A consideration of the limitations and ends of higher education

Something brews in Austin, Texas. On November 8, Pano Kanelos, former president of St John’s College Annapolis, announced the conception of a new university: the University of Austin. He wrote: “We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.”

Kanelos is joined by a courageous team in this project, all of whom have their own grievances with American higher education. That American universities are broken is hardly a point that needs to be sold. But how did they get here, and where is Notre Dame in the mix?

Kanelos wrote that contemporary universities have lowered their aspirations: “The reality is that many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized. At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite… The priority at most other institutions is simply to avoid financial collapse. They are in a desperate contest to attract a dwindling number of students, who are less and less capable of paying skyrocketing tuition.”

Notre Dame looks elite; Fr. Ted Hesburgh delivered us from irrelevance. We enjoy distinction as a “premier research university,” rankings in the top 20 in most departments, and the prestige of a $12 billion endowment. The university is able to offer more than half of students financial assistance, putting Notre Dame in the top 20th percentile of American colleges and universities for scholarships, and Notre Dame reports ranking eighth for best paid graduates. In the class of 2025, 19% are legacy students.

Notre Dame need not fear for her financial survival. But we see her behaving like other schools that do not enjoy such security, that need to clamor for attention, while she could direct her attention and resources elsewhere.

Kanelos wrote: “The warped incentives of higher education—prestige or survival—mean that an increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction. Universities now aim to attract and retain students through client-driven ‘student experiences’… Many universities are doing extremely well at providing students with everything they need. Everything, that is, except intellectual grit.”

As I was applying to colleges, members of admissions teams would travel to my high school and make their pitches. I understood them to be salespeople. Why did Notre Dame deserve my attention? What could I expect as a student? How would the university serve me on my path to success? Faculty are attracted in the same fashion. The employment website promises all hires to “Bring Out Your Champion!” But what is this “intellectual grit” of which Kanelos senses a lack?

Kanelos says that in failing to provide intellectual grit to their students, universities fail society, because “universities are the places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped. If these institutions are not open and pluralistic… if they prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth, who will be left to model the discourse necessary to sustain liberty in a self-governing society?”

This classical depiction of the university’s role in the civic sphere needs air. It serves as a reminder that we do not go to universities to be comfortable, that every body politic is inherently an aggregate, and universities ought to host a diversity of thought. Notre Dame is better and her students better formed the more she is a microcosm of the world imbued by the Catholic faith.

But something else is abundantly clear: we cannot leave the formation of young Americans’ habits and mores to universities. This task has been, and will forever be, primarily the task of the family. If students are brought up convinced that they deserve the best because they are the best, that at 18 they have already done most of the heavy-lifting they need ever do by getting into a prestigious university, if their families do not teach them how to to serve the Church and participate in diverse communities, of course they fail as students in universities. They fail in the admissions department. They fail as professors.

The Church needs parents to consider gravely their vocation as catechists and moral guides to their children. One of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, emphasizes how as the domestic church the family forms disciples: “In [the family] parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.”

Furthermore, paragraph 2223 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that homes are incubators for lifelong habits: “The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom… Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children.”

Families prepare youth to engage in pluralities by not abstracting them away, by not withdrawing from them in fear, but stepping into them with the hope of our Catholic faith. At universities, we do not ask students to forget where they come from and form a single hive mind. We want students who know how they are grounded and what they bring to the table. Failure in formation extends adolescence and yields further cultural confusion.

What, then, is the role of the university and its faculty if they do not take on the primary moral education of students?

The University of Austin hopes to develop a rigorous curriculum with a faculty of “society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences.” Thus Kanelos essentially emphasizes that academia ought not to be isolated from “real life,” that the stigma of pretension and sloth permeating academia might be washed out of the university.

Notre Dame should proclaim that her students are already living their real lives. With their families, students first become doers, dynamic actors, disciples. At universities, they meet professors who model the many forms of discipleship, and students reflect on how they can best live a coherent life oriented toward Christ in commitment to their families, parishes, and civil communities.

At Notre Dame, our professors are the sorts of impressive people the University of Austin hopes to gather, and it is important that students learn how their work in the classroom relates to the world outside. Such transparency informs healthy student-professor relationships as well.

My favorite thing about the Program of Liberal Studies—the Great Books program of Notre Dame—continues to be how intimately we know each other, faculty and students alike. Does that make for discomfort, awkwardness, and even occasionally real pain? Of course it does. But we all generally knew what we chose when we entered the program. We wanted the real university experience, and the more it demanded of us, the better.

There remain students who want a challenge, who see Notre Dame as a place to be challenged. That is why she does not need saving, why various cultural ebbs and flows and administrative changes do not defeat her mission, why even tomorrow she can be a new university. There are many causes of the brokenness we observe in American universities, but it seems to me that a great deal of the work to be done—and the duties we often wish for universities, especially those that profess to be Catholic, to perform—starts in the home.

Lizzie Self is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology with a minor in constitutional studies. She cannot wait to go home to Phoenix, AZ for Christmas, but if you ever want to hear about her great love for South Bend and her philosophy of Midwestern life, you can reach her at eself@nd.edu.