How to Fix Our System of Higher Education

For Catholic parents with intelligent high school children, this can be a trying time. A good many ostensibly Catholic universities have simply become indistinguishable from the mass of U.S. colleges. Take Georgetown, for example, which the New York Times gleefully reports has become a gay-friendly campus.

During the month of “OUTober,” described by the Times as “a month jam-packed with celebrations related to all things L.G.B.T.Q., or lesbian, gay,” Georgetown students are invited to same-sex smooching parties in a campus “kiss-in.” The dominant culture is like a great tidal wave that sweeps almost everything before it. We fought the Times—and the Times won.

Any attempt to resist the intense pressure to conform to lifestyle liberalism is treated as heresy by the left. Think of Sandra Fluke, who didn’t mind paying $40,000 a year for tuition at Georgetown Law, but who made a national issue out of a university health plan that didn’t cover the pill. Without insurance, that would have come to about $100 a year at a local Target store, which didn’t make it look like the social justice cause of our time. Unless, of course, one knew who the enemy was.

Then there’s the sheer expense of it all. There are good schools out there, to be sure. The problem is that it will often take a second mortgage to pay for them.

Clearly, it’s time to rethink the college experience. Right now, two models dominate American higher education, and both are broken. The first is the hugely expensive bricks-and-mortar university, which typically don’t teach anything much of value and indoctrinate students in a sloppy anti-religious, leftism. The second are the conventional, asynchronous (not real-time) online programs being adopted by many of these same institutions as a means of reducing costs.

Asynchronous courses, which are also offered by online schools such as the University of Phoenix, feature technical training in subjects such as accounting and computer science. The market works here, and one doesn’t see courses on Pulp Fiction (Georgetown English-219). Such course are also inexpensive, since they can be offered to thousands of people at the same time. Bandwidth is free, after all, and computers can evaluate multiple choice exam questions. But while asynchronous courses are cheap, they don’t include the crucially important real-time exchange of ideas. What’s also missing are the opportunities for informal discussion, pre and post class, which is so important to the learning process.

The first model has serious problems, which the second model can’t fix without creating those of its own. This leaves us with a tremendous hole in higher education, a hole that synchronous online schools will rise to meet. Among the first of these, LibertasU, will launch on September 9, with online courses given in the classical tradition. LibertasU’s Dean is Roger Scruton, well-known as a leading conservative intellectual, whose latest book is The Face of God.

Unlike a bricks-and-mortar school, a school such as LibertasU exists exclusively on the web, which means it eliminates all the costs of operating a standard, physical campus, to say nothing of the enormous waste on administrative expenses. This translates into lower tuition and, as such courses are readily available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection, provides students, whether they’re 16 or 86, the opportunity to study with first-rate educators, who themselves can be located anywhere in the world.

With synchronous online schools, teachers and students are present at the same time in scheduled classes. LibertasU takes this one step further. Rather than using simple video conferencing, classes are held in immersive virtual reality environments where each person assumes a body or avatar and is able to walk around, raise their hand to speak, and interact with others, in a group setting. Think of “Grand Theft Auto,” if designed by Plato. People report the experience to be just like being there, without the cost and disruption associated with travel to a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Additionally, it has been found that, when such environments are used, retention is much better and students are more likely to take part in the conversation.

Here’s an example of the kinds of course such schools might offer, taken from the LibertasU catalogue. Robert Royal (founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing) will teach a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy. John Alvis of the University of Dallas will teach a course on Shakespeare’s plays; and Tom Lindsay, the former provost at the University of Dallas, will teach a course on Machiavelli.

These kinds of courses aren’t suitable for conventional online, non-real-time delivery. Reviewing such material on one’s own, without being able to discuss and debate ideas in real time, simply doesn’t work.

What, after all, should a college do? Three things. A college should teach things that can’t be adequately mastered on one’s own. College should also assist in promoting desirable goals, be they spiritual or professional. And all this should be done in a cost-cutting, efficient manner. A school such as Georgetown flunks all three. That’s why the future of higher education, especially for Catholic conservatives, lies with a mixture of cutting-edge technology, first-rate teachers and classical courses.

F. H. Buckley


F. H. Buckley is the Foundation Professor of law at George Mason School of Law and the author of "The Morality of Laughter" (University of Michigan, 2003).

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Will Cardinal Wuerl be announcing soon his removal of permission for Georgetown to use the title “Catholic” in reference to their institution? Just asking…

    • lifeknight

      Haha! Surely you jest.

    • GaudeteMan

      Better yet, will our esteemed Jesuit Pontiff put on the red shoes after all and take aim at the collective derrieres of Jesuit university presidents?

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  • John O’Neill

    Georgetown has not been a Catholic university for a very long time. It is a university that dedicates itself to the teachings of the democrat party and the wisdom of Ted Kennedy. Most of Georgetown consists of the neo Americans and their absolute love for abortion, homosexuality, adultery, pornography and their converse hatred of all things that teach morality, tradition or common sense. To pretend a university is Catholic because many years ago it was founded by a Roman Catholic order is self delusion. Most Roman Catholic teachers and religious have been converted to Americanism and the innate anti Christianity to which these so called educators dedicate themselves. The best educated in the traditional sense will be the self taught in the future and thank God that the American government has not begun the burning of books yet.

  • lifeknight

    Very interesting article. I have just researched the asynchronous vs. synchronous learning for my two high school juniors. I prefer the synchronous (real time) classes, which are somewhat pricey right now. However, receiving credit from home eliminates the trash found on college campuses. One can only “insulate” the young for so long……

  • Ford Oxaal

    Very interesting article. There are a lot of ways to spend a small fortune to saddle your offspring with financial debt as well as ‘intellectual’ evil, idiocy and boredom. Our children are getting an intensive Christian classical education at the high school level now — bricks and mortar, engaged students and teachers. They will be bored with the academics in a freshman year at, say, U. of Dallas. But a flesh and blood Catholic institution may be a great place to meet a future spouse — there is a lot to be said for bricks and mortar bastions of truth toward building up a righteous people from the ground level over several generations — future priests, teachers, worker bees, and future parents — what I like to think of as Catholic Darwinism. I can’t imagine the synchronous thing replacing eye contact (and I’m the guy who invented ipix, virtual tours, etc.), but will check it out — maybe you get your larnin’ online, but then go to big dance parties with like-minded folks to chance meeting your future spouse. In our area, it seems the social contract is being redefined as between families, not individuals. This is an idea I think deserves a serious look: to the extent the social contract concept has validity in natural law, it is ultimately between families (and for families) not individuals, as reformation/’enlightenment’ types would have it. OK, time to stop babbling — timely article for us — thank you.

    • Maria

      I think you make a good point about social contact becoming more family to family. And that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I would be proud of a freshman who was bored by the first year academics at U. of Dallas or similar school. I think that would indicate a boring student. A well prepared student doesn’t make the material less interesting, just the contrary, I think.

      • Ford Oxaal

        Agreed, and that’s what we always tell our children — you are not allowed to be bored — if you are bored, you are boring. Bad choice of words on my part. Yet the academic quality of students these days, in general, is going down, and lots of good schools find they have to do remedial work to bring their freshman classes up to snuff. The ones who *are* up to snuff might not be as academically challenged as they ought to be considering their outlay of time and cash. It is an important consideration — of course at some point you just have to dive in somewhere and make a contribution.

  • Alecto

    I seem to remember another group headed by the wife of a Congressional Representative which publishes a quality assessment of all U.S. colleges and universities based on a ratio of cost to a standard core curricula? Her group did a rather good job of highlighting which schools continue to teach mandatory curricula based on the survey of Western Civilization: math (especially calculus), science, philosophy, literature, history (especially American history and founding), etc…. The defining characteristic is whether the school accepts government funding. That is the beginning of the end of intellectual fidelity to any standards, and for Georgetown, the beginning of the end. I think parents would do very well to stay away from any school run by Jesuits.

  • Jo the Housewife

    Most likely preaching to the choir, but when our first child was looking at colleges we came across this: We’ve sent 2 more to GOOD Catholic colleges, and one left to go. We will not send our hard-earned money to a pagan college just because it has the name Catholic… We’ve visited most of these schools and they are good fits for a lot of kids. My last one might like the idea of distant learning, and I agree with “Ford” that families are the important thing to keep in mind. By the way, I’m happy to give a personal plug to John Paul the Great Catholic Univ. in San Diego, Univ. of Dallas (though a lot of the kids there smoke–what’s with that?), Christendom, and Belmont Abbey. One thing we’ve done with the last child is send them to summer schools at these colleges…which gives the child (and parents) a true sense of “management” and student life at the school. Some of these start as early as age 14, some (like Aquinas in Calif.) are for rising seniors. When we convinced our children to forgo the mediocre local Catholic high school (and homeschool instead), this was a way to efficiently use some of what would have gone to the very expensive high school tuition. Scholarships are also available at many of the schools. Also, to Deacon Ed P. – I would love to see the faux Catholic Colleges close–but the best we can do is NOT fund them by NOT sending our kids there. Unfortunately, the faux (wealthy) Catholics still like them…imagine that?

    • Tex Austin

      > (though a lot of the kids there smoke–what’s with that?)

      A minor point, but I find this really interesting — perhaps it’s a reaction against a culture that celebrates abortion/homosexuality/pornography/etc. but has come to regard smoking as some great moral evil rather than simply an unhealthy habit. It’s maybe not an entirely rational response to that tension (smoking is a pretty ugly habit after all), but an understandable one. I often find myself rushing to the defense of smokers based on this disproportionate villainization.

      • tamsin

        It is a running joke in our house that, no matter the movie we’re watching (e.g. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)… if we see a character smoking, we tell our younger son to cover his eyes.

      • Jo the Housewife

        I grant that it is a right to smoke if you want, and you responded same way as my husband. Still, for smart kids, smoking isn’t so much so… I’ve seen way too many people die of cancer. The culture that embraces abortion, homosexuality, pornography, etc. have never given me a reason WHY they do…At least not one I found logical or acceptable. Smoking negatively affects your own health, as well as others who breathe your smoke (and who watch you suffer in the later stages of lung cancer), and all of this could apply to the other “bad choices.” (Possible breast cancer from abortions, death of a child…; AIDS from homo-sex as well as ruined relationships; pornography affects so many in so many bad ways–and like alcoholism–it gets worse and often ends in death…). So is smoking as bad as the other 3? NO! But the “least” bad choice is still a bad choice… One more factor as a parent–don’t ask me to PAY for this bad choice (or other ones…). Like many other choices we make, I try to look forward to how my TODAY choices will affect those in my future. I had good friends who smoked and when their child brought a sleeping bag to my house for a sleepover, no other child wanted to be near that bag… Back to Cathollic colleges–smoking is avoidable–but I’d still like to learn more about WHY kids smoke.

        • MtMama

          I think it’s just a way of showing that they’re “cool” and not nerdy goody-goody Catholics. Stupid, but most of them give up the habit after graduating and mature to not being so self-conscious about their image.

  • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

    Here is another approach to the problem from a guilds perspective:

  • WRBaker

    I would like to interject the importance of Catholic education from elementary through high school. Progressing through the educational morass, if each level doesn’t do their job, then each student loses (and will lose more with the imposition of Common Core). If the basic foundation of being Catholic isn’t laid early and built upon, by the time students reach college, they assume the social justice is all that the Church is about.

  • chrisinva

    Benedict’s Motu Proprio of last November 11 firmly places all Catholic charities under the control and supervision of the local ordinary.

    Under U.S. law, all the “Catholic” colleges and universities so familiar to us are educational charities.

    Our bishops are the key to this. As Cardinal Dolan has admitted, they have failed us for the past fifty years. Whether he and his colleagues and successors will reverse that sad verdict in the next fifty is up to them, us and the Holy Spirit.

    Pray for our bishops. They have the key.

  • Jennifer Borek

    If it’s rough for Catholic parents with “intelligent children,” imagine the difficulty for Catholic parents who have children with disabilities. Many supposedly Catholic schools of all levels will not accept students with learning differences, pushing them into horrid CCD programs and public schools. Those of us fortunate enough to homeschool end up with better catechized children, but still not adequate post-secondary options.

    • RCPreader

      Before getting angry at Catholic schools, remember that most receive very little church support today and are forced to operate on a shoestring (many are barely surviving financially), and simply do not have the resources that public schools have to properly serve children with disabilities.

      • Jennifer Borek

        Well, I don’t think that I’m angry so much as puzzled. The fantasy that public schools have well funded special education is just that – a fantasy. Children with disabilities are 75% more likely to drop out of school, and have generally worse outcomes than their non-disabled peers. Most disabilities can be accommodated through effective teaching, but the prejudices are still too strong for that to happen in many schools.

  • RCPreader

    I suppose it is good that this is being developed as an alternative. But, this is very definitely NOT “how to fix our system of higher education.” I would much prefer to see more efforts and resources go into improving and expanding bricks-and-mortar conservative/traditional colleges, and into creating a few good new ones. While syncronous online education can replicate a classroom experience pretty well (and you can even do a lot with asychronous), there is much more to a good college experience than the classroom.
    I’m concerned that well-meaning parents will push their kids into LibertasU as a way to continue sheltering them through their young-adult years. For older people, LibertasU may be a wonderful option, but young people need to get out of their bedrooms. I would definitely discourage my own kids from taking this option, if they should bring it up.

    • Maria

      I agree. The conversations that go on outside of class, sometimes at 2 am, are also very important. And at good schools these conversations DO include the big questions that are being addressed in class.

      • RCPreader

        Yes! Though, I will admit that at a lot of schools today, the conversations aren’t that great, and the student environments aren’t what I’d call particularly beneficial to character development. And a lot of students go to commuter schools and end up not interacting with classmates much. So, LibertasU is no doubt better than many brick-and-mortar options. And, for students who choose online education, I am glad that there are options like LibertasU. I just think it’s a mistake for Catholic conservatives to push this sort of thing as the desirable “future of education,” and would prefer to see efforts go elsewhere.

  • umbrarchist

    This is funny. I went to Catholic grade and high schools. I decided I was an agnostic at 12. Read too many science fiction books by “intelligent” authors. Face it, being Catholic means not being “intelligent” enough to reject the brainwashing.

  • Tony

    Of course there is an alternative: a genuine college, genuinely Catholic. We don’t have to invent anything new; just recover something old and venerable and, frankly, irreplaceable.

  • Katherine

    Attending a non-Catholic, liberal, private university is what made me return to the Catholic Church. Witnessing the craziness and groundless-ness of the modern world first hand left me with a longing for something solid and bigger than myself. To my surprise, I was able to find that at my university’s small but vibrant Catholic student group. My faith was strengthened despite the fact that my university environment ran totally counter to it – God works in mysterious ways!

    While I understand why parents might feel like they are sending their kids out to the slaughter by sending them to a non-Catholic university, I would also point out that public universities, secular universities, and pseudo-Catholic universities are in desperate need of witnesses to the faith. These universities need Catholic students, faculty and staff, even if they don’t want them. If Catholics are turning in on themselves and only interacting with other Catholics because it feels safer, we are denying the modern world of the message it needs to hear, and we are doing exactly what those liberal brick-and-mortar institutions want us to do – sit quietly in the corner and talk among ourselves.

  • I can’t comment on the system of Higher Ed in the US but I’ve had a look at LibertasU’s virtual campus, and I’m quite impressed with your technology and setup. Since 2008, I’ve been head of e-learning for the Berlin School of Economics and Law and in 2010 we started our own virtual campus in Second Life® where I’ve taught courses with up to 40 participants at world-wide locations for the past 3 years (see here for a short film). I’m looking forward to seeing how your campus life develops – perhaps I’ll even attend one of your courses. At the end of the day, it’s all about content and values, of course.

  • I_M_Forman

    First, the presidents of these so-called ‘Catholic” Colleges like Georgetown, Boston College and Notre Dame better start remembering that eternity is a long time. They have failed in their responsibilities as leaders of what should be a Catholic College. If Bishops have to shake in their boots at the thought of executing their responsibilities well and true to Christ then these University Presidents and their UnCatholic Heretical minions will be roasting in Hell. Heck, there are plenty of “Intellectuals” in Hell, and a number of clerical ones too who led their charges astray or did nothing but watch when their students started on the swift descent into sin. Call me old fashioned, but Hell has not gone away and is probably not even half full.
    Second, time to start excommunicating some of these heretics in religious orders and stop giving communion to Catholic Politicians that go against the “deal breaker” Catholic positions such as abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia to name a few. I still have my bumper sticker that says ‘It’s all fun and games until someone gets burned at the stake.” Need more of them printed up.
    I depart now, grateful for the opportunity to comment but in dire need of reciting a rosary to bring me some peace. Bernardo Gui, where are you when we need you!