Cherry blossoms in the Catholic University of America campus. Photo by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Community, Creativity, and Culture

John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America, discusses the crisis of higher education and how to "rethink the importance and value of education" as a whole in an interview with TracesOnline.
Francis Petruccelli

Higher education is in crisis. This much is agreed. The proper response, however, is not agreed upon. We lament this condition, and propose various remedies but, what if the situation that we find ourselves in is an opportunity to rethink the importance and value of education? In other words, what if we let the crisis force us to re-evaluate education itself? To that end, TracesOnline sat down with John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, to ask him about the state of education in America, the nature of the educational crisis, the role of education in the development of culture, and the unique contribution a Catholic institution has to offer.

What kind of crisis?

President Garvey noted that people often speak of the educational crisis from a financial standpoint, and so they ask the question “whether school is worth it” primarily in economic terms. This is a layer of the problem that we cannot and should not dismiss. Garvey called this the “utilitarian value” of education. Such concerns may even extend beyond the mere fiscal, including things like the kind of personal connections or networking opportunities one gains by going to college. Most people, Garvey says, whether they appraise the situation either positively or negatively, generally begin from this utilitarian standpoint.

But there is more to the crisis than that. Garvey suggested two further factors that go into assessing the value of an education. The first is the value of “receiving an education in the culture,” and the second question concerns the “formation of character.” It is on this spectrum that we often fail to have answers about the value of education, and hence feel the weight of a crisis. These questions go to the heart of the meaning and purpose of education: what does it mean to be educated? To be an educator? To be a student?

There are two aspects Garvey mentioned in speaking about receiving an education in the culture. The first is the need to understand how “to operate the machinery of the culture.” That is to say, if we are to be effective participants in cultural dialogue, we need to know how the culture works. This principle holds true for anyone with the desire to communicate with another person; there needs to be mutual understanding before we can communicate. Because the world we live in grows ever more complicated, Garvey said, “I don’t think there’s going to be a time when everybody dials it back, and there’s less of a need for higher education.”

The second aspect of “cultural” education is that a school wishes to impart a culture of its own, one capable building something that withstands time. On this point Garvey said, “You can only build a culture if you are intellectually connected as a community to one another, so that you have conversation partners, both inside and outside… we are trying to build a particular kind of Christian culture here, and it is one that in time can offer something different and better to the culture at-large.” In this light, Garvey proposed an analogy: he compared the situation and the task of Catholic universities today as akin to the role which St. Benedict envisioned for the abbeys he founded. Benedict’s response to the languishing culture around him was to begin the work of preservation, of keeping safe its points of value. This work, like any fruitful work, only “showed results” over time. But nonetheless, his initiative helped to keep a flame alive when everything seemed to become dark. Part of the analogy, then, relates to “a change in the culture outside the institution, the culture that had sustained the Roman empire, the commitment to the importance of the idea of a Roman culture, the interest in civic virtue and so on. . .” In this milieu, the monasteries performed the service of preserving an intellectual culture, which in time led to the creation of universities.

A further aspect of the analogy is the communal dimension of cultural innovation. Garvey said, “Because the abbeys were enclosed communities, it was possible to build an integral culture in a way that is hard to do if your daily interaction is with the people that live in the prevailing culture. You need a sort of culture that is capable of developing in a communal way.” Garvey stressed that he didn’t mean to say that we should close ourselves off from the dominant culture, but rather that we need a community to sustain cultural creativity. He mentioned an interesting example: the coffeehouses in Vienna in the early 20th century. It was in these coffeehouses that writers, philosophers, psychologists, and artists benefited from a communal exchange of ideas. A university can be a place of creativity and intellectual thought in as much as it sustains that kind of communal dimension. As Garvey suggested, “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but we also benefit from standing face-to-face with people engaged in the same kind of enterprise as we are.”

Catholic institutions in the future

This leads us to a question about the role of Catholic institutions in the future, and of what makes their possible contribution unique. When asked about the future of Catholic education in America, President Garvey’s face lit up: “It’s an exciting time in higher education because everybody is having to evolve, partly in response to financial imperatives, and partly in response to changes in the culture. But things are changing so fast that it would be dangerous to hazard a guess about where Catholic universities as a cadre will end up!” Two things were evident, however, as he answered the question.

First, he sees an important role for education in the development of the human person. This is why he mentioned that another question concerning the value of education had to do with “the formation of character,” which means: helping people become protagonists who not only can understand the culture, but can offer something valuable to it. It relates both to becoming familiar with the culture, and to acquiring a new culture to bring into that first one: “as the world becomes a more complicated place, education plays a more important role in forming people before they set off in the world… Now you have to know several languages, and be familiar with electronics, with so much more about our history, so that you are just not ready to set out on a journey into the world if you are going to have any level of responsibility.”

Second, just as the mission of a school cannot be neutral about the kind of culture it is building, so too the intellectual life at a university––and Garvey especially stressed that this was true at the graduate level––is not bereft of cultural implications. Here he stressed that a Catholic school can offer something to the culture that is not simply restricted, as we often think it is, to philosophy and theology: “I think that’s a very narrow view of the Catholic intellectual life. Think about what the Catholic faith has meant for art, and music, and literature, and the study of history and the creation of a system of human rights, and, within the legal world, for example, the importance of progressive income tax, support for the family, limitation of capital punishment, who knows where to stop.”

From these two observations, it is clear that Dr. Garvey does not claim that the uniqueness of a Catholic school––its “Catholic identity”––resides merely in the different set of values it wishes to inculcate. Rather, it is poised to offer a true (total) education, which wrestles with all aspects of reality; it has something to say about everything. That dimension of the endeavor is important, since the need for an education that can make us participants in the culture, capable of building truly human (good and true) works, is a need that does not go away when we are in crisis, but rather suggests itself with even more force than before.

It is striking that Mr. Garvey insisted on first answering more fundamental questions before discussing what Catholic education should look like. It is a refreshing stance to insist that we get clear about the question “what is education?”––and its necessary correlate “what is education for?”––before we can ask about what makes the Catholic contribution to education unique.

The Freedom to Educate

These are especially important questions to ask in light of the recent controversies in America about the freedom to educate. Mr. Garvey noted that, while Catholic schools have had their run-ins with government interference, he thinks that we often overplay the threat and in doing so try to shoulder off some of the responsibility that falls rightly on us. He proposed that the greater danger comes from within the institutions themselves, since “we have strong first amendment tradition, and both the courts and the culture are committed to upholding it.” In fact, Garvey insisted that the greatest difficulty he sees for the freedom to educate is the temptation for an institution to sell itself out, to sacrifice its integrity.

Obviously, there is a financial aspect of the problem here: “Government grants can begin as something harmless, with strings attached for good reason. For example, a university that receives a grant for agricultural education will have to change what they teach, namely, they will have to offer courses and degrees and agriculture, to merit the money.” Garvey spoke about how, over time, the stakes of influence grow higher: “accepting government money can force a change in the fabric of the student body, or of who the institution may hire as a faculty… Down the road, these pressures lead to a secularization of the institution and a compromise of the school’s mission.”

This has happened historically, both in the distant and the recent past. Garvey pointed to the rising costs of parochial schools over the history of Catholic education in America, and other similarly problematic situations in which “an institution wants to turn to the government for help and the government wants something in return.” Or, as another example, he pointed to the recent proposal of New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio to involve religious schools in the attempt to provide education for every pre-K student in New York, and, in return for significant financial compensation, to have those schools remove the religious symbolism and imagery from their classrooms.

Garvey concluded that, “if there is a danger, it is more likely to arise from the financial structure of the educational system” and “that’s the place where we will lose our souls––by selling them, not by having them taken from us.” The task that lies ahead for Catholic universities is to be creative enough to face the financial challenges. They cannot expect to remain integral to their mission while depending mainly on “tax dollar survival,” and so they must “reflect on what they offer that people want to pay for.”

This is certainly an interesting voice amidst the various positions taken on the freedom to educate. On the one hand, we want to be careful not to be too optimistic, and to be wary of protecting one of the dearest of our freedoms, since without it we lose the power to generate a culture. On the other hand, Dr. Garvey’s words echo a striking observation Fr. Giussani once made in the face of the educational crisis: “The situation isn’t what defeats our person; it clarifies it, and makes our own fragility surface. It’s not the environment that creates the fragility; instead it brings to the surface our inconsistency, our fragility, our lack of freedom.” Furthermore, Garvey’s previous comments suggest that in order to face these problems, we first need to be more deeply engaged with fundamental questions about education and what it means to be Catholic, and to educate protagonists capable of facing these challenges creatively and without compromise.

All these considerations do not yet give us the answer to the meaning of Catholic identity as it relates to the mission of Catholic institutions of higher learning. But Garvey’s observations are very valuable for helping us to approach the deeper questions of the crisis, with a firmer accent not on what we can do or how we can change things, but on asking about the source of our strength and our freedom. Both the meaning of Catholic identity and the role of Catholic universities in the future seem to lie in the answer to those questions.