Catholic Education: For the Person You Want to Be

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of St. Thomas

Choosing the right college or university is among the most important life decisions facing students and their families. It has been this way since the latter part of the 20th century, when higher education became the pathway to a better life in American society. But today’s expanded range and variety of higher education options require greater and more careful consideration and discernment. After all, in the most fundamental and enduring sense, the college or university to which students finally commit will be their alma mater, which literally translates to their “nurturing or nourishing mother.”

Like any good parent, your alma mater should want you to flourish professionally and personally, providing you with the tools and conditions enabling you to do so. It is no exaggeration to say that choosing the college or university that is right for you is a foundational step in establishing your professional competency, figuring out how you will define happiness and success, discovering your life’s purposes, and determining the ways you will contribute meaningfully to your family, civil society, and the various professional and volunteer communities of which you will become a part.

There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Many of them take great care in creating a collegiate experience designed to transform their students’ lives. Catholic colleges and universities are especially well known as places where students thrive and succeed in every dimension of their lives, for most if not all of them commit themselves explicitly and conscientiously to the noble ideal of educating the whole person. Students and families researching Catholic higher education will often hear or read about the importance of an education that encompasses all aspects of a student’s personhood. It is an educational philosophy that takes seriously students’ learning and formation beyond the acquisition of specialized, technical know-how.

Let’s consider in some depth the importance of intellectual formation and the Catholic difference in this area of higher learning. To be sure, knowledge, skill, and the proper development of one’s mind are central and indispensably important to the college and university experience. In a knowledge-driven society such as ours, any college or university worthy of the name would be seriously depriving its students if it did not do everything possible to supply them with the most up-to-date, leading-edge knowledge and methods in their chosen academic fields. But a Catholic education is not content to provide only specialized academic preparation and leave knowledge in disciplinary silos. Instead its faculty and curriculum lead students to integrate knowledge, so their encounters with the world and reality benefit from a multifaceted perspective.

Integration among disciplines is a hallmark of Catholic higher education. In the Catholic tradition, truth is understood as possessing a unity stemming from the common origin of all created things from a wise and loving creator. Although each academic discipline achieves distinctive insights into the world, the whole truth is greater than what can be found in the conclusions of any one discipline. Consequently, students searching for truth, not being limited by any one discipline, seek knowledge from various disciplines to achieve an integrated, more complete understanding of the world. Especially important in the Catholic tradition is the integration of “faith” (i.e., what can be known through divine revelation) and “reason” (i.e., what can be known through human experience and intelligence apart from God’s revelation).

At my home institution, the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, students experience the integration of knowledge in a required synthesis or capstone course that brings two or more academic disciplines into conversation with each other for their mutual enrichment. For example, in a seminar on human love, what students know about love from cognitive psychology, philosophy, and literature is set in relation to theological concepts of love, such as “God is love.” So students see that a poet or novelist who accepts this insight into God’s nature could celebrate in their work how the mutual love of friends allows them in a way to participate in something divine.

Developing students’ integrative habits of mind is important to their self-understanding and an enriched understanding of the human person. Although the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities each contribute significant knowledge about the human person and the human condition, not one of them can answer all of the questions that arise about ourselves and the environment in which we live without doing violence to the richness of human existence and experience. The ability to integrate and synthesize knowledge from a variety of disciplines also provides students with a valuable skill to tackle the current and emerging societal challenges that face us. Prominent psychologist Howard Gardner, for example, sees the synthesizing mind as one of the most important intellectual skills needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. For Gardner, the mark of “the synthesizing mind” is “the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.”

But the education of mind and the cultivation of the skills and abilities that accompany a student’s intellectual development are just two aims of Catholic higher education. One tradition of Catholic education captures and expresses succinctly a richer and more ennobling concept of what it means to be a truly educated person: cura personalis, or care for the entire person, is a premier philosophy for educating the whole person. It recognizes that teaching and learning are not merely concerned with the transmission of information or knowledge. Rather, the collegiate experience is about being and becoming a complete human person, and appreciating and understanding why doing so is an important life goal. A Catholic college or university committed to this concept of learning will endeavor mightily to provide individual attention to the needs of each of its students, respect for his or her particular circumstances and concerns, and an appreciative acknowledgement of his or her unique talents and strengths along with ways to develop them.

Catholic institutions of higher learning achieve this end by personalizing their students’ learning and linking what students learn in their classes to who they are as people—their biographies, interests, aspirations, strengths, and challenges they face in achieving their personal goals. This approach to education does not assume that learners’ intellects are detachable from their broader life circumstances. Rather, it sees intellectual development as intimately connected to students’ social, emotional, and physical growth. This way of forming students is in accord with a classic Christian ideal of a well-formed person. It is the “unity of life” principle, meaning we should balance and integrate all dimensions of our life that make us authentically human. These include the intellectual, spiritual, moral, emotional, social, and bodily aspects of our personalities.

The collegiate experience recognizes from the outset that students come to campus with unsettled identities and provisional life plans, or plans that their collegiate experience will unsettle. Part of this experience is the refinement of students’ ethical and moral sensibilities, another hallmark of Catholic education. Ethical and moral maturity rely heavily on dialogue and expected and unexpected encounters with faculty, peers, trusted mentors, counselors, advisors, and religious leaders. This means that parents and students should examine each of these aspects of the particular colleges or universities on their short lists of institutions.

In sum, the education of the whole person is an education for wisdom. Among other things, wisdom enables us to evaluate our decisions and our life projects ethically and morally, to use and apply our knowledge to make life better for others and our communities. Each Catholic institution of higher learning will express its commitment to holistic education uniquely. Just as each student has a singularly unique personality, so too do colleges and universities. If students take the importance of holistic education seriously—and they should—then they need to look for concrete evidence and examples for how a college or university lives its commitment to educating the whole person. Such evidence could include speaking with graduates and current students from the institution to learn about their experiences, taking note of the responsiveness and attentiveness of admission counselors, and researching the institution’s retention and graduation rates.

A campus visit is often the best way to gain first-hand experience of the personality of a particular college or university, especially when the visit includes sitting in on actual classes and tours of residence life facilities. This kind of holistic education should be evident in every aspect of the college or university campus: in classes, cocurricular activities, athletics, student activities, residence life, campus ministry, clubs, and even the architecture of a campus, which should provide a physical environment that is hospitable and encouraging of community-building and human flourishing. The welcoming quality of a Catholic institution is fundamental to its Catholic character. One mark of the church is that it truly is “catholic,” or “universal.” Just like the church, a Catholic college or university desires that the Gospel and the church’s patrimony of wisdom be placed at the disposal of all people, irrespective of their religious affiliations and faith commitments. It recognizes that different peoples and cultures have distinctive and authentic contributions to make to our understanding of the world and invites them heartily to participate in the institution’s mission.

The stakes are high in making sure that students find the best educational environment to obtain a life-shaping education. To do so requires a careful self-examination on the part of each student to determine honestly what he or she wants and expects from a university or college. Each one has its own distinctive mission, traditions, culture, and strengths. Choosing a college or university that is less than an ideal match for you will very likely frustrate your success and make your collegiate life unsatisfying. You do not want to under-optimize your school choice and be forced to adopt or merely survive your college or university years. The collegiate experience is not about adopting or surviving. In most cases you will already be adopting to a raft of new experiences, a new level of academic rigor, new friends, and new living arrangements, perhaps doing so without the usual support systems you enjoyed during other times in your life. Moreover, who is really happy merely surviving?

The collegiate experience is about thriving personally and professionally, maturing into the person you want to be. It is simultaneously challenging and deeply rewarding. Careful and serious attention in selecting the right college or university for you will continue to reward you in innumerable and unanticipated ways throughout your life. Choose well and choose wisely.

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