At a conference on Nov. 8-9 to help mark its 150th year, Boston College discussed how much its Catholic identity should influence its decisions. Called “Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education” and sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, speakers ruminated on the nature of a liberal arts college, but struggled with how a school’s Catholic ownership should influence its life.
One Eboo Patel, president of an organization called Interfaith Youth Core, stated it this way: “The question then becomes, for a school like Boston College, which dimensions of our identity are we going to robustly actualize, and which are we going to save for another conversation?”
But the aim of the conference wasn’t totally clear. Other speakers included Cullen Murphy, the editor-at-large at Vanity Fair magazine; Susan Jacoby, who the conference description listed as an “author and independent scholar” without mentioning that she’s also an avowed and outspoken atheist and secularist; Mark Oppenheimer, a writer and columnist at The New York Times; and presidents and former presidents of the secular colleges Bryn Mawr, Salem and Centre, and the evangelical Wheaton College.
Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, raised the critical issue: “There is a tinge of skepticism in the broader academic world that you can be a religious institution and a serious research institution. In the ratings game, it does not help to be religious.”
The history of the liberal arts college, in which schools like BC and Harvard went from “teaching theology and philosophy, Greek and Latin classics, and English and modern languages” to teaching trades like biochemistry and business administration, shows that these colleges went for the dollar. Catholic colleges who wonder “which dimensions of our identity are we going to robustly actualize, and which are we going to save for another conversation” because of “the ratings game” will soon come to realize that that game will have the greater attraction than being faithful to their Catholic identity.
Father Jenkins did come down on the side of a religious institution’s unique offerings to the world saying, “There are tremendous pressures, but I continue to believe that religious institutions have a unique vision and can be a source of great vitality.” What remained unclear, at least from the article in the student newspaperThe Heights, was what exactly that “unique vision” is and why it “can be a source of great vitality.”
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