By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
I am a great admirer of the columns of Dennis Prager. He fights the good fight for traditional values, taking head-on the politically correct leftists in the media and the academy. His recent column on the plight of conservative parents finding their values being undermined by their children’s teachers is no exception. He urges parents to confront the fact that virtually “every institution outside the home has been captured by people with left-wing values; specifically the media (television and movies) and the schools (first the universities and now the high schools).”
Nothing to take issue with there. But I would argue that when Prager seeks to underscore his point by quoting James O. Freedman, president of Dartmouth College, from a 2002 speech, he may be painting with too broad a brush. In that speech Freedman said, “The purpose of a college education is to question your father’s values.” I don’t know anything about Freedman’s political views. For all I know, he may well hope that Dartmouth will transform the children of middle-class Americans with traditional values into carbon copies of President Obama’s most radical cabinet members.
But it could also be that Freedman meant something very different indeed. I can remember Marist Brothers and Jesuit priests who taught me in high school and college saying virtually the same thing as Freedman. But their purpose was not to weaken the Catholic values of their students; it was to strengthen them. Their plan of action was to submit their students’ traditional beliefs to the most withering attack they could muster from the writing of people such as Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and John Dewey; and then lead their students to come up with an intelligent and effective response.
It was the “no straw men” theory. My teachers were convinced that their students’ values would be weak and easily undermined in their adult lives if all they ever heard were the words of apologists for Catholicism who pictured the Church in the most favorable light. My old teachers proceeded under the belief that it was important for an educated Catholic man or woman to hear the positions of the enemies of the Church in their strongest and most effective form; that it was necessary for Catholics serious about their faith to be able to answer the arguments of an atheist or a secular humanist as the most articulate atheists and secular humanists would present them, not as an artificially frail caricature of those arguments put together for the purpose of easily tearing them apart: the proverbial “straw man.”
Prager is correct when he warns parents to be alert for teachers and professors who are seeking to undermine their children’s beliefs and value systems. There are such left-wing professors. But it is also possible for parents to overreact and react irrationally when they hear their values being questioned in their children’s classes, perhaps when they are studying Marx or the modern deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida. The teacher covering this material may plan to cover the theories of Edmund Burke and Jacques Maritain a week or two later.
Some may argue that such a scenario is unlikely in the modern universities of the country, dominated as they are by the secular left. But it is not an impossibility. Our goal should be to be vigilant and uncompromising when the situation calls for it, but to avoid being foolish and counterproductive by launching an attack where one is not called for.
Unfortunately, our children are not always the best judges about these matters during their years as students. They may jump to the conclusion that their teacher is a radical with a left-wing agenda when left-wing theories are the topic for a series of classes, not realizing the long-term goal of the professor is to introduce great thinkers who will defend the Church and traditional values at a later time in the course. Parents would be well advised to keep that possibility in mind before making any charges against the teacher to the administration of the school. A witch-hunt is never flattering thing for those involved in it, to say nothing of the injustice it perpetrates against the accused.
On a related topic: David French put together a plan for those getting ready for college in the October 17 online edition of National Review. Not everyone will agree with his recommendations, but he offers food for thought. His first recommendation is to think long and hard about whether college is right for you in the first place, since our “economy is full of hard workers who do well without that English or marketing degree.” That said, French agrees that “college grants you access to jobs that are closed off to those without a degree. Increasingly, that includes jobs that don’t actually require college-level skills, but because a degree requirement is one of the few lawful ways to screen out the vast majority of unsuitable applicants, degree requirements flourish.”
But, he interjects, that doesn’t mean we should “overpay for a credential.” French argues that there are only a few “shock and awe” schools whose degrees offer an edge in the job market over degrees from less prestigious schools. “For the vast majority of private schools, ask yourself if spending $200,000 to go to Disneyland is worth the money — because that’s what they offer: academic Disneyland, with no lasting benefits greater than those offered by your typical state-supported school.” He offers a corollary: “How well you do matters more than where you do it.” Good grades matter, “standing out matters…GPA and test scores matter much, much more than the name on the diploma.”
Not that prestige is irrelevant. “If you go to graduate school, the identity of your college gets irrelevant fast. Who has more job options: The person who went to the University of Illinois for college and Harvard for law school, or the person who went to Harvard for undergrad and the University of Illinois for law school?” French does not beat around the bush. It is the former. “Save your money and prestige focus for graduate school.”
French’s hope is that if “just a few more families will shift their kids out of extravagantly expensive, marginally prestigious private schools,” it will lead to “real downward pressure on tuition, frivolous expenditures, and disciplines….In other words, the market can work — if only we behave rationally. And college debt is almost never rational.”
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