The problem of the Catholic university


As with every subculture, there are some ugly sides to the Catholic bubble. Some–like the radical traditionalists–are somewhat prominent in the public eye. Others, however, are rarely addressed. Like the oft-unspoken (but sometimes actually said) prejudice against secular universities.

The sad blunt truth of the issue here: Catholic schools suck at STEM. Full stop. They kinda suck at art and design, too. …Actually, if it’s not liberal arts, it’s probably not a very strong program.

The second part of the sad, blunt truth: it doesn’t matter if you want to go into a STEM field, or study art or design. Those people who live in the Catholic bubble will still judge you for going to a secular university (or sending your children there). CUA, Steubie, Christendom, and the UDs become the be-all/end-all for students in the Catholic school system. Places like Notre Dame and Drexel are declared “acceptable” for students wishing to study architecture or design, but they’re obviously not nearly as preferable as the Great Catholic Universities. And don’t even think about going to Georgetown.

What’s wrong with this picture? you might ask. Why can’t students just go to a secular university and deal with it? or, if they want the Catholic experience, why can’t they just accept that the program won’t be nearly as strong? I ask in return: why must students choose? The first universities arose out of monasteries, and the most prestigious ones were run by the Church for the longest time. Some of the most famous Doctors of the Church (like Thomas Aquinas) taught at these universities.

Historically, universities as a whole tended towards the liberal arts. Technical training was received through apprenticeship and on-the-job experience. Today, however, that is not the case. Students in the STEM world often need a bachelor’s degree to get anywhere. They are also more likely than liberal arts students to be employable with only a bachelor’s degree. For STEM students–and often art and design students as well–their undergraduate university is the top name on their resume, not a graduate school.

How do we solve this problem, then? A few solutions come to mind. If you happen to be marvellously rich and extremely generous, and you support this cause, donate to an existing Catholic university to help boost their science program. If you’re extravagantly rich and every bit as ambitious, start your own Catholic university which focuses on STEM as opposed to liberal arts. (I’m not saying to completely ignore the liberal arts but to instead put lots more attention into the STEM side.) If, like me, you lack money to do anything, you can help bring the issue to the attention of the world. If you go to a Catholic university, you can be grateful for the environment. You can stop judging students who go to secular universities to follow their dreams. You can not assume the worst of us. If you go to a secular university, you can try to get involved in the Catholic center. You can keep going to Mass and keep praying for the state of the world. You can quietly witness the Faith even amongst the heathens or fallen-aways.

Some part of me thinks that this divide is also propagated by the false dichotomy between faith and reason, between science and the Church. The Church employs an enormous number of scientists, but they’re never spoken-about. And a whole heck of a lot of those scientists went to secular schools. See? they’re not all bad.


One response »

  1. Well, Ink, this is fairly spot-on. I would like to offer one perspective as to why the Catholic universities in general–and the smaller, liberal arts “great” universities in particular–may not have much of a STEM program. You’ve kind of hit on it here: it is, in fact, a question of money for many of these.

    Most people in the sciences (and presumably elsewhere) get a Ph.D. with the intention of then doing research–that is the bulk of what takes place in most graduate programs, anyway. Therefore, most universities–and even small colleges–believe that in order to attract people with Ph.D.’s to teach at their institution, they will need to offer some sort of research facilities.

    In many of the STE (though not M) disciplines, research requires a laboratory, which then comes with a hefty start-up cost. To give you some idea, $1 million for start-up is a fairly typical number for an experimental physicist. That, in turn, is a rather huge up-front investment for a small college, and bigger still if the college does not have a large undergraduate (to say nothing of graduate!) physics program. Worse, that million dollar start-up might as well be a continuing thing, if the experimentalist in question is to do “cutting edge” research. He will need to modify his set-up, expand it, and perhaps occasionally rebuild it.

    One way around the difficulty, of course, is to hire only theorists. Actually, that is an efficient way of quickly improving a school’s ranking, at least in physics. But the STE disciplines are based more on experiment and hands-on work than on theory, and especially at the undergraduate level where the main jobs will either be as lab technicians (experiment) or computer programmers.

    Another method is for the university to hire several experimentalists (and perhaps some supporting theorists/computational physicists/etc.) whose research interests overlap. This makes the $million start-up cost be split among several faculty members, but come with a few drawbacks of its own. The first, of course, is that the pool of potential candidates from which to draw faculty is a lot narrower if this happens. There are, for example, a lot fewer physicists working with ultrafast laser systems than physicists in general, and if the university is a Great Catholic University the pool is already somewhat narrowed by the preference for Catholic (or even just Catholic-friendly) physicists.

    A third possibility is to try and draw from mostly people with Master’s or Ph.D.’s who have less interest in research and more on teaching. This could work especially well if the university in question will pony up the money for a bigger paycheck (most teaching contracts are 9-month, and the pay is often south of $60k/year, which is pretty low for an advanced STEM degree). However, it also means that the university will tend not to be a center for research excellence. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker–the university can also try to form partnerships with outside organizations for research internships during the summer semesters–but is does require a higher level of excellence in classroom teaching, and a bit of creativity which is unconventional even in a discipline which prides itself on problem-solving.

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