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The Measure of Success

A few years back I worked in campus ministry at a “Catholic” university and led a dozen or so student retreats which included some time for silent prayer and reflection. To my astonishment, most of the students had tremendous difficulty being silent even for 30 minutes. After a few minutes of professed “agony,” many gave up.

These were not latchkey kids from inner-city public schools. Indeed, most of these privileged young people were the beneficiaries of a years of Catholic education. Their parents had done all those things that are supposed to lead to a child’s success: private lessons, group sports, and organized activities. The schools were hi-tech, with ample parental involvement, extracurricular activities, and volunteer opportunities.

All the busy-ness of their young years had paid off, and now these students were attending “the college of their choice,” as the phrase goes. And they had chosen a liberal arts education—the kind of education that liberates you from yourself and your prejudices, freeing you to understand the world, to be silent and pray, to recognize what is true, good, and beautiful.

Except that’s not what they were getting. Their college education emphasized the same things their previous education did: hi-tech skills, group projects, clubs, volunteering. They got good grades if they were successful at regurgitating their professors’ lectures.

After a recent event I reflected again on those students, their fear of silence, and the state of education. Sophia and I volunteered to promote our alma mater at the college fair of a Catholic girls’ school. We expected to encounter students who were eager to seek the truth and to grapple with great ideas—the kind of students our university attracts. We came to talk about the comprehensive core curriculum, the outstanding faculty, the exciting intellectual environment, the vigorous conversations.

But neither the students nor their parents asked about the curriculum or the faculty. Instead, they wanted to know about which majors we offered, technical facilities, our sports teams. They wanted to know how our “product” measured up against the “competitors.”

These parents approached the education of their children as a means to an end—”success”—rather than as an end in itself. But along with the material “success” that their education would no doubt bring, they also were setting up their children for a lifetime of sloth. For the emphasis on success drowns out the conscience with constant activity and noise, crowds out any awareness of the spiritual with excessive material goods. (Leon Suprenant discusses this modern epidemic in his penetrating article on page 14.) Instead of liberating them, their education was making them slaves to their passions, powerless to withstand the pressure to conform to prevailing opinion.

A true liberal arts education, on the other hand, is freeing. As Rollin Lasseter shows in our cover article, the liberal arts free us from the slavishness of materialism and majority opinions. They free us to be silent and pray. They free us to renew the culture. They free us to measure success by a heavenly standard.

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