A Look at Higher Education
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2011

Higher education has generated much debate at the legislature this session, Tuition caps, payments for non-resident students, the centers of excellence, research spending, the medical school, the make-up of the board of higher education, and the Fighting Sioux nickname are just some of the issues.

Catholic teaching has much to offer to discussions about higher education even if the teaching does always translate into a “yes” or “no” position on a particular bill. Indeed, the North Dakota Catholic Conference has rarely taken a position on a bill related to public higher education.

Nevertheless, the issues raised concern who we are as human persons, what is our role in society, and what should be expected of us. The answers to those questions are ultimately found in the Gospel, and particularly Jesus Christ.

In the 1850‘s Blessed John Henry Newman wrote probably the most definitive discussion about the role of the university in light of Christian thought. His Idea of a University has influenced higher education, both religious and secular, to this day, partly because the questions he raised remain relevant.

Newman warned about the forces of fragmentation and utilitarianism in higher education. By fragmentation, Newman meant the compartmentalizing of disciplines at the exclusion of others. Specialization has its place, but it should not come at the expense of understanding the basics of other disciplines or a philosophical core.

Utilitarianism asks whether a particular act is useful; whether there are tangible benefits to an educational program. The two forces, fragmentation and utilitarianism, feed on each other and are very much part of today’s debates about higher education at the state Capitol.

Legislators appropriating tax dollars toward the higher education system are tempted to ask whether the state will see tangible returns on its investment, especially in the form of jobs and economic growth. The focus on jobs, in turn, results in more fragmentation in the system. The colleges are pressured to create professionals, whether it be engineers, welders, teachers, or nurses, rather than to provide a liberal arts education. Indeed, the North Dakota University System has been charged with “playing a major role in revitalizing North Dakota’s economy.”

No one doubts that a good education is essential to the development of good working skills and, eventually, a strong economy. The question is whether the emphasis should be on providing job skills or providing a well-rounded education.

Catholic teaching states that education should be directed at the “formation of the human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties of which he will, as an adult, have a share.” That sentence alone is not entirely clear, but many other statements from Catholic teaching can tell us what it does not mean. It does not mean that education should be directed toward economic development alone. The economy “is only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity.” The “final end” of the human person and the “good of society” in Catholic teaching is not the economic life. We are more than that.

Legislators may have good reasons to invest in a system with ties to economic development, but the creeping over-emphasis on economic output as the purpose of education has consequences. It de-emphasizes knowledge for knowledge sake. We begin asking high school students what they want to be - meaning a profession - rather than what they want to learn. We have state college billboards that equate a college education with high paying salaries. What does that say about the “worth” of graduates who do choose vocations with low-paying salaries or no practically no salary at all (clergy and religious)?

Legislators have many important and difficult decisions to make about the state’s higher education system. Let us pray that they remember that the fundamental purpose of education is development of the human person as a person and not just an economic unit.