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College: Where Faith and Virtue Go to Die

Frat Party

Rex Roof

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 12/07/14

What kind of education are we giving our kids?

Controversy surrounding “Rolling Stone”’s reporting, or misreporting, of the UVA rape case, highlights the depressing and confusing reality of sexual violence on American campuses. Depending on which source you read, it seems as if American colleges are pretty dangerous places to be – for young women as much as for young men. Women encounter a dating market in which the currency is sex and the willingness to hook-up without meaningful relationship development. Worse still, they risk sexual assaults ranging from the immoderate to the brutal. The CDC reports that 20 percent of college women experience attempted or completed sexual assault.

At the same time, young men are drawn, often unwittingly, into a culture which schools them in habits of pornified dealings with women, lubricated by excessive drinking, resulting in a dating market which seems more like a meat market. Highly cited work by Jason Carroll and colleagues finds that nearly nine out of ten (87%) of young men in college report using pornography regularly. These habits often turn into lifetime addictions threatening family formation and marital stability. Without letting perpetrators off the hook, does anyone want to suppose that our college-bound men are not victims too?

These realities have provoked various responses. Some have called for tougher penalties on perpetrators – see Jimmy Carter making that case here. There are also calls for more women to speak out and tell their stories. And calls for stricter enforcement of the new federal guidelines on violence against women.

One interesting response was a call for young people themselves to aim at becoming better individuals. The President of Eckerd College in Florida – where two horrific sexual assault cases emerged in August of this year – wrote an open letter to students saying:

You can do your part … [by being] thoughtful about the dramatic and often negative psychological effects that sexual activity without commitment can have. Virtue in the area of sexuality is its own reward, and has been held in high esteem in Western culture for millennia because those who are virtuous are happier as well as healthier. No one’s culture or character or understanding is improved by casual sex, and the physical and psychological risks to both genders are profound.

President Eastman made a very interesting argument. He didn’t try to argue that casual sex is wrong. Instead he argued that no one becomes a better person through casual sexual behavior. In the overwhelming number of opinions offered on the campus sexual assault problem, I have hardly read anything more sensible than what Eastman says here. We need better people, not just better rules.

But here’s a difficulty no one wants to talk about: colleges, most of them anyway, are not in the business of making people better. As a result of various intellectual fashions, colleges have essentially gotten out of the education business and into the activism business – the business of "changing the world" as many mottos boast.

This is another way of understanding the idea that colleges do not wish to act in loco parentis anymore. Such a notion suggests that colleges might aim to finish and complete the work of parents in forming young people – cultivating human, intellectual and spiritual virtues. Instead, most colleges today aim to remain agnostic about virtue, while imparting what they understand to be a neutral creed of self-protection and self-interest. But this isn’t neutral at all – it is the habit of atheistic utilitarianism.

If this seems a bit extreme, consider this. College-bound students aren’t very religious
– and going to college makes them even less so. National survey work based at UCLA demonstrates a substantial decline in the percent of students who report attending religious services – from 44 percent in high school, to a mere 25 percent by junior year in college. It’s hard to say which number is more discouraging – the very low percentage who report attending religious services in high school, or the massive plunge in that percentage which occurs during the college years.

Another telling fact is this one: data from the Spring 2013 Global Attitudes Survey from Pew says that college graduates are substantially less likely to think that belief in God is necessary to live a moral life. Nearly two-thirds (59 percent) of those with no college degree say that belief in God is necessary for morality, while one-third fewer (only 37 percent) of those with a college degree did so.

So colleges aren’t making people better at the most important thing anyone has to learn to do in life – know, love and serve God. Which raises a very interesting question: is it bad to go to college if it makes you worse at religion?

Provocatively, one could paraphrase President Eastman’s remarks. “Hardly anyone’s culture or character or understanding [of the most important things] is improved by attending college.” College certainly isn’t making the typical student any better.

Which brings us back to the difficulties inherent in addressing the perverse sexual culture on campus. The problem is bigger than even Eastman admits. He is right that rules and regulations alone can’t fix it. But it is also true that temperance and sexual restraint are weak recommendations. Religion is, in fact, the only real program for human improvement. Temperance and sexual restraint don’t come from a high-minded resolution to be good. They come from conversion and grace.

So long as we are wedded to a model of college education completely devoid of religious formation, we are bound to remain mired in the miseducation of our youth. It isn’t college that’s so dangerous after all: it’s college without God.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk
is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion. She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children

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