qualify for the presidency of a relatively unknown college near you.
I don’t mean to disparage such schools. On the contrary, I met my wife and made many lifelong friends at tiny Young Harris College, which I usually describe as “a small junior college (not a commuter school) in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of northeast Georgia.” (Nowadays I might add that it’s also the alma mater of Georgia senator Zell Miller.) Small colleges have traditionally offered a haven from the more tumultuous life of larger schools. Faculties were content to spend most of their time teaching, socializing with students, and building a strong school identity. Time-consuming research, the frequent publishing of scholarly books and articles, and attendance at the meetings of professional societies were duties better left to the denizens of large state universities, prestigious private schools, and the Ivies. After all, teaching loads in most small schools were heavy, and few of them provided the libraries and laboratories required to match the output of professors in larger, more research-oriented institutions. By maintaining an identity, spirit, and mission clearly different from that of the larger, more prestigious schools, small colleges added to the rich diversity of the nation’s higher education and offered Americans an abundance of that one quality they demand in all things: choice.
Unfortunately, this older model of the liberal-arts college began to decline in the 1960s, just as scholarship itself was becoming increasingly politicized. Among the 42 Catholic schools hosting productions of The Vagina Monologues are Rivier College in Nashua, N.H., Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and the Dominican University of California in San Rafael. With a combined total of about 5,600 students, these schools exemplify what was once assumed to be a sure bet for parents seeking a quality education for their children in an environment that was morally and intellectually wholesome. After all, what could go wrong in Dubuque, or at a college founded by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary? The Dominicans have a long tradition of scholarship and learning, so surely their administration can be trusted — can’t it?
But plenty has gone wrong at any religious college that hosts sanctimonious, vacuous pap masquerading as high culture. And if it’s happening at the Lorases and Riviers of this world, you’ll find it at scores of other schools of similar size and reputation too. As the numbers of religious and priests teaching at church schools declined, many of their lay replacements were trained at the same graduate institutions whose professors were busy politicizing scholarship elsewhere. These newly minted Ph.D.s became missionaries for radical, cutting-edge ideas not often seen before at smaller colleges, be they religious or secular. With so much time and psychic energy invested in their trendsetting schools of thought, new professors weren’t likely to be content with merely teaching students and befriending colleagues. The very nature of their beliefs required that older models be overturned, long-established boundaries be violated, and the enemies of the movement (any movement will do) be vanquished.
Besides, what kind of self-respecting scholar, having cut his academic teeth on the latest intellectual trends, would want to teach at some backwater filled with yahoos who wouldn’t know Derrida from a Whole Earth Catalogue? Sophistication was what was needed, and sophistication is what they offered. Tired of adhering to age-old customs? Time-tested ideas got you down? Heavy old books cramping your style along with your spine? Toss ‘em out! With the latest lightweight learning peddled by the new generation, students could master their studies, earn decent grades, and help change the world! And at the end of the day, what are we all doing here, anyway?
Exactly. As small liberal-arts colleges adopted the pedagogy and scholarship of the big schools, they have traded away their birthright. Put simply, why should anyone chose to attend a small, relatively unknown school whose primary goal is to ape the worst features of its intellectual betters? In our democratic society, there remains a distinct pecking order among institutions of higher learning. Everyone knows this, but they overlook the fact that, for most people in most places, such hierarchies have little meaning. America is filled with graduates of the Lorases and Riviers who, despite the fairly modest pedigree afforded by their alma maters, live perfectly happy, productive lives. That’s because those schools once took seriously an educational mission that sought to teach students a body of knowledge from which they might learn to think critically. By providing a context in which to evaluate the information they absorbed, and by instilling the habit of taking serious ideas seriously, these unheralded schools gave their students the means to discern gold from brass.
As the know-nothing ideology represented by The Vagina Monologues is welcomed by the faculty and administrations of our smaller colleges — including schools with a rich religious tradition — American higher education becomes increasingly less diverse. Parents and students seeking to avoid the pandering to novelty of such pretentious enterprises will find themselves with fewer choices. Donors who wish to use their resources to strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric will have to examine their intended recipients more closely, even when giving to traditionally religious schools. But most importantly, the students of the schools on the Cardinal Newman Society list are left on the frontlines, to give meaning to a school’s mission that administrators and faculties might otherwise effectively abandon.
— Winfield Myers is chief executive officer of Democracy Project, Inc., an educational and outreach organization in Wilmington, Del.